CUNY Research: Media Innovation in the Arab World (Intro)

Posted: March 1, 2012 in Biz, CUNY Research, Incubator
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As 2011 will remain unforgettable in the political history of the Arab world, so will it be for the tech companies that have found an expanding market in the Middle East which rapidly became a rising digital market. The latest statistics show that there are nearly 122.6 million internet users in the Arab world according to Internet World Stats of 2011. The total population of the 22 Arab countries is estimated at around 208.8 million meaning approximately 28% Internet penetration. This growth in Internet usage means more opportunity for media innovation.

Increasingly, a number of innovative start-ups have found ground in the Arab market. Their aim is to increase Arabic content on the Internet which makes less than 2% of the global available content (Source: Sindibad Business) while the Middle East represents nearly 5% of the world’s population.

To improve the Arabic content online as Arabic language is expected to become the 4th most used language on the web by 2015, Sindibad Business suggests the following:

1. Reduce the internet service prices, so everyone can afford it.

2. Investors should be giving out a lot of funds to support projects in the interest of content development and promotion of whether that content on the Internet or in books or movies

3. Freedom of speech and expression, that will definitely boost the Arabic content on the Internet and other media.

4. Arab programmers should offer more assistance on the technical support issues faced by users.

In addition to media innovation, e-commerce is also vigorously expanding in the region. Recent statistics show that 61% of Arab Internet users research products online before buying, while 43% had experienced buying online . Games are the primary product bought online followed by computer software then electronics. The results are based on a survey conducted in November 2011 by of 1000 Internet users across a range of countries in the GCC, North Africa and the Levant. More conclusions can be drawn from the info-graph.

But there’s no doubt that in last year, that witnessed the Arab Spring, the concept of freedom of expression has been revamped. Dozens of entrepreneurial projects related to digital media are now on the rise. Some platforms are innovative in their ideas or the way they work things differently, some are merely trials of media organizations to adapt to the new technology while others desirably aim for an alternative voice to the existing controlled media. They operate from a “by the people, for the people” belief counting on the dire need of independent media in the Arab world in these challenging times.

Not all of these start-ups have a clear business plan and thus it cannot be guaranteed that they’re having a sustainable approach. However, it should be taken into consideration that some platforms were started by amateurs and not business professionals.

The fact that they are amateurs does not discredit their skills or professionalism in what they’re doing, but it puts them on a different scale of comparison. Many of those were carried away by the history in-the-making in their homeland that they wanted to contribute to in some way. The good thing is that they’re reaching out to ‘formalize the deal’ and get what it takes to build successful businesses.

Radio elta7rer is one example. The digital radio started by playing Arab revolutionary songs during the Egyptian yet-to-be revolution (the 18 days that ended with Mubarak stepping down). The team has been working on a voluntary basis and now they’re looking for a sponsor to take the radio to the next level.

Egyptian TV building, known as Maspiro, featured as a poisonous snake

Radio elta7rer, which means in Arabic Tahrir Radio (aka liberty radio), was founded by Karim Yassin. Online shows are expected to be added next April to discuss political, social, economic and entertainment issues. The goal, Karim says, is to find an alternative media for the Egyptian youth on the Internet that is about independent art, literature and heritage.

State-owned media, especially Television, has been spreading lies and rumors trying to undermine the Egyptian revolution. At certain times, it has spread terror warning Egyptians from going near Tahrir Square claiming thugs were going there with fire balls wanting to burn Egypt. Egyptian State TV, which is funded by public taxes among other country’s resources, has also incited against Coptic Christians in clear violation of media ethics (More on that here).

This research was done based on Skype calls with founders of and co-founders of booming digital media start-ups in the Arab world. Interviews were conducted in February and March 2012 originally for Tow Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at City University of New York (CUNY). Future posts will have different titles according to the case studies mentioned, but all will be under the category “CUNY Research”


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