Google is now treating Arabic as a priority language, with plans to invest in regional technology start-ups and launch products specifically for the growing audience of Arabic-speaking internet users. While the company has already developed Arabic versions of products such as its search engine, online calendar and mapping system, it will produce an increasing amount of Arabic-only products, its head engineer for the region said.
"What you will see is a lot more specialised applications and services that have been built from scratch with this market in mind," said Ahmed Hamzawi, who leads the company's engineering efforts for the Middle East and North Africa. "We believe in the idea of 'release early and release often', which means you will be seeing some really interesting things made for the Arabic web." Until recently, efforts by Google to target Arabic speakers were primarily the side projects of employees with a link to the region. But the formation of a dedicated Google Arabic team, the appointment of Mr Hamzawi as a dedicated engineering head for the Arab world and a number of new management hirings have made developing products for the region a full-time focus for an increasing number of staff at the world's largest internet company.
The most significant product produced by the new push has been Ta3reeb, a tool that lets users type in the transliterated Arabic that has become a common part of internet life. Ta3reeb translates the text into Arabic script, meaning users with Latin keyboards, or those not comfortable typing in Arabic, can participate in online life in their native script. "This is the kind of place where we want to be, making life on the web better for Arabic users," Mr Hamzawi said. "It will have a real impact on the amount of Arabic content that makes its way online, and that is important for all of us."
The Arab world remains a marginal market for online search advertising, the bread and butter of Google's core business. But through offices in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, as well as engineering teams in the company's California headquarters, Google hopes to become part of an internet community that is destined to grow and mature. In a recent roadshow visit across the region, the company met a number of entrepreneurs and start-ups. Mr Hamzawi declined to comment on specific opportunities, but said investments and acquisitions by the company, as well as its venture capital and philanthropic arms, were under consideration.
One example of Google's new approach to the region came in a deal signed with the Egyptian government last month. The government agreed to buy US$10 million (Dh36.7m) worth of space on Google's advertising platforms, which it will use to promote Egyptian industry and trade opportunities. In return, Google will reinvest 25 per cent of the money into funding Egyptian technology companies. The company hopes to replicate the model in more deals across the region.