The Status of Social Media in the Middle East Straight from the Arabian Horse’s Mouth in Cairo

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I have just come back from Cairo, where I was invited by the heads of the Cairo Orange Labs (see the video here) and their French counterparts in order to perform a presentation of what we do at Orange Business Services in the field of social media for a large carrier. I had the opportunity to present in front of a panel of representatives its form various carriers from the region including our local partner Mobinil.

In this presentation, I not only presented what we do at Orange Business Services in Western Europe and in the United States, but also what is happening in the Middle East itself, as seen through the eyes of this excellent report entitled the Media Arab Outlook, the third edition of which can be accessed from this link.

The exchange of views that we had during that meeting was quite frank and quite direct and very eye-opening on the status of social media in the region. As a matter of fact, the development of social media in the Middle East is a bit schizophrenic. On the one hand, the uptake social media sites like Facebook in the Middle East, and particularly in Egypt is tremendous. The numbers which are quoted by the Media Arab Outlook report are even probably grossly underestimated. The report quotes something like 900,000 Egyptian users of Facebook whereas the audience mentioned almost immediately that this number was far below what it really is.
Of course, the status of broadband adoption (see picture below) in these countries is not at all what we are witnessing in Western Europe and the United States, which is easily understandable. If we except a few places in which broadband equipment is close to 0 because of local warfare or particularly difficult situations like the one in Sudan, Egypt is unfortunately coming at the bottom of the list in terms of broadband adoption namely.
Optimists would see that as a tremendous opportunity for carriers to equip the country with better broadband and better Internet access in general. Yet, it seems that in this kind countries the usage of the Internet is collective, a bit like what happened in India 10+ years ago and is still happening now in poorer areas; I suspect that people are grouping together around one Internet access and lend each other computers. The cybercafe, I was told by some attendees, has become so central to the life of villagers in Egypt and other Arab countries, that “cybercafe” itself was turned into a verb in Arabic, and is now part of the everyday vocabulary, and is commonly used by farmers and workers alike. Sometimes in India, it’s even shop owners who actually resell their Internet access to their clients when they shop. I also witnessed in Lebanon, more than 10 years ago, that people went to each other’s homes to look at the computer, check their mail and do things on the Internet.
Therefore, on the one hand, we have a tremendous uptake of social websites like Facebook, at the same time a terrible lack of broadband in countries like Egypt, and other countries doing a little bit better like Saudi Arabia and others doing a lot better, understandably, like Qatar and the  United Arab Emirates.
There is also this widespread feeling that there is a terrible lack of content in Arabic available, because the vast majority of the country does not and will not speak and write in English. After all, Germans prefer to StudyVZ and Xing to respectively Facebook and LinkedIN, so it is perfectly understandable that Arab people favour local platforms. At the same time, local versions of the equivalent of Facebook and the like, are few and far between. There is one successful platform coming out of Jordan (Jeeran, see the report on page 72), and there is the famous Maktoob which was taken over by Yahoo! recently (important question: will it survive this change?).
Facebook in itself is not an issue in the Middle East: people type either in English or in Arabic on the same walls and fan pages and it doesn’t really matter to them. But the main question is that of the ownership of Facebook which is definitely seen as American, which poses problems not only in terms of “not invented here” syndrome, but also from a political point of view (think about who created Facebook for instance and his origins even though he considers himself an atheist, and imagine how it resonates in the Arab world, regardless of westernised political correctness if I am allowed).
So, at the end of the day, there are tremendous opportunities in the Middle East for the development of social networks, in an area where conversations are anything but a view of the mind. It’s a way of life, which preexisted in real life way before the Internet arrived. Those service providers who will be able to seize this opportunity and provide social media platforms and services in Arabic, from/in partnership with independent Arab-owned media companies, will reap the harvest of a booming sector and, judging by the liveliness of the Facebook fan page of Orange Tunisia, which has now reached a little bit more than 110,000 users in just a few months, we can imagine what can be done in terms of advertising, brand loyalty programmes and co-creation.