​Mobile in the Arab world: 12 key stats and five predictions

A new report from the GSMA on the Middle East and North Africa shows that the rapid growth of the mobile economy in the region cannot mask its underlying issues.
Written by Damian Radcliffe, Contributor
In the Middle East and North Africa, 3G and 4G connections are predicted to double in the next five years.
Image: William Perugini
Perhaps the most eye-catching forecast in a recent GSMA on the Middle East and North Africa is that mobile broadband will account for 69 percent of all mobile connections in the region by 2020.

That prediction is just over double the current figure of 34 percent and underlines that this sector remains a rapidly-growing market.

However, that headline figure from the mobile operators' international body hides a more complex picture. Although mobile broadband connections will increase, the number of unique mobile subscribers is only expected to grow from 54 percent of the region's population to 57 percent.

That small level of growth suggests many of the new 3G and 4G connections will be upgrades -- or second connections -- for existing subscribers, rather than the by-product of a new generation of mobile owners.

Alongside this picture, which includes a rise in 3G and 4G take-up, predictions for revenue growth -- at a CAGR of 1.9 percent between 2015 and 2020 -- remain relatively flat.

That tepid revenue growth may be surprising given that 3G and 4G services typically cost more than their 2G counterparts, but "the cannibalization of traditional revenues by IP messaging platforms", increased competition, as well as further political and socio-economic instability, are all identified by the GSMA as being potentially detrimental to operator revenues.

This mixed outlook demonstrates the continued complexity of the mobile economy in the region. Encompassing 18 different markets, ranging from the Gulf countries to their less affluent -- but predominantly more populous -- North African nations, here are a dozen essential datapoints that tell the story of mobile in the Middle East in 2015.

12 key stats about mobile in the Arab states

Key stat 1
Mobile operators in the region have spent more than $40bn, equivalent to 18 percent of total revenue, on capital investments in the past four years.

Key stat 2
As a result, 3G is now universally available -- with the exception of Palestine -- and there are 23 4G networks in 10 countries. A further eight 4G networks are planned in the next few years.

Key stat 3
Mobile broadband connections have increased from 20 million in 2009 to 182 million by the end of 2015. As the report notes, "This represents an increase in share of the total connections base from seven percent to 43 percent."

Key stat 4
Multi-SIM ownership means that the penetration of connections across the region is 111 percent, although only 54 percent of inhabitants have a mobile subscription.

Key stat 5
The number of unique mobile subscribers has grown from 157 million in 2010 to 202 million in 2015.

Key stat 6
The highest percentage of subscribers can be found in UAE, at 85 percent of the total population. The lowest is Sudan at 39 percent.

Key stat 7
Five countries -- Algeria, Palestine, Sudan, Syria and Yemen -- have subscriber levels at 50 percent or below.

Key stat 8
Kuwait has the highest number of mobile-phone connections, with penetration standing at 222 percent.

Key stat 9
The highest levels of smartphone adoption are found in Qatar and the UAE at 83 percent. The global average is 41 percent, with smartphones accounting for 70 percent of connections in Kuwait.

Key stat 10
12 out of 18 markets in the region have connection levels above 100 percent. The six countries below this figure are Syria, Yemen, Sudan, Palestine, Lebanon, and Iraq.

Key stat 11
Libya, at 166 percent, has the highest connection penetration level of any of the North African Arab nations, some way ahead of Tunisia on 142 percent and Morocco with 127 percent.

Key stat 12
Very few of mobile connections are smartphones. The Arab state's average is 33 percent, eight percent below the global average. Yet smartphone connections in Libya are just 23 percent of total connections. Similar smartphone take-up figures can be found in most of their North African neighbours.

Looking ahead to the end of the decade, the GSMA suggest a number of ways in which mobile will continue to grow as well as have a wider socio-economic impact in the Middle East.

Potential benefits include "providing financial services to the unbanked" alongside being the primary -- and often sole -- means for many people to get online. Alongside these observations, the GSMA also explains how in more developed mobile markets operators are seizing opportunities in digital identity, security, and the Internet of Things.

Given the diversity of the mobile landscape in the region, these developments are unlikely to be universal, but here are five wider projections the GSMA makes for the mobile markets in the region in the next five years.

Five Arab states mobile predictions for 2020

    • The number of smartphone connections will grow by 117 million to 327 million. At a CAGR of 19 percent, this growth is four percent higher than the global average expected in this period.
    • Data traffic, primarily driven by mobile broadband devices, will grow at a CAGR of 55 percent between 2014 and 2020.
    • Mobile broadband is expected to account for 70 percent of total connections in the region.
    • Much of this growth will come from upgrades from 2G to 3G and 4G, and from users having multiple connections, as unique mobile subscriptions increase to 233 million, from 202 million in 2015.
    • Operator recurring revenues will increase to $53bn per annum, up from $48bn in 2014.

    The GSMA also uses the report, The Mobile Economy: Arab States 2015, to encourage governments in the region to promote mobile broadband adoption and investment in infrastructure.

    After all, it notes, "Access to mobile broadband can drive economic growth, create job and raise living standards." These are "key objectives of governments across the Arab states".

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