Five surprising facts about technology takeup in the Middle East

You might already know that the area around the Middle East, North Africa and Turkey presents a diverse tech picture, but who's leading the mobile and internet pack - and who's trailing - may yet surprise you.
Written by Damian Radcliffe, Contributor

Iraq has the region's lowest internet penetration, yet enjoys a higher level of mobile subscriptions than Qatar, Lebanon, and Turkey, while Israel and Turkey have the highest percentage of 3G subscribers — ahead of better known 3G markets such as UAE and Kuwait.

These are just some of the findings from a huge data-pack published last month by the global marketing and communications agency We Are Social.

Harnessing data from a variety of sources including GSMA Intelligence, InternetLiveStats (both of which are home to some rather cool live counters) as well as the US Census Bureau, the slides offer deep dives into each country in the Middle East, North Africa and Turkey (MENAT) grouping alongside the wider regional picture.

Building on a theme we've seen consistently in Heat Sink over recent months, Simon Kemp, regional managing partner at We Are Social, told ZDNet that it was the "disparity between the haves and have-nots in MENAT" which stood out, "from the low levels of penetration and outright blockage in countries like Iran and Iraq, through to the near ubiquity of digital in countries like Kuwait and the UAE".

For Kemp, three findings were particularly notable. "I was impressed with the level of overall digital connectivity in Lebanon," he said, and "also a little surprised that Israel is somewhat less connected than a number of its neighbours."

Across the region "the relatively low levels of mobile internet usage surprised me," he said. "I expected levels to be more in line with APAC or South America, but it seems PC usage still dominates connected activities. Only two countries [Saudi Arabia and Kuwait] in our study see mobile account for more than 11 percent of all web page views." 

Given the high levels of takeup for tablets, as well as 3G and 4G phones, in the region — particularly in the Gulf countries — this finding may require further exploration, although it's worth noting that an earlier study by Nielsen showed that ownership of technology in the region did not necessarily translate into the kind of breadth and depth of usage that you might expect.

"That may be partly due to infrastructure," Kemp said, suggesting "the relatively poor access to fast (3G+) mobile networks across the region may play a big part in the preference for 'fixed' access."

I would potentially add challenges around digital skills and mobile formatted content into this mix (it is surprising how many sites don't have responsive design), whilst Nielsen's 2012 study also suggested that "stylish design" and "social status" were the primary driver for mobile purchases – ahead of functionality and features. It would be interesting to see if that still holds true in 2014.

In the meantime, here are five stats about technology in the region which caught our eye:

Internet penetration: It's no surprise that Yemen, Algeria and Iraq bring up the pack (at 18 percent, 17 percent, and eight percent respectively) but Lebanon's position in the region (fifth with 81 percent penetration) ahead of Israel (76 percent) and Saudi Arabia (64 percent) may surprise. As might the fact that KSA is only just ahead of Morocco (61 percent) in terms of overall internet take-up.

Share of net traffic by device: Saudi (19 percent) and Kuwait (18 percent) lead the way in terms of the share of views via mobile. Oman, Libya, Lebanon, and Bahrain (all at 11 percent) are ahead of Qatar and UAE on this index. Meanwhile, Iraq (9 percent), Iran (7 percent), and Syria (5 percent) are ahead of Israel (4 percent).

3G subscriptions: The low level of internet traffic by mobile in Israel is particularly striking given that the country has the highest level of 3G subscriptions in the region (72 percent), suggesting that the potential of this connectivity is perhaps not being fully realised. Also striking is the fact that Turkey (61 percent) and Libya (50 percent) both have higher levels of 3G subscriptions than Lebanon, Oman, and Bahrain.

Mobile subscription penetration: That Gulf countries such as Kuwait, Bahrain, Saudi, Oman, and UAE lead the way is to be expected. Qatar's position behind Libya, Jordan, Morocco, Algeria, and Iran, however, is rather more surprising. Given that mobile penetration in the country is high, it indicates PAYG remains the preferred contract method for many users.

Mobile social penetration: And yet Qatar leads the way on this indices, just ahead of Israel, reflecting that a lack of a contract is not necessarily an impediment to mobile data usage.

Interestingly, Jordan (36 percent), Turkey (34 percent), and Tunisia (29 percent) all enjoy a higher level of mobile social penetration than Saudi Arabia (26 percent).

Given that more than 50 percent of YouTube views in Saudi are via mobile devices — and that that the country leads the region in terms of share of web traffic by device (see above) — this discrepancy can be accounted for by the fact that some mobile users in KSA are clearly very heavy consumers of online content.

What this shows is that even within countries there are substantial digital divides in terms of device availability and usage.

As William Gibson famously stated: "The future is already here; it's just not evenly distributed" — a sentiment perhaps particularly apposite to the MENAT region in 2014.

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