Reaching 420 million new customers: Localization for the Arab world

Why is there such little content in Arabic? For the localization-savvy organization, is an opportunity being overlooked?

Arabic is the fifth most spoken language by native speakers, the official or co-official language of 26 countries and one of the six official languages of the UN. Even so, only 5% of the global internet content is accessible in Arabic and, although 60% of Arabs have declared that they would prefer to visit a website in Arabic (97% in the case of the inhabitants of Saudi Arabia), in most cases, even the websites localized for this audience are in English.

According to statistics, Arab society is as technologically advanced (or even more) as any other great world power. In fact, according to Internet World Stats, in March 2017, 57.4% of the Arab population (about 142 million inhabitants) were Internet users, more than the world average, at 49.2%.

So, the big question is: why is there little content in Arabic? Why don’t companies localize their websites to get closer to this audience? The reality is that Arab countries are some of the most difficult regions to localize for and there are several reasons for this, including culture, religion and writing. Therefore, many websites that are localized for Arab regions have decided to retain English as their main language and facilitate the process. Here is an explanation of the 4 major challenges of localization for the Arab market:

  • WRITING

Arabic script is extremely difficult to digitize due to various reasons. This is easy to understand given the visible difference between Arabic and Western writing. Arabic writing is consonant-based as opposed to Latin, which uses an alphabet. In addition, letters change shape depending on their place in the word and are often linked together. These ligatures are not aesthetic, rather they have their function and, therefore, one of the major problems when digitizing Arabic writing is usually presenting letters separately.

Arabic writing is also cursive and has many diacritic marks that forces us to use larger fonts to see them correctly. Apart from this, since many words have no Arabic equivalents, they require descriptive translations and in Arabic there are usually no abbreviations or acronyms. This means that texts tend to become considerably longer in their translated version. We have only just scratched the surface on this topic, so when you start to delve deeper you will find more and more aspects that complicate the digitalization process.

  • DIALECTS

The Arabic language extends throughout a large territory of Africa and a part of Asia, therefore, when we encounter this language, we can come across a great variety of dialects. These dialects are usually the native languages of the inhabitants and those that they speak during their day-to-day activities. They vary from region to region and in some cases, it can be difficult for someone to understand someone else. Luckily, there is Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), which is the standardized and official language. This is the language of the institutions and the media and the language taught at schools. For this reason, most of the population understands it and can speak it. When localizing a website, it is important to determine the region and the target audience in order to decide if it is convenient to use the official language or a local dialect.

  • CULTURE

In Arab culture there are some issues that are a little more delicate to deal with than in Western culture, although it will always depend on the country or region you are addressing. In any case, it is important to always research issues such as religion, gender, sexuality or politics, so as not to get yourself into a mess. This is especially the case when choosing pictures, videos or music for the website. The Arab world is very diverse and there are many differences between one region and another. Even though we can’t generalize in terms of culture, we recommend that you spend the time doing some research before posting anything.

  • DIRECTION OF WRITING

An Arab reader reads from right to left (RTL), unlike the western text that runs from left to right (LTR). This does not only affect writing but also the way of visualizing a sequence of images or the various buttons found on the website. In general, writing runs from right to left, although numbers and words borrowed from other languages stay left to right.

Images are also “read” from right to left, so care must be taken especially with images in a sequence. An easy to understand example is the following: imagine an advertisement where you see a tired and sad person, in the next image on the right the person drinks a coffee and in a third the person is happy and energetic. Now imagine this same advertisement but now read from right to left, do you see that the meaning changes completely? An Arab user would read it this way and it would be conveyed that this coffee makes people sad and tired. Do you think somebody will buy it? Probably not.

  • OPPORTUNITY KNOCKS!

According to statistics, Arab society is as technologically advanced (or even more) as any other great world power. In fact, according to Internet World Stats, in March 2017, 57.4% of the Arab population (about 142 million inhabitants) were Internet users, more than the world average, at 49.2%.

So yes! There is a massive, overlooked opportunity in this under-served market. If you’d like to get a sense of how your organization might capitalize upon this, reach out to us at MondragonLingua!

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