Seizing opportunities to build its position as a global centre for ICT, Qatar is focusing on niche markets where there is currently a lack of content and services.
In early February, the Supreme Council of Information and Communication Technology (ictQATAR), the country’s ICT regulator and policy body, and US-based Yahoo! announced that they had formed a strategic partnership to work on the development of the “digital media and content ecosystem” in Qatar.
In concrete terms, this means that Yahoo! will support ictQATAR’s efforts to encourage innovation, entrepreneurship and use of online services. The company will also become involved in the Qatari organisation’s incubation centre, which aims to nurture ICT start-ups.
Through the deal, Qatar hopes to bring Yahoo’s international expertise in digital content, online services, multi-platform applications and advertising to bear in developing the domestic and regional ICT sector. The US firm will work with local entrepreneurs and small ICT firms to help them develop digital content.
The deal is also expected to boost Qatar’s efforts to become a leader in developing quality Arabic-language content, a growing interest in the global ICT sector. “There is a vast amount of opportunities in localisation and increasing Arabic content,” John McLean, the marketing director of Gulf Bridge International (GBI), a submarine cable system linking Gulf countries to the rest of the world, told OBG. “Approximately 7% of the world speaks Arabic however; just 2% of content on the internet is in Arabic.”
Sector insiders throughout the Arab world and beyond assert there is a need for considerably more Arabic-language online content. There are around 300m native speakers of Arabic, and most live in fast-growing emerging markets, from Morocco in the west to the Gulf states in the east. These are countries in which internet penetration and demand for information and ICT services is rising quickly.
“Localisation and globalisation of applications offers huge opportunities at the moment,” Mohamad Takriti, the CEO of iHorizons, a Qatari ICT firm, told OBG. “There is a clear gap to fill in increasing digital Arabic content, including in the fields of education and health. There is also a big potential market in developing an Arabic search engine. Arabic Google isn’t always that comprehensive as it is in English.”
Lending further weight to this belief, Ali Al Khulaifi, the ICT market development director at ictQatar, said in a statement, “Qatar and the Arab world have much to share, and without question the best way to share our thoughts, ideas and innovations is digitally.”
The potential for ICT expansion in the region makes the recent agreement a good deal for Yahoo! as well. Ahmed Nassaf, the vice-president and managing director of Yahoo! Maktoob Middle East, estimates there are 70m internet users in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), “one of the fastest growing markets in the world”, with a further 50m expected to come online in the next two to three years.
The development of internationally oriented ICT business in Qatar dovetails conveniently with the country’s other rising sectors, including media. Doha is home to broadcaster Al Jazeera, which has one of the world’s largest and busiest Arabic-language websites. Al Jazeera has helped to raise Qatar’s global profile considerably. Meanwhile, domestic firms and official bodies are looking to offer more services online. More and more people are looking to pay bills, shop, watch the news and find information on the internet, a process that has been accelerated by mobile access, according to Takriti of iHorizons.
While demand for online services within Qatar is growing, the market is a competitive one, with large international players and a range of domestic firms, including start-ups. This has delivered lower costs for consumers. And while ictQatar continues to encourage small and medium-sized enterprises in the industry, some find it difficult to win major contracts due to their limited size. This is not unusual for a young and dynamic sector; competition should keep the larger players sharp and encourage them to innovate. Over the longer term, a degree of consolidation may occur as the market matures.
For the time being, however, the focus is on how to capitalise on the rapid growth of demand for online services and content, particularly in the Arabic-speaking world. With active government support and the participation of international partners, Qatar is well placed to benefit.