Internet looms large in the Arab world’s future

Friday 08/04/2016

Two recent reports reflect positive developments in the Arab world regarding the growth of internet use and the promising potential it offers the region.

The Arab Knowledge Economy Report 2015-2016, released in Dubai, predicts that the number of internet users in the Arab world will jump to 226 million by 2018 from 181 million in 2015. The internet penetration rate, which was 48.35% in 2015, would increase to 55%.

A second report, Media Industries in the Middle East 2016 issued by the Qatar campus of Northwestern University and the Doha Film Institute, supports that assessment. It said the number of internet users has almost doubled over the past five years and quadrupled in the last 15 years.

Rates of internet penetration vary from more than 66% in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), 52% in the Levant, 45% in North Africa and 27% in Yemen and Sudan. Similar differences exist among rates of mobile phone subscriptions in the Arab world but, overall, Arab societies are increasingly connected and that is rapidly changing the type of social relationships in those socie­ties as well as their outlook on life and the world.

These positive indicators also offer economic opportunities.

Development of the knowledge society creates a better envi­ronment for providing value-added jobs to the swelling ranks of Arab university graduates. Growth of internet use and penetra­tion in the Arab world can pave the way for economic diversifica­tion of oil-dependent economies. It already is doing that in GCC countries.

According to Nidal Abou Zaki, managing director of Orient Planet Group, which issued the Arab Knowledge Economy Report 2015-2016, oil price changes have “prompted a shift towards establishing a diversified economy with a particular focus on cultivating a knowledge economy evident in the increased investment”.

Figures show progress by GCC countries in scientific and technological innovation as well as the challenges other Arab countries face: Of the 2,339 patents granted to Arab countries by the US Patent and Trademark Office since 2004, 294 went to Saudi Arabia, 370 to Kuwait, 257 to Egypt and 174 to the United Arab Emirates.

Of the five Arab universities appearing on the Shanghai Aca­demic Ranking of World Universities, four are in Saudi Arabia and one is in Lebanon.

One challenge Arab countries face is insufficient development of Arabic language digital content, which is not keeping pace with the rapid growth of internet penetration.

The Media Industries in the Middle East 2016 report points out that “Arabic content remains one of the most under-represented languages online in terms of its share of the world’s websites”. It is estimated that only 3% of the internet’s content is in Arabic.

One-third of the most visited websites in Egypt are either in a foreign language or do not offer Arabic as the primary language. The level of digital advertising was about 10% of total advertising in 2015, a level that is too low to promote Arabic language con­tent.

New information technologies are here to stay and Arab coun­tries should not lag behind. They should be prepared for the economic and social transformations that will follow.