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FILE - A Saudi woman is seen using an iPhone at a festival on the outskirts of Riyadh. (Reuters)

If there is to be another Arab Spring in the next few years, it will look markedly different from what has transpired in 2011-12. Social media and mobile phones clearly played a role. But satellite television was deemed the amplifier that took self-organizing groups on Twitter and Facebook and turned them into million-man (and women) marches and armed resistance. Next time the Arab Spring may be more subtle… and more powerful.

They say a picture paints a thousand words. The same thing can be said about infographics. This first one needs very little set up.


Profit Shares of Eight Mobile Phone Vendors - Asymco

Profit Shares of Eight Mobile Phone Vendors - Asymco

This graphic was generated by mobile phone analysis site Asymco in May 2012. This image and the accompanying post argue convincingly that the future of the global smartphone market will come down to two players – Apple’s iPhone and Samsung, built upon Google’s Android operating system. Worldwide, it looks like only two manufacturers will have the requisite operating profits to reinvest in designing ever-sophisticated handsets.

Apple secured 73% of global smartphone operating profits, Samsung 26% leaving a paltry 1% for everyone else. Ouch! The most dramatic thing about this data is how Nokia, the undisputed king of mobile worldwide in the early 2000s, has been annihilated in four short years. The same is true of HTC and LG. They have lost the battle for the North American and European mobile phone markets.

Part of the reason the profits are so large worldwide for Apple and Samsung is they sell “luxury” models. As you would expect, price is no object in Arabian Gulf where luxury products are a way of life. The iPhone 4S 16GB sells for around US $700 in Dubai and the Samsung Galaxy S3 around US $900. PC Magazine estimated it costs around $200 to make an iPhone; if true, this means Apple makes hundreds of dollars of profit on each handset sold in the GCC. Thanks to petrodollars, they can afford it.

“Samsung Galaxy S3” was one of the most searched for Google keywords in the GCC region this month. For those Gulf Arabs with disposable income, the latest Apple or Samsung device has become the ultimate vanity device / digital tool. Smartphones have already transformed some markets, most notably Bahrain. Contemplate graphic number 2:

Mobile Operating Systems from Bahrain

Mobile Operating Systems from Bahrain

According to our analytics data, Bahrainis arrive at our Middle East Voices’ website on mobile 2-to-1, mostly on iPhones. We’ve gotten snapshots of our Bahraini Twitter followers using SocialBro and found that the average Bahraini has thousands, sometimes tens of thousands of Twitter followers speaking to one another primarily on iPhones. Everybody knows everybody, it seems. The tiny kingdom is probably the most politically aware, social connected and mobile empowered in the region.  The Bahraini Arab Spring was brief and modest in scale compared to Egypt, Syria or Libya but events have been amplified in part because of this level of digital sophistication and integration.

For the wider Middle East – places like Egypt, Syria, the Palestinian Territories – a $900 smartphone is out of the question. People still rely upon “dumb phones” from manufacturers like Nokia. Yet, our data indicates more than 90% of people in most Arab countries own a “dumb” mobile phone. Very soon, they will want something smarter.

However, we shouldn’t dismiss Nokia outright despite its profit challenges. Here’s why: Nokia still commands dominant market share in Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Tech research firm Gartner reported that Nokia held a 58.5% market share in 2010, which slipped to 52.9% in 2011. Samsung has about 15.8%; Apple not even a blip in the Middle East… yet. Nokia still has a shot in MENA.

To win the mobile game in the Arab world, Nokia (or any other legacy mobile giant) needs to adopt an 11th hour strategy: introduce an affordable, semi-smartphone for the masses.  Nokia already has a playbook. Consider the new 110 and 112 dual handsets. Clearly not smartphones but still equipped with Facebook and Twitter apps, e-mail and web browsers. These models are being introduced in Europe for under US $100 and you can bet they will be making their way to MENA soon.

This leads us to one of two conclusions: either Nokia, LG or HTC will recover from their tailspin and design a “cheap, semi-smartphone” for the developing world. Or they will die, and after the worldwide “luxury” smartphone market is saturated, Apple and Samsung will sell cheaper, slimmed down versions of their once luxury models. Either way, the average person in the MENA region will be politically aware, social connected and mobile empowered, just like Bahrain.

Our forecasting data suggests the same. 3G access and phones will explode in the next four years:

3G Mobile Penetration Forecasts in Middle East

3G Mobile Penetration Forecasts in Middle East

The Next Arab Spring?

Social media sites like Facebook played an undisputed role in catalyzing the Arab Spring of 2011, but the significance of mobile phones in mobilizing protests has perhaps been overstated. The data doesn’t support it; smartphone penetration isn’t that high. Most people still own phones with voices and SMS services, which played a huge role. Likely, small hubs of Facebook and Twitter power users leveraged PCs to begin the movement. But, as research data shows, traditional media – namely satellite television – brought the movement to the masses. What if all of those phones had Facebook and Twitter apps.

But the next round might be the real deal. Imagine what the region will look like when millions of people upgrade and own a 3G “mini-PC.” Imagine if all Arab countries  looked like Bahrain. Think of the implications for free speech, political organization, party canvassing, popular opinion or efforts documenting corruption. The next Arab Spring may be less about protests in the streets to oust dictators, and more about a super informed populace leveraging its power to fight for broader rights via evolution not revolution.

Gulf countries are already clamping down harshly on social media. Kuwait has jailed several citizens this year for using Twitter to comment on politics or religion.  Dubai Police say they are monitoring Twitter and Facebook 24 hours per day. They aim to control social media as they’ve done with traditional media. But can a more digitally literate populace longing for more rights be controlled?

This post probably offers more questions than answers but certainly the Arab world will look very different in a few short years. What’s your prediction when everyone has some sort of smartphone? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.


Davin Hutchins

Davin Hutchins is Consulting Editor of Middle East Voices. Hutchins brings 17 years of journalism experience to VOA after working with media organizations such as CNN, Tech TV, Huffington Post and PBS. He specializes in news, documentaries and new media with an emphasis on international social issues, media training and online delivery platforms. Hutchins lived five years in the Middle East and covers the dynamic changes that have been triggered by the Arab Spring.


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