Two industries that barely existed a decade ago are flexing their muscles in the Middle East's technology sector, with the leaders of both saying business is booming. Modern web search was little more than a gimmick when Google was founded in 1998, while online advertising has only become a truly mainstream medium in the past five years. "I've been working in online advertising for almost 10 years and in 1999 there was no such thing as the online advertising business," said Husni Khuffash, the business manager for Google in the UAE.
Mr Khuffash now leads a company that is part of the emergence of a thriving Arabic-language internet, which caters to the linguistic needs of an estimated one in 20 global internet users. "The Middle East has a lot of potential - a lot of users and a lot of content," he said. "What we are waiting for is that magic moment between advertisers and users." That moment - when the three critical elements of online content, functioning search engines and advertising platforms that monetise the whole ecosystem converge - is fast approaching, Mr Khuffash said.
Fifty-two per cent of Google's advertising revenue comes from outside the US, and the Arab world is "a main engine of that growth", he said, declining to give specific figures. The search engine's ability to understand the language has also taken big steps forward. "If you look at Google's Arabic offering today compared to two years ago, the development has been massive," he said. The poor performances of the web's largest search engines in dealing with Arabic have led to a number of start-up companies looking to capture a segment of the small, growing market.
Businesses like Egypt's Linkdotnet, owned by the regional communications business Orascom Telecom, and Taya IT, an Egyptian start-up, have invested in building Arabic search engines. Yamli.com, a US-based start-up, has gone a step further, allowing users to search for Arabic content on the internet using the Roman alphabet, in a similar way that many Arabic speakers use Roman letters to transliterate Arabic script when sending text messages.
The influential technology industry website TechCrunch recently called Yamli a "likely acquisition target for Google or any other company looking to expand to Arabic-speaking nations". "There is a lot of pent-up demand," said Neil Garner, who manages the Middle Eastern operations of Fast, a search business that was recently acquired by Microsoft. "For a long time, search in Arabic wasn't supported by mainstream players, which meant local companies were working with the niche players."
With Microsoft and Google now taking the segment seriously, these niche players are being squeezed by the competitive muscle of global market leaders. Maktoob.com, the largest Arabic-language web portal, uses technology from Microsoft and Fast to power its search and advertising platforms. Souk.com, Maktoob's online commerce website, also uses the systems. Fast employed hundreds of research and development staff to fine-tune its search systems and paid special attention to its Arabic offering. The company partnered with the British University in Dubai in customising its products for Arabic searches.
Along with the initial complexity of a language that reads right-to-left and uses no vowels in its common written form, Arabic poses a number of challenges to the search industry. Words often have multiple meanings that are both divergent and ambiguous, and are highly context-based; misspelling is common. But internet use in the Arab world has boomed by more than 1,000 per cent in the past decade, leading to millions of new users whose native language was poorly supported online; a number of recent moves have shown the growing interest in catering to these users.
The body that governs the structure and addressing system of the internet recently decided to allow web addresses to be written in Arabic, while Google and others have released customised Arabic versions of their portals and blogging services. Earlier this year, the Wikimedia Foundation, which runs the popular online encyclopaedia Wikipedia, held its annual global conference in the Egyptian city of Alexandria in an effort to boost the participation of Arabs in its online activities.