Why is Google interested in Middle EastGoogle is looking to expand in the Middle East and North Africa to capitalise on the region’s fast-growing online population.
The search company is hiring staff, setting up offices and releasing Arabic versions of its products to encourage the spread of the internet in the Arab world.
The launch of an Arabic-language version of Google News was heralded as giving Arab media their first unified platform on the internet. In the last four weeks Google has also launched an Arabic e-mail service and English/Arabic translation tool.
Hussein Amin, chair of the Journalism and Mass Communications department of the American University in Cairo, said the Google products would potentially strengthen cross-border political, economic and social ties in the Arab world in the same way as Arab satellite television.
“Now we have a tool like this, people will think of developing more internet sites in Arabic. This is going to reflect in fields like business, culture and education as well as politics,” he said.
Dennis Woodside, Google’s new director for emerging markets, said: “We believe the Arabic web is going to follow a number of patterns [similar] to Turkey today [where] the online population has increased sixfold in five years.”
However, there is concern that Google could come under pressure from autocratic governments in the region to divulge information. “This gives scope for tracing what each single user is doing . . . we are concerned about that,” said an editor of an Islamic website.
But Google said it did not provide details of individuals’ web use without a court order. Mr Woodside said the push in the Middle East would not be on the same lines as in China, where Google launched a special Chinese service that restricts search results for sensitive topics such as human rights.
Although governments could block access to pornographic websites, for example, the Google search results in the Middle East and Africa would be unadulterated, whereas in China these are filtered.
Sherif Iskander, Google’s Cairo representative, said there were 23m internet users in the Arab world, a number that was growing fast. Of $5bn spent on advertising last year in the region only $10m-$25m was on the internet. “Our objective is to learn before looking at monetising this,” he said.
MSN, the Microsoft portal that is one of Google’s main competitors, said it was also intending to launch an Arabic e-mail product this year.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2006