From Zion shall go forth… Arabic web content?

There’s a huge need for Israeli Internet technology in Arab countries, and the UK-Israel tech hub has a way to bring it to them

Former UK ambassador to Israel Matthew Gould announces the winners in a recent start-up event sponsored by the UK-Israel Tech Hub (Photo credit: Mati Milstein)
Former UK ambassador to Israel Matthew Gould announces the winners in a recent start-up event sponsored by the UK-Israel Tech Hub (Photo credit: Mati Milstein)

E-Books, digital advertising, and content portals, like wedding planning sites or parenting and sports blog platforms, are a major component of the Internet; content has become an important engine in economies all over the world. The Arabic-speaking world, however, lags behind, with far less content available for Arabic speakers and readers compared to the amount available in other major languages. According to the UN, this content conundrum is slowing down economies in Arab countries – and a new project that is taking off in Israel, of all places, aims to help fix things for Arabic speaking web surfers.

In what is perhaps the ultimate in Internet irony, citizens of countries where even speaking to an Israeli can land them in jail or worse may soon find themselves using the latest in Israeli technology to access information on the Internet, read books and documents on devices, shop online, use advanced location tech apps in their native language, and more. While there are plenty of web sites in Arabic, according to Dona Haj Manaa, Arab Sector Manager of the UK-Israel Tech Hub, they are generally just static repositories of data – and there are precious few ways for people to access and use that data in apps for devices like cellphones and tablets. “Our program aims to bring that technology to them, using the latest in Israeli-made tech,” she told The Times of Israel.

To accomplish this, the Hub has organized the Go Global Program for Digital Arabic Content Entrepreneurs, which seeks to recruit top Israeli-based Arabic-language developers. That Israeli technology would be marshaled to help out Arab speakers is not at all odd, said Manaa; there are many well-educated and knowledgable Arab members in the Israeli high-tech community. Tsofen, an organization that helps Israeli-Arab entrepreneurs integrate in the Israeli high-tech world has worked with dozens of companies, and Nazareth has its own high-tech incubator, where more than a dozen start-ups develop tech services and products. Nazareth also boasts its own Mobile Monday group, where mobile app developers gather to swap ideas once or twice a month.

Manaa wants to draft some of that talent to help Arabic speakers get more out of the Internet. According to the UN’s ESCWA (Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia), Arabic was the seventh most “spoken” Internet language in 2011, but Arabic accounted for just 2% to 5% of digital content in online advertising, device apps and web applications. “It is evident that the potential for a digital content industry in the region is high,” ESCWA said in a recent report. “A gap between what can be done and what is available should provide incentives to governments and the private sector to promote growth and development of digital content industries and services in the region. The Arabic language is an effective platform for the region which justifies collaboration and an open regional market approach to its development.”

Dona Haj Manaa (Photo credit: Courtesy)
Dona Haj Manaa (Photo credit: Courtesy)

Israel, said Manaa, could give a major jump-start to that development. “What we want to do is take Arabic speakers who will be able to develop content technology to better utilize data, train them in presentation and business skills, and bring them to London, where they will meet officials of top content distribution and technology companies.” By fostering such content, the Hub hopes to spark business ties between the Israeli companies and firms that can bring that technology to the Arabic-speaking world. About 60 entrepreneurs and developers applied to the program, said Manaa, with 15 to be chosen for the program and a trip to London.

While technology in general is welcome in many Arab countries, Israelis are not, and often Israeli-developed technology isn’t either. Manaa said that the Hub is not keeping the program’s existence a secret, but it is also not going out of its way to wave the blue and white flag. “I don’t anticipate a problem with anti-Israel boycotts, but we are keeping a low profile,” said Manaa. “The idea is to work with British companies that have inroads into these markets that Israeli companies are unable to reach. They will be bringing the technologies to end customers.”

The Go Global program is unique, as is its sponsor: The UK-Israel Tech Hub is the only embassy-sponsored program dedicated to encouraging partnerships between Israeli and foreign high-tech companies — in this case British firms. The Hub sponsors numerous activities to achieve this, including the TexChange program, which brings 15 promising Israeli start-ups to the UK to meet top business leaders, helping them build up contacts and expose them to potential partnerships. According to Hub Director Naomi Krieger, the idea behind the project is “to create an ongoing flow of Israeli entrepreneurs to the UK and vice versa, to create a platform for collaboration of entrepreneurs and companies, giving British corporations a route to benefit from Israeli technological innovation, and tying Israeli companies to the UK’s leading companies, markets and service providers.”

For Manaa, the idea of marrying Israeli tech and Arabic content is a win-win for both Israel and Arab countries. “There is a tremendous lack of Arabic-language digital content, and it’s a great business opportunity,” she said. “The Arabic-speaking entrepreneurs behind them, could be an important bridge between Israel and a huge market that needs Israeli technology.”

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