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Middle East on track for digital growth - Interview

Middle East on track for digital growth - Interview
Selina Bieber, Senior Regional Director for MENA, Turkey, and South Africa, GoDaddy

By: Marina Gamil

Cairo - Mubasher: The Middle East has been moving towards digital transformation in the past few years, witnessing more significant technology trends that could reshape its emerging markets.  

Since the beginning of 2020, the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has forced the region to speed up its digital innovation and transformation, as people resort to technology to do their businesses, carry out transactions, including online payments, and communicate with others. 

To highlight how technology adoption would affect the region’s economy and the challenges facing the digital transformation in the region, Mubasher interviewed the Senior Regional Director for MENA, Turkey, and South Africa at GoDaddy, Selina Bieber, on the sidelines of the recent virtual event "RiseUp from Home."

What are the challenges facing digital transformation in the Middle East? 

We have observed that many companies across MENA follow traditional operating models where the move to digitalisation can appear daunting and complex. 

Another factor is the lack of Arabic language support online whether it pertains to website building or customer service. GoDaddy is working to address these factors with the recent introduction of a localised Arabic website, online tools, and customer support.

Could you please tell our readers about GoDaddy and its activities? 

GoDaddy is the world’s largest domain registrar and services platform for entrepreneurs. We empower everyday entrepreneurs around the world by providing all of the help and tools to succeed online. With 20 million customers worldwide, GoDaddy is the place people come to name their idea, build a professional website, attract customers, and manage their work. Its mission is to give customers the tools, insights, and the people to transform their ideas and personal initiative into success.  

What are the current initiatives that you are participating in to boost digitalisation in the Middle East? 

As we continue to localise our online products and services across the Middle East and North Africa, we have taken the step to launch a GoDaddy Arabic Website Builder tool and also an E-Store tool to help better support our Arabic speaking customers across the region. 

In addition, we are investing in Arabic marketing communications and customer support to help our MENA customers easily set up a digital presence for their venture. 

Could you tell us more about the untapped potential of digitalisation in the region and how to utilise it?  

There were a recorded 183 million Middle Eastern internet users in December 2019, equating to 70.2% of the population. As of April 2019, the internet penetration rate in the region is higher than the global average at 67.2%, as compared with 56.8% for the rest of the world. 

These statistics highlight the exponential digital growth in the region and the potential for small businesses to stay active and engaged with current and new potential customers by being more visible where they are active, and that is online, especially during these challenging times. 

With e-commerce trends in the Middle East continuing to grow, estimated e-commerce retail sales are expected to be $49 billion in 2021. 

Additionally, social media is also a great business tool as 52% of shoppers use social media to read product reviews in advance of making a purchase. With this increased adoption of e-commerce, creating an online presence with an online store can help them become more visible and can help their business grow.  

How can digitalisation contribute to the region’s economic development and sustainability? 

Digitalisation can contribute to increased efficiencies and productivity and can act as an accelerator for broader socioeconomic development.

Both private and public sectors can benefit from digitalisation, whether it is from becoming more visible to a global audience to content streaming to selling products and services around the region and around the world. Digitalisation can also provide insights and analytics to help drive improvement and change to better support customers and communities. 

How do you view plans for adopting AI in the region?  

AI is often seen as a trend we will adopt in the near future, with many people overlooking the fact it is already prominent in our daily lives. Whether it is self-parking vehicles, the automatic filtering, and smart replies in our email inboxes or chatbots that recognise phrases and respond appropriately, AI is being utilised much more than we think. 

From a GoDaddy perspective, we too are looking at more ways to use data and AI to develop our tools and guide our customers based on real-customer behaviour and needs. Our websites and marketing product, available in English, is a good example of this. The tool uses AI to automatically pre-build a website based on a customer’s industry, goals and preferences.  

On the digital transformation scale, which countries in the region are showing the best indicators?  

The UAE is a leader in digital transformation and penetration helped by the smaller population and high levels of connectivity on both mobile and household. Of the country’s 9.83 million citizens and residents, a staggering 98.98% are active internet users with 92.17% mobile internet users. The UAE is the only market where mobile internet has surpassed desktop with 54.50% opting for the former and 44% for the latter. 

Across the Middle East, we have seen many events shift online especially in Egypt where the younger generation is helping fuel the reported 22% increase in internet users between 2019 and 2020. The youth in the country are curious and often more willing to adopt digital technology to help educate and spread adoption.  

Essentially, connectivity and infrastructure can help support the development of digital integrations across the region. We are seeing broad support for digital transformation from governments like UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt with their long-term visions that support the ongoing integration of digital into everyday lives. 

In your opinion, how did COVID-19 impact the digital front across the Middle East? 

Although many industries are experiencing challenging times as a result of COVID-19, at the same time the pandemic appears to have increased digitalisation in the region. The MENA region relies heavily on brick and mortar store locations, along with a popular and long-standing mall culture. However, during this pandemic, businesses were forced to adapt to the unprecedented events that saw their storefronts closed during the lockdown.  

Although there was an existing shift towards digital penetration before the pandemic, it is clear that the events of 2020 have sped up the process of digital growth, with more businesses creating an online presence, which we expect to continue to increase into the future. 

Other than COVID-19, what are the current top trends and disruptions in the digital domain? 

In the region, we are seeing a rise in the use of mobile devices for shopping online. A recent study shows that over 56% of online shoppers are using their mobile devices instead of desktops and laptops. Ensuring a website is mobile compatible is an important part of ongoing digitalisation for small businesses to help them continue to thrive. 

Social media is also a continually rising trend, and due to heavy use across the Middle East, the medium is experiencing year-on-year (YoY) growth. Social media users in Saudi Arabia rose by 2 million between April 2019 and January 2020 and by 128,000 in the UAE alone. 

With that in mind, small businesses are turning to social media platforms to target and engage potential and existing customers with great success.  

How do you view the rising effect of social media platforms on the region’s markets, especially with the young population?  

GoDaddy views online presence as an integrated experience for businesses where they can define a customer’s journey across different various online platforms. We encourage the use of social media channels, coupled with a website to help small businesses stay connected with their customers and grow. 

The website serves as a place on the internet for small businesses to control and share their story, their products and services, and ways to contact them.  Social media channels provide opportunities stay connected with customers where they are, and can be integrated with their website. Being active on social media channels can help small businesses learn more about what their customers are saying about their business, and this can be helpful feedback on opportunities for change.  

Based on your experience, what advice do give to entrepreneurs and especially to women in tech?  

We advise entrepreneurs, including women in tech entrepreneurs, to get their ideas or small business online.

The benefits of being online, especially in today’s more challenging pandemic environment, can help an idea become more visible, get recognised, and grow more quickly.

Being online offers opportunities for brick and mortar shops to promote their business and share their hours of operation, directions to their location, current products available, and contact information. Being online also offers opportunities for e-commerce shopping, to help reach more customers and giving them the ability to shop at times good for them, with potential customers from around the world.