At a time when the dominant narrative about the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) reflects conflict and instability, it’s important to step back and view the region in a more balanced way. An alternative storyline hinges on MENA’s vanguard technology entrepreneurs building products for one of the world’s most promising markets.
The numbers tell the story of a broad but under-served market. From the Atlantic to the Arabian Gulf, the region’s population of 350 million makes it larger in the number of consumers than the U.S. market. Demographics, rising incomes and avid demand are fueling steady growth despite the region’s conflict zones.
Eighty percent the population is under 30 years old and increasingly connected. There are 150 million Internet users, with 30 million more expected in the next two years. A quarter of the population has broadband and smartphone penetration is approaching 40%.
Despite economic and cultural diversity across MENA’s 22 countries, consumers share a growing appetite for Arabic digital news, entertainment, social media and gaming. As a measure of the market’s under-penetration, Arabic accounts for 5% of the world’s Internet users, but Arab language content on the Internet comprises only 1.5% of the total. Only one in 20 Fortune 500 websites are in Arabic, and only a quarter of the top 100 global businesses offer Arabic content.
To fill the demand for localized media across Arab markets, a new generation of entrepreneurs is at work leveraging the low cost-to-build products. They’re using technology to revamp the delivery of education, healthcare, and other vital services—transforming communities in the process. The new generation of founders in communities from Dubai and Riyadh to Amman which was ranked 10th best worldwide for launching a tech start-up.
The alternative narrative of entrepreneurs building great products is inspiring growing numbers of youths across the region to join their ranks. It’s a story that’s well below the fold.
On closer inspection, it’s clear that the region’s most valuable asset isn’t its energy reserves, but rather its human capital. As world history has shown, nations that unlock their human capital are likelier to transform themselves into stable and prosperous economies.
There’s little doubt that is is a defining moment across MENA. Geopolitics and conflicts in hotspots are understandably grabbing headlines but entrepreneurs and consumers are unsung agents of change.