Since it was launched in 2009, use of the Arabic Facebook interface has skyrocketed to reach some 10 million users today. At the moment, they represent about a third of all Facebook users in the Arab world, but it’s expected that within a year Arabic will overtake English to become the most popular Facebook language in the region.
Spot On Public Relations, a Middle Eastern publicity agency specializing in on-line social media, found that two times as many people log on to Facebook in the Middle East and North Africa than purchase a daily newspaper.
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“What’s fascinating for us is not Facebook’s overall growth in the Middle East but its growth in Arabic,” Alexander McNabb, director of Spot On PR told The Media Line.
According to their study, Arabic Facebook has grown about 175% a year, double the overall rate of the mushrooming use of Facebook worldwide. In some countries, like Algeria, it grew a whopping 423% annually.
“Until recently, many marketers pretty much took for granted that the region’s Facebook users were English-speaking Arabs or expatriates, using Facebook in English and representing a fairly elite group of on-line consumers. It has become apparent that this is now far from being true,” the study found. “We can expect Arabic to become the most popular Facebook language in the region within a year.”
The Arabic platform’s 10 million users make up about 35% of the region’s Facebook subscribers, up from 24% in May 2010.
“The new phenomenon we are seeing is the growth in Arabic language usage, which in some parts of the region is truly phenomenal,” McNabb said.
According to their figures, 56% of Facebook users in Egypt (3.8 million) opt for the Arabic language version. In the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, 41% use Arabic and in Saudi Arabia it’s 61%. By contrast, Morocco has 17% recorded Arabic users and at the bottom of the list is the United Arab Emirates, with its big expatriate population, with just 10%.
Social media is widely regarded as having played a crucial role in the Arab Spring, helping to organize protests and giving a voice to oppositions under autocratic regimes. According to the MENA Facebook Digest, the Middle East and North Africa is home to approximately 10% of the world’s Facebook users with some 56 million subscribers. This includes some 19 million who joined during the past year, a growth rate of 51%.
“The Arabic language adoption is a sign that it is getting popularized and more and more people are getting online and they are using tools like Facebook to communicate,” McNabb said.
“Today, twice as many people in the Middle East are logged on to Facebook than buying a newspaper. If you want to get the reach across the region to people, if you are promoting products or services then you have to advertise in 274 newspapers to reach the Middle East and North Africa,” he said. “Or you can use just one platform. And the daddy of the all in the region right now is of course Facebook.”
“What’s really helping make the case is the whole Arab Spring and role of online media in that has really woken people up who otherwise have just been saying this isn’t worth taking seriously and that is was just a fad.”
Nabil Dajani, chairman of the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences and a professor of communications at the American University in Beirut, was dismissive about the impact of Facebook in the Middle East.
“Facebook and the Internet are really for the elites,” Dajani told The Media Line. “My assessment is that in the Arab world the Internet is still mainly being used among the upper-middle and upper classes and universities.”
“True the number of Internet cafes is increasing, but let’s not forget
that illiteracy is still high and that Internet access is difficult and
Dajani said the eclipse of traditional newspapers has been long in the
making, but he argued that this had little to do with the Internet in
general and Facebook in particular.
"Newspaper readership has been dwindling for a long time because they
have focused on politics and people are fed up with that. They want
information about the average citizen and their problems and things they
are concerned with. That is not available in newspapers so they don’t
buy it. It’s not because of Facebook.”