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Arabic-specific websites are becoming evermore relevant as increasing numbers of people come online in the Middle East. Laura Collacott talks to Samih Toukan, CEO of the Maktoob Group, to find out more about regional developments in the online sector.

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By  Laura Collacott Published  January 7, 2008

The internet is undoubtedly becoming more widespread in the GCC. According to the website Internet World Stats, the use of the internet across the Middle East has grown by a staggering 920% between 2000 and 2007, with the largest increase in Iran where usage has gone up by 7,100%. This growth has naturally led to a proliferation of Arabic online companies emerging, all seeking to exploit the budding online marketplace.

One such company is the Maktoob Group which consists of a growing number of online media companies, portals and websites. It focuses its activities on internet solutions that allow users to engage in different social and professional communities to share information and opinions. Of these, the most well known are maktoob.com, an Arab online community portal; souq.com, a regional auction site akin to ebay; and araby.com, the world's first Arabic search engine.

The company started in 1998, born of a partnership between Samih Toukan and Hassan Khoury. Having seen the growth and prosperity of email providers such as hotmail, the two decided to create a brand that would provide a similar service to the Arab world (reflecting these roots, the company name is Arabic for ‘email').

In the next five years we will see a lot of people coming online

Since then the company has gone from strength to strength, expanding the number and range of services offered. The success of the group is best illustrated by the figures relating to Maktoob.com which was recently confirmed as having the biggest internet audience in the Arab world totalling almost 7 million unique users each month.

The proportion of the regional population with access to the internet is steadily increasing and as it stands in 2007, there are 33.5m internet users in the Middle East, a penetration rate of 17.3%. With figures projected to continue growing into the future it is clear that there is still room for expansion, a fact that has not escaped the attention of Toukan, the group's CEO. He believes that there is great potential in the Middle East to be exploited:

We think that this is just the beginning of the internet in the region. There are only 30 million people online out of a population of 300 million but the growth rates are very high. In the next five years we will see a lot of people coming online and the internet really penetrating the masses.

As more people come online, so the business opportunities grow. Bearing this in mind, the company has identified several niche requirements in the region as focus areas for development.

The most significant of these is a search engine that is tailored for the Arabic language; as most of us will know, trying to navigate the internet without a good search engine is an impossible task. Google is recognised as one of the world's leading English search engines (success that Maktoob hopes to emulate with araby.com) but Toukan believes that it and its current peers cannot offer the same quality of search to an Arabic platform as it can to the English counterpart.

The linguistic differences between Arabic and English are enormous and warrant a completely different programming structure for searches. Add to this the fact that the engines will largely be searching an entirely distinct set of websites and the justification for an Arabic-specific search engine becomes exceptionally strong.

We believe there is a need for an Arabic search engine," echoes Toukan. "We are a focused Arabic search engine; we understand the Arabic language better in terms of retrieving the relevant information and so on." Reports that traffic on araby.com has risen by 120% over the last six months would suggest that this is very much true.

Similarly, there is a demand for more culturally and linguistically relevant services in other areas. Global though the internet may be, there is still a demand for regional sites that the user-base can relate to. Souq.com has been a popular local variation of the more international eBay.com whilst AlFrasha.com provides a video-sharing alternative to YouTube.com and cashU is equivalent to PayPal.

Despite identifying Arabic-specific sites as an area for exploitation, Toukan recognises the challenges from the competition: "We consider international brands our competition as well, so we try to offer a service that is comparable to international, global players. They are only a click away; the user can go to any international portal that they like, so we have to have the same level of service and products as international players as well as regional players.

When working in an environment like the world wide web that is so comparatively level, quality is an important consideration, a reality that the company is very conscious of.

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