Google Growing In MENA

Gulf Business attends Google’s groupie day in Dubai and chats with managing director, Ari Kesisoglu.

Google’s first ‘G Day’ in Dubai is sold out. Young web- wizards, developers and IT managers convene around the theatre eager to hear the latest news from the tech giant.

“There needs to be more content, products and services online but we cannot solve all these problems alone. We want to share what we know,” says Ari Kesisoglu, managing director for MENA.

Around 90 per cent of Google products – from Google Chrome, to Google + and Google Android – are funded by advertising revenues, and the success of its business is directly proportionate to the number of savvy users and consumers online. “There’s a heavy push on our investment in the region. This year has been the tipping point,” says a youthful, energetic Kesisoglu.

Naturally, there are far more trainers and t-shirts in evidence at the event than shiny shoes and suits – and there’s also debatably more Mohawks and ponytails than at last month’s Metallica concert. This is Google after all, the IT firm that is repeatedly voted best place to work for its focus on quirky ideas and revolutionary spirit.

Kesisoglu says the region is host to a wave of nascent web talent, particularly in Egypt. “We’ve got a big focus there. The country always had the talent but now they’ve got hope too.”

Because all of the firm’s decisions are made based on data, the Google MD is something of a self-proclaimed ‘stat-machine’. And, in this case, the figures really do say it all. Currently there are 85 million web users in the MENA region out of a population of 350 million – Kesisoglu’s calculator totals that to be around 25 per cent of the populace so far.

Each year, 40 per cent more people come online in MENA. In the coming years, these growth trends will accelerate as the region becomes more affluent and new technologies are made available, including 3G and 4G. “As prices go down, adoption will go up 200 per cent over the next two or three years,” says Kesisoglu.

While the regional growth potential for technology is astronomical, there are hurdles in the way that Google wants to address – with the help of its G-Day groupies, of course. “There is a severe lack of Arabic content online, only 1.5 per cent of Google-indexed content is in the Arabic language, even though Arab speakers account for five per cent of the global population. We have not been able to fill that gap so far.”

The region’s online ad market also lags behind the Western world. Of around $6.5 billion invested in MENA advertising annually, only two per cent of this sum is placed into online ads, compared to around 25 per cent in the US and up to 15 per cent in other emerging markets. “This gap will close in the next three or four years,” says Kesisoglu.

Google itself plans to double its number of staff across the region this year as it pushes to make the internet more relevant to users with more local services. While the MENA region has a newfound fondness for social networking and online videos, partly through the catalyst of the Arab Spring, the next big step is the creation of a viable e-commerce market. Currently just ten per cent of regional companies have a web presence.

But Google’s G-Day is alive with an infectious optimism and the potential for growth. “The region has the vision and the funding, now we need the ideas.”