Digital revolution in the Middle East by Bashar Kiwan

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The Middle East refers to the region between the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea and the border demarcation between Iran and Pakistan. This part of the world, which is developing and in full bloom, is currently experiencing an accelerated and amplified digital transition that the European continent has experienced in recent years. Since the 2000s, the Middle East has been plunged into a context of rapid technological and media development. However, there are many challenges as the area faces strong competition and a high tax and regulatory pressure environment. Bashar Kiwan suggests a look back at this progress and the digital revolution in the Middle East.

Bashar Kiwan is the founder and president of al-Waseet International. It was founded in 1992 in Kuwait in partnership with two influential figures from the country, Mohammad el-Outeybi and Sheikh Sabah Jaber Sabah. Al-Waseet International (AWI) belongs to the Al-Wataniya group, which also owns other publications such as al-Balad, Layalina and Star. It is headquartered in Dubai. The company is a large publishing house that also specializes in media. For example, al-Waseet is a classified newspaper, Layalina a monthly celebrity newspaper and al-Balad a daily newspaper. As a result, entrepreneur Bashar Kiwan is very interested in the digital revolution of the Middle East.

Digital revolution from 2000 to 2010

Between 2000 and 2010, the Middle East underwent a profound digital change. This revolution has affected the whole media sector: independent journalists, major television channels and print newspapers. This makes information dissemination and exchanges much easier. A look back at this period of digital change is needed.

Social networks in the Middle East

Thanks to the democratization of the Internet, the number of social networks users also increased significantly during the decade 2000-2010, especially among the younger generations. In the Middle East, the most used social networks are: Youtube, Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. In countries such as Egypt and Lebanon, the utilization rate even reaches 70%. It is interesting to note that custom interfaces have been developed by Internet giants to be adapted to the Arabic language. Similarly, “native” sites have been created and are only accessible to the concerned public. However, users of Arabic interfaces are rather in the minority since they represent only 25% of Internet users. We also notice that more and more of them are turning away from English-language sites in favor Arabic-language sites. This trend is a true indicator of the fact that Internet users in the Middle East are increasingly looking for cultural content that reflects the specific characteristics of their region. The rise of social networks and, by extension, the Internet, has also changed the relationship between new generations and news. Thus, different groups were formed.

The important issues of the Internet and the media

Thanks to the spread of the Internet in Middle Eastern countries, it was quickly realized that a wide range of topics were of interest to Internet users. Of course, the traditional media (press, television, radio) still play an important role, but people no longer rely on these media to form their own opinions and keep informed. Indeed, since the 2000s, they have been using the Internet extensively to have a different perspective on sometimes complicated situations. Thus, professionals in the sector, such as Bashar Kiwan, have seen the development of Internet communities: bloggers, activists, campaigners, etc. In addition, although most initiatives are individual, these people can also form a community of several individuals and organize collectively through social networks like Facebook, for example. The case of blogs is quite representative of the digital revolution that is currently taking place in Middle Eastern countries. In 2010, there were 30,000 of them. Some of these blogs are followed by thousands of people forming a quality audience. These blogs, seen mainly by locals, are even read by activists, politicians, journalists and academics. They have reached such fame that traditional newspapers cite blogs as the source of their articles. Examples include: Al-Masry Al-Youm in Egypt, or Al-Balad, which belongs to Bashar Kiwan in Lebanon. The multiplication of blogs can be explained by the fact that they are very affordable and easy to set up. In addition, they are an ideal platform for sharing and free expression. We also notice that many bloggers are replacing the role of journalist and are even becoming whistleblowers.

Barriers to the development of digital tools

Although the digital revolution is underway in Middle Eastern countries, not all populations are equal in terms of innovations. Indeed, many people consider that the Internet is still reserved for the privileged and does not yet reach the whole of Arab society. People in disadvantaged areas, for example, are not connected. The development of the network is not optimal and equitably distributed between the territories. Indeed, this development is linked to the economic situation of the various countries. It cannot therefore be said that all regions are equal with respect to digital revolution, especially since the media focus mainly on highly urbanized and therefore densely populated areas. Has the situation really changed since 2010?

Evaluation of the current digital situation in the Middle East

A study conducted by Northwestern University in Qatar shows that media use in the Middle East in 2017 is increasingly focused on social networks and the Internet. The purpose of this study was to analyze the media habits of 7,000 Arabs from 7 different countries: United Arab Emirates (UAE), Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Qatar, Tunisia and Egypt. We can therefore say that the situation has progressed since 2010.

Clear progression of Internet use

The digital revolution, as in all the countries where it has taken place, has claimed several victims: the press and radio. Middle Eastern countries are no exception, as the study clearly shows that newspapers and magazines reading rate and radio hearings have declined significantly. For newspapers, the reading rate fell from 47% in 2013 to 25% in 2017; for radio, hearings fell from 59% in 2013 to 49% in 2017; and finally, the magazine reading rate fell from 26% in 2013 to 19% in 2017. While the Internet is increasingly successful: 63% in 2013 and 84% in 2017, an increase of 21%. It is also interesting to note that television use has not decreased too much, from 98% in 2013 to 93% in 2017. Press professionals, such as Bashar Kiwan, now have to adapt to these new habits. It is also interesting to note that the use of Arabic-language online has continued to increase since 2010, in proportion to the increase in Internet users.

Increasing use of social networks

The increasing use of Smartphones is inevitably accompanied by an increase in the use of social networks. WhatsApp social media is ranked first among applications used by Middle Eastern inhabitants (67%). In second and third place are Facebook (63%) and Youtube (50%) respectively. This massive use of social networks, which is accompanying the digital revolution in the Middle East, is pushing media professionals (television, print media, radio, etc.) to change the way they operate. These digital tools can be a real opportunity to increase their audiences. For example, the print media must go digital if it wants to survive: development of a website that offers the same articles as the paper version, use of social networks to communicate (relay articles, inform readers, etc.). Similarly, television can turn to the Internet to offer its programmes on VOD (Video on Demand) and radio can broadcast its programmes and podcasts online. Although it has a very strong impact on traditional media, the current digital revolution in the Middle East can be a tremendous development opportunity for media that manage to make the transition under the best conditions. However, the digital revolution does not stop there. It also represents future prospects in the political, economic and social fields.


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