Innovation, Data and Control – Squaring the Circle in Dubai

Can governments in the Middle East find a way to balance control with innovation and access to data?

Can governments in the Middle East find a way to balance control with innovation and access to data?

Someone re-found their mojo this month. The English-language newspaper The National published a number of eye-opening pieces on two issues that are often discussed, but little understood.

The first was an investigative piece (yes, I know!) on the challenges that Dubai’s Road and Transport Authority (RTA) has faced with the disruption caused by app-based taxi providers such as Uber and its local rival Careem. To put the story into context, the RTA does not only regulate taxis in the Emirate of Dubai, but it also manages its own fleet of taxis.

The piece, which is a fascinating insight into how the Emirate is not only run but also how it is looking to balance control with innovation, poses the question of how a government which controls much of the business in the country promotes innovation whilst protecting its revenues. For me, the key paragraphs in the article, written by the newspaper’s business editor Mustafa Alrawi, are below.

In Dubai, The National understands, Uber and Careem have narrowly escaped a clampdown by the regulator that would have significantly curtailed their abilities to operate. The biggest issue has been the alleged failure to maintain prices above taxi fares. On its website Uber states that “ … in Dubai, regulations require our fares be 30 per cent higher than taxi fares”.

It is understood, however, that the regulator had been planning a far stronger response to the practices of private hire companies booked by smartphone app, ahead of new regulations to address the emergence of technology-led companies in the transport sector. These regulations are expected next year, according to previously reported comments from the RTA.

It is understood that the Dubai government stepped in before the row escalated to ensure that innovative companies such as Uber and Careem would not be hamstrung by any action by the RTA. The circular is understood to represent a kind of temporary truce between the regulator and the technology firms maintaining the status quo for now.

A second article the following day in The National touched on another important issue for the country – that of statistics and control over information. Here’s the introduction:

A new law that demands companies seek government approval before carrying out surveys in Dubai could damage the property sector and discourage research in the emirate, experts have warned.

The Dubai government announced a law late last month intended to help enable the Dubai Statistics Center “to establish an advanced statistics system”, according to a statement. But experts zoomed in on a provision in the new law that forbids private companies from “conducting any survey[s] without obtaining authorisation from the Dubai Statistics Center”.

As pointed out by one of those interviewed, there’s no such thing as a data vacuum. The lack of any official data will be filled by rumours, which can prove to be much more damaging.

Professor Joseph Kadane, chair of the American Statistical Association’s committee on scientific freedom, which produces reports for the United Nations on best practice in government statistics, warned that the new law would likely lead to the spread of “uninformed rumours and uncertainty about the extent of the downturn” in Dubai’s property market.

“This will do far more harm to Dubai’s economy than allowing private surveys to be conducted and published,” Mr Kadane said. “International investors, in particular, are sensitive to the quality of the information available to them in deciding where to invest.”

Both articles touch on fundamental issues relating to innovation and data. The underlying theme is control. Governments in the Middle East have long controlled everything around them, including their economies. In today’s digital world, where innovation can come out of nowhere and where data can be created and spread in an instant, governments need to understand that the control of yesterday is no longer possible and instead look to collaborate.

And, on a final note it’s great to see good local reporting. I hope The National keeps it up.

The Middle East and its addiction to Facebook – 2013 stats and figures

Yes, we Arabs have adopted Facebook as our own (image source:

Most of us in the region already know how effective and powerful Facebook is. The social media site played a prominent role in the Arab Spring, particularly in Egypt, and its popularity has endured in the face of challenges from other services such as Twitter and YouTube (I’m not even going to mention Google+ in the same sentence).

Facebook released some figures this week about the site’s usage in the Middle East. According to Facebook’s head of MENA Jonathan Labin over twenty eight million people in the Middle East and North Africa are using Facebook every day. Fifty six million use the site every month and of those thirty three use a phone or tablet device to check their profile. Fifteen million people access the site on a daily basis from their mobiles.

I’m going to give you a little more insight into a couple of different regions: Saudi Arabia; Egypt; the GCC; North Africa, and the Levant. The below figures, which were compiled last month, give a good deal of insight into gender split, age, marriage status, number of friends and page likes, access methods, and interface usage. If you’re a marketer in this region and you’re not using or leveraging Facebook (especially on mobile) then start rethinking your advertising and communications approach.

Fifty Three Million and Counting – Facebook’s hold on the Middle East

Based on the latest statistics shared at the Studio Edge event Facebook is the one network to rule them all (unless you’re a keen bird watcher that is)

Facebook came to town last week, and they brought lots of numbers with them. I was lucky enough to be invited along to the first Studio Edge event in the Middle East region. And I was astounded by the numbers that the team kept on rolling out. I’ve summarized these numbers below for you.

According to Facebook’s own research there are fifty three million active Facebook users in the region who use the service at least once a month. Egypt is Facebook’s largest market, followed by Saudi Arabia and then the United Arab Emirates.

Fifty two percent of Facebooks users access the site solely through their desktops and laptops; thirty eight percent use both mobile phones and computers, and ten percent only use their mobiles updating their profile and other Facebook activities. Twenty million people in the Middle East and North Africa are using Facebook today through their smart phones.

The average age of Facebook users in the region is 27 years and 64 percent of MENA users are male. That’s in contrast to the global split of male to female users which is currently 50/50. MENA Facebookers spend approximately seven hours on Facebook a month (that’s double the global average). And fifty two percent of Facebookers in the UAE use Facebook whilst watching television.

Middle East Facebook users like 84 pages compared to the global average of 51, and they view approximately 550 pages a month. Over forty percent of their time is spent on the news feed section of Facebook.

And to top off all of that, Facebook’s user base is growing in excess of 20 percent in the region.

With all of this information above, I’m hoping that we’re going to see more businesses online using the site. But if there was ever any doubt that Facebook is a first-tier consumer communications channel then please do re-evaluate how you use the network and start using the site properly.

One other interesting observation from the Facebook event. Most of the attendees were from advertising and creative agencies. I only spotted one public relations company. And yet, Facebook is all about content. Shouldn’t the Middle East’s PR industry be getting in on the act and promoting the quality of its social media services more?