Here is one of my favorite anecdotes about the Arab web industry: the web advertising spending of the whole Arab region, including the rich Gulf region and Saudi Arabia is less than the revenue of a single niche web marketing agency (which you never heard of) in Seattle where one of my friends works. Now think of what this says about the development of the web industry.
Around 15 years have passed since the first internet startups in the Arab world appeared (think Arabia.com, PlanetArabia, Maktoob), we the Arab region STILL doesn’t have a major web1.0 e-commerce site. I look at some of the early Arab book retailing sites (the old Amazon wannabes) and I just shake my head at their hopelessly outdated design.
On a cultural level, the spread of the web in the lands of the Arabs has helped bring about a new generation of young people, unafraid to speak their minds. Yet on the other hand, it has finally exposed the true cultural reality of the region, unfiltered. A good example is Jordan, where dozens of “news” websites have sprouted, many of which simply steal content from major news outlets, mixing it with their own rumors and slanderous materials. Then you have those large amounts of sick comments which are nothing more than the utterances of primitive minds full of sectarian or regionalist hate.
The true traffic leaders of the Arab web traffic, especially in Saudi Arabia, are the so-called “discussion forums”. Again, The stories around these highly popular forums are remarkable. Some of the people running them don’t even see themselves as web entrepreneurs or media makers. Their prominence is almost accidental. They can hardly be called part of the Arab web industry. A lot of the content there is questionable or even dangerous.
A recent op-ed in the Jordanian Al-Ghad daily by Basim Twiessi talked about the missed opportunity of Satellite and new media in the Arab region and how all the tools of modern media in the hands of Arabs was not used to enlighten and educate but rather to reflect pre-nation allegiances and descend into cheap commercialism or religious and esoteric hocus pocus. The same applies for a lot of what’s there on the Arab web.
While many of the more professionally run and branded websites struggle for traffic and revenues, the “informal” Arab internet has all the traffic while not even caring for revenue.
Add to the picture above the fact that the Arab region is one of the most notorious when it comes to internet censorship.
A bleak picture? Perhaps. Some people call me a pessimist when I describe the Arab web landscape as I just did. A successful global web entrepreneur I recently met at the European web conference LeWeb was even skeptical about the investment opportunities in the Arab web. While we all have been enthusiastic about the Maktoob-Yahoo deal (rightly so, of course) it is still a lonely example of a major investment. Other regions, like south America (let’s forget China and India for a moment) are offering investors a much more vibrant market.
Still. The region’s internet usage is growing rapidly. Apparently the Arab region is now the fastest growing internet market (albeit from a small base). The use of social networking has gone mainstream (your old uncle and your youngest sister are now on Facebook). Startup activity in certain countries is at an all time high. Investment funds with focus on technology and media are entering the market looking for investment opportunities in the post-real-eastate-bubble market.
So maybe the timing of ArabNet, the region’s first web conference is right. Maybe it will the signal of the actual start of the Arab web industry.
What conferences like ArabNet do, is create a “self awareness” in a community. This means that the people attending from different parts of the world will suddenly feel that they are part of an industry, with its own leaders, stars, competitors and connectors. It also can potentially create linkages between companies and initiative which strengthen the industry’s network. I am keeping my fingers crossed. Enough positive elements are aligning and a spark can start a fire.
Here is an idea I want to throw into the discussion: the role of government. Maybe we in the web industry should reconsider our stance towards government media and the potential role of Arab governments in creating internet content driven by reason and a desire to educate.
I think back to my teen days in the 1980s. While we only had a handful of Arab government owned TV channels back then, our media diet included high quality science documentaries, good foreign comedies, educational shows and of course Arabic entertainment.
While we can argue that the hundreds of TV channels and millions of websites we have today carry infinite amounts of “good” content for Arab audiences, I feel that neither the commercially driven satellite revolution nor the Arab web industry has managed to create a mass of next generation Arab content that will push the region forward. What AlJazeera did for news (in a region exploding with conflict and strife) was without a doubt revolutionary. But explosive news isn’t enough to push the Arab discourse forward.
Whether we are thinking about the educated middle classes of urban Arabia or the tribalist villages of the countryside, the Arab region needs content that goes beyond cheap entertainment. Nurturing education, positive interests, career development, family matters, healthier lifestyles should be on the Arab media agenda. Will market forces and commercial players be able to provide a mass of quality content to the Arab market? Maybe partially. My point is that government can come in and play a leading role in web and mobile media and go beyond what the commercially driven players can do. Isn’t it interesting that the National Georgraphic Arabic channel was actually launched by Abu Dhabi Media Company, a government owned entity?
No I am not advocating putting endless “official news” sequences of Arab rulers welcoming foreign dignitaries in the airport on YouTube or ikbis. But think about what a public-private Arab partnership can do to drive mass adoption of the web in schools and homes and what it can do to create that essential layer of next generation digital content.
I will be speaking at ArabNet’s social media panel. The conference will be held on 25 and 26 March, 2010. See you in Beirut.