Mobile Communications

State of Play: Mobile in the Arab States

More than half of the population across the Arab States of the Middle East and North Africa are now subscribed to a mobile service, according to the recent GSMA report “Mobile Economy Arab States 2014”. As of the end of 2013, there were nearly 195 million unique mobile subscribers, a penetration rate of 53% of the total population, while total mobile connections stood at 404 million.

At first glance, a penetration rate of just over 50% may not appear significant, but that number does not convey the full story in one of the most rapidly growing and diverse regions in the world. The 19 countries that form the Arab States comprise the advanced Gulf States, the Arab Middle East and many populous emerging markets in North Africa, and these sub-regions vary widely in terms of socioeconomics, mobile penetration, technology maturity and regulatory environments.

For instance, a number of Gulf States, including Bahrain, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), already have unique mobile subscriber penetration rates above 75%. Two of these markets – Qatar and the UAE – also have the highest smartphone adoption rates in the world, at 80% of connections. By contrast, just 16% of the population in South Sudan is subscribed to a mobile service.

The general lack of fixed-line infrastructure in the region means that mobile is already the primary means of communication and, increasingly, it’s also the primary means of accessing the internet. Although in global terms, the Arab States were relatively late to launch higher speed networks, a number of the Gulf States are considered global technology leaders. Mobile broadband accounts for well over a third of total connections in the Gulf States today and is as high as 60% of the total mobile connections in Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. There are also now signs of an accelerating technology migration underway in North Africa, with countries such as Morocco seeing rapid growth in 3G connections.

Mobile has scaled dramatically in the Arab States over the last five years, delivering significant socio-economic benefits in every country across this diverse region. The mobile industry contributed US$122 billion to the region’s GDP in 2013, accounting for 4.4% of the total, and employed nearly 1.6 million people, directly and indirectly.

Looking beyond the numbers, in the emerging economies, mobile commerce solutions are extending financial services to unbanked populations and helping bridge the digital divide. In the Gulf States, mobile is driving innovation in areas such as machine-to-machine and smart city solutions. We are also seeing mobile networks play an important role in disaster response and crisis management.

The mobile industry has already had a profound impact on all aspects of life in the Arab States. However, with the accelerating migration to higher speed networks and growing levels of smartphone adoption, the industry has the potential to play an even greater role in the future. Realising the full potential of this digital future, and helping to address a number of the particular social and economic challenges in the region, will require increased collaboration between all mobile ecosystem players as well as governments, regulators and other industry stakeholders.


Michael O’Hara is Chief Marketing Officer at GSMA


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