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Social Media Giants Leap Into Arab World

Popular social media platforms including the likes of Twitter and Facebook were pushed further into the limelight with the onset of the Arab Spring. The increased adoption of powerful communication tools holds prospects for businesses to grow, while keeping the pressure on regional governments to liberalize, analysts have told CNBC.

Source: Facebook.com

"We're in eight markets in MENA…and we still have another ten markets to go," Robert Kyncl, Head of Global Content at YouTube, told CNBC's "Access: Middle East."

The lure for the online video giant is both in advertising and content. In mobile devices, ranging from tables to smart-phones, the trend could not be clearer. Although the figures are on the up globally, over the past 18 months, media consumption on mobile devices grew to fifty percent in Saudi Arabia.

"It's amazing to see that traction with the audience," he added. "Incredibly exciting, we know that this is a very aggressive market for us".

The battle between traditional forms of media and their emerging, newer counterparts is hardly new, developing into a rather recurring phenomenon ever since radio first posed a threat to print in the early 20th century.

Recent research by Booz & Company showed over 60 percent of Arabs in the age group 15-35 spend at least two hours a day on social networks. Fahad Khan, CEO of One Public saw particular potential in the future growth of Facebook .

"It's changing the way businesses connect but for marketers here it's an awesome opportunity to leapfrog".

Despite the spike in digital media engagement, television advertising in the Middle East is still worth two billion dollars annually and expected to rise by another $2.4 billion in the next three years, according to the Arab Media Outlook.

But the rise in social media use in the region could also keep the pressure on political systems that have held on to the status quo to open up. Last week, Human Rights Watch criticized Qatar for a draft media law it labeled "a commitment to censorship".

"The 21st century is a terrible time to be a control freak. The kind of control that diplomats and governments could have had 10, 15, 20 years ago, is gone and it's not coming back," Alec Ross, Senior Advisor for Innovation at the US State Department, pointed out to CNBC.

Countries from Bahrain to Egypt have moved rapidly to provide the necessary infrastructure as "regional hubs" to capitalize on industry momentum, albeit the legislative frameworks are in certain cases still in flux.

"What is important to some of these monarchies are the appearances. We want to appear to be forward thinking in our approach but then we see on the ground in reality that these intentions and their actions aren't in alignment," Matt Duffy, an academic expert in media law, explained.

Some believe that the numbers simply do not add up to the hype, and that social media is given too much credit for what is going on.

"We overestimate the role of social media. If you look at Facebook, it's only 15 percent of the users in the whole Arab world, and it's even less than that for Twitter," Princess Rym Ali of Jordan, founder of the Jordan Media Institute (JMI), maintained.

In the long run, Ross insisted, the most significant changes will not be political.

"As this youth bulge grows older, they are going to grow up digital and while lots of people focus on the politics… the greatest benefit here ultimately is economic".

This week on "Access: Middle East": A series of interviews exploring the future of media in the Middle East. Tune in to find out what's at stake, and how investors are positioning themselves for the future.

Follow Yousef Gamal El-Din on twitter: @youseftv

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