The saga of Facebook Arabic on the iPhone

Facebook added an Arabic-language interface for the web in 2009 but it took nine years to evolve onto the iPhone.
Sunday 02/09/2018
This file photo taken on May 10, 2012 shows a view of and Apple iPhone displaying the Facebook app's splash screen in front of the login page. (AFP)
This file photo taken on May 10, 2012 shows a view of and Apple iPhone displaying the Facebook app's splash screen in front of the login page. (AFP)

Three months after Facebook added Arabic to the language options on its iPhone app in the Middle East and North Africa, the question remains: What took so long? Going by the numbers, Facebook should have been available in Arabic on iPhones long ago.

With 156 million users by 2017, Facebook is the most popular social media platform in the MENA region and 80% of its traffic is from mobile usage. Apple’s iPhone sales increased 133% in the region in 2016. Facebook in Arabic should have been a natural partner for iPhone, so why did it wait until June 2018?

Facebook added an Arabic-language interface for the web in 2009 but it took nine years to evolve onto the iPhone. It would have been too early back in 2009 for Facebook to move to a mobile app version because smartphone penetration in the region was low. When it decided to move to Arabic on the iPhone, Facebook had to deal with complexities unique to right-to-left scripts.

Ahmed Maher, founder of Digital Boom, an online magazine reporting on regional and global technology trends, said: “It’s well-known that right-to-left languages, such as Arabic, on a mobile screen are not an easy job, especially for iOS.” The reference is to the mobile operating system created by Apple.

Maher added: “It requires a huge amount of time to design and deploy to meet Apple standards and get approved.”

That Facebook did eventually invest in Arabic for iPhones means it knows the venture will pay off very quickly. “It will increase the session duration for Arabic users on their iPhones and it will allow users who prefer Facebook in Arabic to use the mobile application rather than the mobile browser. More usage means more data, which means more precise targeting and more advertising revenue,” Maher said.

Ads are best displayed via a mobile app because they can be location-specific. In February Facebook introduced Marketplace — a community-based area of the platform to buy and sell items — on its mobile app in Egypt. The country was considered right for Marketplace, which was already in 70 countries with 800 million monthly users.

Egypt had the largest number of user accounts in the region. “With Arabic, Facebook will get good financial returns on Marketplace ad placement,” Maher said. Arabic-language usage of Marketplace is likely to grow quickly.

The saga of Facebook Arabic on the iPhone is important to understand the gap in Arabic language tech content. There is no precise number for Arabic mobile apps on both Android and iPhone but a search by an Arabic-language user can take the person anywhere from a weight loss app to entertainment to secret messaging.

The big four tech companies — Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon (GAFA, as they’re called) — increasingly want to plug the Arabic-content gap. GAFA wants to tap a new pool of users — estimated at 300 million — with which it has not fully engaged.

This is mainly for demographic reasons. The Mohammed bin Rashid School of Government’s “Arab Social Media Report 2017” stated that one in every three people in the MENA region has a Facebook account; approximately 64.3% of Facebook users are under 30 years old and most of the users in the region are in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Algeria.

GAFA is trying to plug the gap. Last year, Amazon bought, the regional online retailer, giving it a percentage of online customers in some markets. Souq has an all-Arabic interface and its customers click on items much more when they are described in Arabic.

In February, Google announced multilayered digital transformation projects in Saudi Arabia to assist the country with its Vision 2030. Early this year, Google introduced Maharat, an e-learning Arabic-language digital skills course, across the region. The idea is to encourage people, particularly Arab millennials, to create, market and expand digital products that can populate search engines, as well as Arabic-language apps on Android phones.

GAFA is pushing for digital Arabic content but has run into issues unique to right-to-left scripts. The Arabic script uses more space, for instance.

Along with a largely untapped market, the region’s youthful demographic is attractive to advertisers. Young Arabs prefer Arabic, if it’s available, even when they’re fluent in English. Mariam, a Syrian student in Lebanon, said “half of my life is lived on Facebook” and she prefers the Arabic mobile version on her iPhone. “I’m used to bilingual apps but the screen obeys the directionality of Arabic. Technical terms, such as ‘settings,’ ‘recommendations’ and other instructions are super clear as well.”

Malik, a 20-year-old techie in Riyadh, said: “I appreciate it when big companies make the effort of adapting to our language. I feel more acceptance, more belonging. All my apps are in Arabic as I do not really speak English.”