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2011 Tech Rewind: This year in the Middle East

Looking back on the year, it becomes apparent that the youth of the region have been fighting not only against political tyranny.
The Next Web | 27.12.2011
It’s impossible to look back on 2011 in the Middle East without discussing the unbelievable amount of upheavals the region has seen. Protests have swept across from Morocco and Tunisia, making their way all the way up to the Gulf region, into Bahrain and beyond.

It has also become impossible to discuss those protests without mention of social media in some form or other. The grassroots movements throughout the region are not only changing (or at least trying to change) the political climate, but have also had a direct effect on the economic and startup landscape.

Looking back on the year, it becomes apparent that the youth of the region have been fighting not only against political tyranny, but have also made significant changes in the entrepreneurial scene, while Middle Eastern governments have outdone themselves in finding ways to put an end to that spirit.

Social media plays a role in the Arab uprisings

Mention social media and the Arab uprisings in one sentence in the Middle East and you’re bound to be met with a groan or two. The story has been used ad nauseum since January, making it a pretty long year of Facebook this and Twitter that, in the region, sometimes rightfully so, other times, it just makes for a convenient story which appeals to mainstream media.

As activist Mohamed El Dahshan, who was in Tahrir during the height of the uprising in Egypt, told our own Courtney Boyd Myers:

People called it an Internet revolution, but it’s just not true. In fact, half of the people I was with had never used a computer. Living in a country where half the people are illiterate puts a huge limitation on the Internet’s capabilities to organize. In Egypt, Internet penetration is at 29%, but within that 29%, there are over a million Facebook users in Egypt, (out of a population of 84.5 million).

While calling Egypt or Tunisia’s uprisings Facebook Revolutions is incredibly misguided, there is no denying that social media did play a role in publicizing the story, becoming one of the tools used by citizen journalists on the ground.

The world tuned into YouTube and Twitter to witness the events as they unfolded in each country, while Facebook served as a coordination tool both in Tunisia and Egypt, with the social networking site used as a way to rally people, and even as a virtual protest tool.

In Egypt, a Facebook page created by Google executive, Wael Ghonim, was used as a tool to rally protesters, and get the word out about the cause. Ghonim himself was arrested by Egyptian authorities, after which Google made a public appeal to help locate him. After almost 2 weeks, Ghonim was released by the authorities.

Twitter’s role as a way to disseminate information is seen in Tweets from Tahrir, a book published by Or Books, chronicled the 18 days spent in Tahrir by protesters, as told by Egyptians on the ground, using Twitter as a means of communication.

A truly significant milestone for the Middle East’s online activists was seen in Tunisia, after the successful uprising, when Slim Amamou, a blogger and dissident, went from being arrested during the protests in the country, to being appointed Minister for Sport and Youth in the new Tunisian government. Unfortunately, six months later Amamou resigned from his post in protest to continuing censorship of websites in the country.

The constant mention of bloggers, of Twitter and Facebook in the media in the Middle East has certainly had a positive effect on the growth of social media and online activity in the region. Arabic is the fastest growing language on Twitter, seeing a 2,000% increase in the past year, but penetration rates in the Middle East are still relatively low.

When it comes to Facebook, more and more Middle Eastern users are choosing to use the social networking site in their native Arabic language, showing a significant shift in the way that Arabs are using the Internet.

The most recent figures released by the Dubai School of Government’s latest figures show that while the number of Facebook users in the Middle East have almost doubled in the past year, currently at over 36 million users, this only accounts for an average penetration rate of 10%, an overall increase of only 4%. But as far as growth rates are concerned, according to the DSG, ”At the beginning of October 2011, fifteen Arab countries had acquired more Facebook users (as a percentage of population) than the UK, one of the highest ranking countries in the world in terms of Facebook penetration.”

A big year for e-commerce in the Middle East

One of the biggest stories to come out of the Middle East this year that had absolutely nothing to do with protests had to be LivingSocial nabbing GoNabit. The Dubai-based daily deals site was acquired by LivingSocial in June, for an undisclosed amount, and was officially rebranded 4 months later.

Speaking to The Next Web about the acquisition at the time, GoNabit’s CEO Dan Stuart said,

“We hope we can continue to do well, and if nothing else, it’s a bit of validation. We’ll see a lot more from the market in the region. There’s a lot of young internet business. This is the first major e-commerce acquisition in the region, and people are taking notice of the Middle East as a growth market.”

Significant acquisitions in the Middle East can be counted on one hand, and so hearing of a successful exit is always great news in the region. The year before, Yahoo’s acquisition of Maktoob made headlines. Aside from the GoNabit acquisition, e-commerce has seen an unprecedented growth in the region this year.

Daily Deals sites continue to pop up in the Middle East, but that’s not the only e-commerce model that has been successful. While there are only 3 flash sales sites in the region, MarkaVIP has grown at impressive speeds. The site launched in November 2010, and within a year, it gained half a million members. In October, MarkaVIP saw an additional 40% growth in the space of just 2 months, closing in on 700,000 users.

E-commerce is still in its infancy in the Middle East, but as more and more Arabs go online to do their shopping, 2012 looks like it might be a great year for the industry, and could also serve to contribute a much needed boost to the regional economy that has been hit hard by the ongoing protests.

Governments take their citizens offline

In an attempt to quash a growing movement in the street, authorities in the Middle East began by targeting social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, in a concerted effort to cut their citizens off from the rest of the online world. Egypt blocked YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, Algeria blocked Facebook, while Bahrain blocked access to YouTube and Bambuser in the country. As tech-savvy netizens found ways to circumvent the blocks, authorities did the unthinkable, and simply took their countries offline entirely.

No government took its crackdown on Internet-related activities as far as the former Egyptian and Libyan regimes. In January, the Egyptian government pulled the plug on the Internet and mobile communication, leaving Egyptians with landlines as their only mode of communication. The 5-day blackout cost Egypt at least $90 million and crippled e-commerce in the country, before slowly being restored throughout the country.

Former Libyan president, Mu’ammar Gaddhafi made the five day blackout in Egypt look like child’s play, taking the entire country offline in March, and it wasn’t until six months later that the Internet began to slowly trickle back into the country.

Monitoring, arresting and sentencing of bloggers

As these regimes have been brought down, or at least cracked, the world has been given a glimpse of just how far they were willing to go to monitor dissidence. As would be expected, no one outdid Gaddhafi’s regime in its attempts to monitor not only Internet activity, but phone calls as well. In Tunisia, rumour has it that the government received discounted surveillance software in return for beta testing, while it is believed that a British intelligence firm is contributing to Bahrain’s monitoring activities.

In May 2011, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) published a list of the top 10 tools of online oppressors, with Egypt, Syria, Tunisia and Iran all appearing on the list, using everything in their power from the Internet kill switch, to imprisoning bloggers, to state cybercrime and censorship.

In fact, the Middle East has one of the worst global reputations when it comes to Internet freedoms and according to the CPJ the number of journalists arrested in the Middle East this year has jumped by 50%. Bloggers have been arrested in Egypt, Syria, Bahrain, Morocco, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, charged for Facebook posts and tweets, while sentences have ranged anywhere from two years for Egyptian blogger Maikel Nabil, to life in prison for Bahrain blogger Abduljalil Al-Singace, and 7 others.

This week the Electronic Frontier Foundation has published a guideline to safer blogging, to combat governmental tactics to suppress activists.

The Internet gets more Arabic domains

As we’re slowly seeing an increase in Arabic content online, a major game changer for the Middle East’s Internet was the introduction of domain names in Arabic. Last year, we took a look at at the reasons why Arabic domain names are important for the region, after they were introduced in Egypt. With easier branding, improved SEO, more domains to choose from, immediate political impact and relevance for the non-English speaker, Arabic domains are bound to have a positive effect.

Other countries have slowly begun to follow suit, including Syria and Qatar, while top level domains for brands have also been made available in Arabic. But we’ve still got a long way to go, and like with e-commerce, 2012 may prove to be the year we see a significnat increase in Arabic content, under Arabic domain names.

Arab uprisings boost startup and entrepreneur scene

Uprisings in the region are not only leading to significant political change, but have also produced a shift in the mindset of many young Arab entrepreneurs. Startup Weekend came to Egypt in Cairo and Alexandria, while also taking place in Bahrain, Palestine and beyond.

The significant changes taking place around the region have proved to be a driving force and inspiration for many an entrepreneur to take the plunge and launch their own startups. In a culture where graduating from university and finding a steady 9-to-5 job is not only the norm, but is expected, entrepreneurs are slowly but surely learning a new culture of risk, and that it’s ok to fail.

In Egypt, as an example, Startup Weekend Alexandria received over 3,000 applications, while the initiative Start with Google offering $200,000 in venture capital to one lucky entrepreneur, received over 4,000 applications.

The startup ecosystem, like the availability of Arabic content, might still have a long way to go, but 2011 is certainly the year it got on the right track.
About the author: The Next Web