Even though Arabic language is booming and is one of the fastest-growing languages globally, it is still facing access challenges online.
In 2013, Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) rolled out domain names in Arabic, Chinese, German, Russian and Cyrillic scripts.
When Russian and Chinese Top-Level Domain names have grown in leaps and bounds, Arabic domain names and country code top-level domain (ccTLD) of UAE (.emarat), Arabic equivalent of .AE domain extension, .Al Saudia for Saudia Arabia and .Misr for Egypt did not grow correspondingly and did not close the gap between the Arabic content and the Arabic user.
Top-Level Domains are letters after the final dot of a domain name like .com, .ae and .net while “.Shabaka” (in Arabic means .web) was the world’s first Arabic new Top-Level Domain (TLD).
Top industry experts said that the key reason is due to the lack of Arabic content online despite the growth in Arabic speaking population.
“The other reason is universal acceptance. Most of the e-commerce and online banking platforms accept emails in ASCII or Latin characters and does not recognise Arabic or Chinese email ID address. People go and register for domain names in Arabic but there is a limitation in how they could use the domain names because domain application of a domain name is email and if you want to use your email ID in your local language and if you are not able to do that, then it is a problem,” Baher Esmat, ICANN’s vice-president for stakeholder engagement in the Middle East, told TechRadar Middle East.
Despite great efforts from the ICANN and the domain managers in the countries to spread awareness on these domains, Munir Badr, Founder and CEO of AEServer, one of the accredited domain name registrars under the TRA for .ae, said that the general public and businesses, in general, prefer to use the common domain extensions in the English language as they are by far more popular, easy to type and use by everyone and in some cases cost less to register compared to the IDNs.
Esmat said that some Gulf Cooperation Council countries, apart from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Morocco, Iraq, Sudan, Somalia have large Arabic-only speaking population and they use mostly Arabic language on their mobile phones and social media.
From an ICANN’s point of view, he said that the organisation’s role is to ensure that domain names work securely and stably.
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Internet penetration rate in Middle East
“When communities around the world ask ICANN to make domain names in different languages, ICANN has to respond to their needs. Whether the domain names are working or not is ICANN’s business or our responsibility,” Esmatsaid.
According to ICANN, the largest country-level domain names, in terms of registrations, are China and Russia.
“When we have millions of domain names in China and Russia, we have less than 1,000 TLDs in Arabic in Saudi Arabia and other GCC countries. This may change as our region is the fastest-growing region on internet usage globally,” he said.
According to Internet World Stats, the Middle East had a population of 258.37m as of April last year and out of this, 175.50m are internet users, which translates to 4% of the total internet users globally.
The internet penetration rate in the Middle East stands at 67.2%, higher than the rest of the world at 56.5% and higher than the global average of 56.8%.
According to Ethnologue, Arabic is the fifth most spoken language in the world in 2019 with 319m after Chinese, Spanish, English and Hindi.
Badr said the low usage is mainly due to lack of interest from the registrants.
“If we look at Dubai in general, the language of business is English and with a high ex-pat population, many of the business decision-makers are well aware of the domains and had prior experience by using a generic domain name such as .com or .net or country-level domains (ccTLD) so they will opt for a .ae name and a .com name as a bundle and both in Roman script,” he said.
On the other hand, he said that .ae is one of the best performing domains in the Mena region with over 230,000 domain names registered and is extremely popular within the UAE and it is also cost-effective and easy to register.
However, he said that there is lack of awareness and no big or well-known brands or government agencies are using such domains.
Need to create more awareness
“If many brands do both Arabic and English domain names on their billboards, then the community will follow this trend. People in the UAE, in general, are very trendy and like to set and follow trends,” Badr said.
However, he said that most businesses here target English, Arabic and the other language residents in a single common language that is understood by all in the UAE and that is English.
So, he said that there is no requirement to create Arabic domains with an Arabic webpage.
Furthermore, he said that those having an Arabic section on the website usually have a subdomain or a section on the main website for Arabic speakers.
Moreover, he said that Arabic words and letters also have "variations" in the sense that the same letters with different vowels sound differently so all these have to be accounted for.
The .emarat domain name system allows each Arabic domain names to have variants registered free of charge.
“The government (TRA/aeDA) itself has done a great job raising awareness campaigns when .emarat domain name was first revealed, including placing a billboard banner on the main streets of Dubai. However, it is the "end-user" who prefer to have a single domain name for their website and they choose an option that suits everyone,” he said.
Badr said that ICANN does create roundtables and debates and brings different stakeholders together at events such as the Middle East Domain System Forum that happens every year.
This year it will be held in Riyadh in March 2020, he said and added that the forum will look at various topics including the universal acceptance which covers the international domain names (IDNs).
Another organisation that looks into such matters is the APTLD (Asia Pacific Top Level Domain Forum) that was held in Dubai last year.