BEIRUT // The magic number for the Arab internet industry is 300 million, its leaders agreed yesterday, saying online companies must strive to reach the entire regional population if they want to create significant businesses. "For people looking at the region, 300 million is the market," said Samih Toukan, the co-founder of the Maktoob Web portal and the chief executive of Jabbar, a regional online commerce company.
As more than 500 industry professionals gathered at the ArabNet conference in Beirut, the emergence of a cohesive regional internet industry - for the first time since the first Arab dotcoms were launched 15 years ago - was a common sentiment. Many bemoaned a "lost decade" where the region's Web industry was fractured and largely unrepresented among the corporate elite. But others were optimistic that for the first time, investors, policymakers and universities were making support for an indigenous technology sector a priority. "It is a virtuous cycle, it takes time," said Rani Saad, the co-founder of Middle East Venture Partners, an investment fund. "We are seeing slowly the wheels churning, it is happening."
But an industry worthy of the hundreds of millions of dollars being invested in it needs to address "the Arab masses", said Maher Kaddoura, the Jordanian management consultant and entrepreneur. He was referring to the more than 250 million regional consumers whose sole language was Arabic and who remained underserved by the internet industry. One example of the pan-regional approach came from the Egyptian online media company Sarmady, which announced it had struck a deal to become the official regional online partner of America's National Basketball Association (NBA).
The current NBA.com website attracts almost 100,000 monthly visitors from the Middle East, about half of them from the UAE, the company said. In 2008, Sarmady was purchased by Vodafone Egypt. As part of the NBA partnership, the company will develop an Arabic-language NBA site and hire local reporters to write about the league in Arabic. Ronaldo Mouchawar, the founder of the auctions website souq.com, said sites such as his had to balance the need to find scale through a pan-regional approach with the complexities of local markets.
"Each country has its strengths for online businesses. Saudi and Egypt have their size, Jordan has the technology and the talent, there is something to capitalise on in every market," he said. "When I think of my overall business I think '300 million', but when I look on the ground, I need to become very local." @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org