June 28, 2017,   6:06 PM

How Can Companies Tap Into Middle East’s Billion Dollar Digital Market?

Ajay Arora


The Middle East is on the verge of a massive digital disruption -  the cross-border data flow connecting the Middle East to the world has increased by more than a hundred times. Citizens themselves are leading the Middle East’s digitization charge. As measured by digital consumer adoption, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Bahrain are among the top countries in the world, with more than 100% smartphone penetration and more than 70% social media adoption – even higher than the United States.

Some Middle Eastern governments, including those of the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, have begun implementation of core digitization initiatives. Indeed, the U.A.E. government leads the Middle East in digital adoption and matches the index’s digital frontier on several metrics. Other countries also have big ambitions and have made considerable progress. Across sectors, the digital economy accounts for 4.1% of the Middle East’s GDP, as measured by digital share in private consumption, private investment, government expenditure, and imports and exports. Digital’s contribution to GDP in the Middle East is just 50% that of the United States. Furthermore, the Middle East average hides a great deal of variation among countries. GCC countries generally have more digitized economies than their neighbors. For instance, the digital economy accounts for 8.0% in Bahrain and 5.1% in Kuwait—but less than 1% in both Oman and Qatar. Bahrain’s high score is mainly driven by that country’s high digital exports to regional neighbors.

Innovative uses of digital by various businesses around the Middle East highlight the promising momentum in this space. ENOC and EPPCO in Dubai, for example, have developed a prepaid fueling system that allows cashless and cardless automated fuel payments. Some of the biggest oil companies in the GCC are exploring ways to make its oilfields smarter by digitizing operations with big data and analytics, sensors, and control systems. The regional online private car-booking service Careem is another success story. While the global market is dominated by giants such as Uber from the United States or Didi in China, Careem is able to compete regionally with a localized strategy focusing on B2B integration and additional features such as scheduled bookings – not just for their own fleet of chauffeurs but also for the cabs.

Digital advertising is the second largest form of advertising in the world; with global ad spends at about $150 billion in 2016. However, the MENA region is still to catch up as digital advertising spend amounting to less than $1 billion in 2016.  But this current small scale means a large opportunity for the future. The six GCC markets (Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, the U.A.E.) experienced a combined growth of 7.4% in 2016, and are expected to collectively grow by 9.1% in 2017. Saudi Arabia, which accounts for 41% of GCC ad spend, grew by 9% in 2016 and is forecasted to grow by 9.5% in 2017. New technologies in the ad space are making it relatively simpler for advertisers to identify their choice of medium for advertisements and for publishers to sell advertisement space. Mediaquest, one of the largest media companies in the region, has created the first online market place for Ad space and content in the region called MENA Market Place – a leader in programmatic advertising. This platform assists the region’s leading publishers to better monetize their digital advertising inventory through automated online auctions and private marketplaces. They provide targeted inventories to buyers across the region.

The future digitalization in the Middle East will require the participation of all stakeholders, from government leaders and individual agencies to the private sector. Given the accelerating pace of technology and it’s potential to continually change our lives for many years to come, now is the perfect opportunity for the region to adapt digital practices in all departments and sectors of the economy.

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