Our latest Middle East trip has been filled with various conversations with local businesses. Our CEO and Director of Strategic Alliances came back with fascinating insights and observations. Mixed with experiences from our local partner MCG – Creative Solutions Department this gives us a very interesting picture of digital transformation in Middle East. Here are some of our findings.
Mature digital society
Middle East is peppered not only with sandy beaches and skyscrapers but also with affluent young individuals proudly carrying their latest smartphones. High disposable incomes and hunger for tech makes this part of the world a very attractive region for digital content publishers and mobile apps companies.
Second biggest market
“Mobile phone user base in the Middle East and Africa (MEA) is now second only to that in Asia-Pacific, with “just over 606 million people (in this region) to have at least one mobile phone this year, and the total will pass 789 million in 2019.”
Young users driving smartphone adoption
“44% of the regional population are under 20 years old.”
- Very high engagement
“The Middle East has the world’s most active and dedicated smartphone users. Smartphone owners typically spend around an hour a day on their devices. Ipsos reported that 25% of smartphone owners in the UAE, Saudi, Lebanon and Egypt consume media content via their mobile every day. “
Digital content catching up
But, as it might surprise some, digital transformation in this region, seems to be relatively slow. Some sources imply that “Middle East is playing safe” sticking to well known international apps as opposed to developing domestic, native mobile solutions. Is this a question of misconceptions?
In the words of our partner: “In our region there seems to be this misconception that it’s “print vs digital”, and not “print and digital”. Businesses here see a sum of costs and believe that they need to be doing one or the other.”, Ahmad, MCG
Or is the sluggish development a result of ‘copy and paste’ regional habit (replicating global solutions without local personalised approach)? Based on MCG – Creative Solutions Department learnings, it could also be due to preference of sites over apps.
“A major hurdle to digital publishing in the region is the perception behind it. Most organisations and publishers do not see the value. Also most digital publishing has come in the form of websites or mobile apps that are essentially RSS readers. Therefore most organisations in the region are hesitant to even discuss the interactive publishing app idea when they can easily run their own WordPress publishing site and publish it as an app as well.”, Ahmad, MCG
Or are the Middle Eastern companies afraid to make a jump without a clear idea of how to monetise on digital content? They are accustomed to one dimension content only (either paper or digital, not blended) and the ROI that comes with it and haven’t learnt and tested how to mix and match formats.
Lastly, could the current situation be linked with relatively low level of actual domestic content? “In our region, we don’t have a vast number of content producers at a large organisational scale. We’re used to consuming foreign materials – something that was simply imported and then translated for us.In the last few years we started however observing a new trend of more content being produced rather than imported. Especially when it comes to socially generated content. We’re seeing content production on an individual scale through social as well as from organisations through many different platforms.”
Rocket high interest driven by public sector
But slow adoption doesn’t mean lack of interest. Middle East companies are anxious to gain competitive edge that comes with mobile solutions and attractive digital content. As their Western counterparts they’re willing to capitalise on the opportunity to get closer to customers and increase productivity and usage of business critical documents via mobile enterprise solutions. And they know how, as they have a much better grasp of regional challenges.
Interestingly, public institutions are crossing the paper to digital line first. When private companies are trying to figure out the monetisation model, education or governmental authorities are less concerned about the return. They might be much slower when it comes to approving tenders, but they are driven by need to change behaviour or raise awareness or willingness to create smart cities hubs. And this can be efficiently done with digital tools.
Right to left swipe – local differences
A simple illustration of the Middle East digital publishing hurdles could be a complex linguistic situation. Rigorous testing of apps goes beyond traditional scripts (where for example buttons, links, content, functionalities are checked on various browsers) as we know them. It has to be based on understanding of language.
“Our region tends to cater for a bilingual publishing landscape (often trilingual). This in normal cases is easy as most languages follow the same structures (left to right character direction, static characters, and similar character formats). However, when you look at our region and take a bilingual magazine for example written in Arabic and English (the two main languages being published in the region) reconsider workflows to meet some of the issues that arise…”, Ahmad, MCG
- Arabic language has page and character directions that go from right to left – which changes page layout and page direction in any interactive digital document. Easily done alone, but not when the same document needs to translate into both with linear page layouts.
- Arabic characters change shape based upon the letters preceding and following them, which means that one letter may take different forms.
- Different types of accents sometimes drastically change a meaning of the word and often they’re added in as symbols and not as actual letters. This means the placement of these keys are very important.
- All the above affect the search tool as certain letters, symbols and the direction of the text can affect the search. Not every font that can be embedded into the application are similar when it comes to support for symbols/accents and requires careful thought in interactive publishing documents in order to ensure that the search features function as intended.
Will video take over Middle East?
And while all the eyes of mobile apps developers might be on the booming market in China, it’s worth following transformation in Middle East. With an astonishing smartphones penetration and wallets full of disposable income, they’ve already joined the race and might be willing to take over. Or will they actually take a step further and miss the glossy mobile magazines stage and move directly to the video format?