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The non-English web: Can Majarra bridge the Arabic content gap?

Arabic is the fifth most spoken language in the world but only 1.1% of the world’s top 10M websites use it. That’s the glaring deficiency faced by media consumers in the Middle East, an issue that undermines social inclusion and furthers societal division in some of the most vibrant economies in the world. 

It’s also a key reason why social media is so heavily used in Arabic countries, with users spending an average of three and a half hours per day on social media – primarily for news consumption –  with 79% of young Arabs now getting their news from social media.

News habits of Arab Youth, via the Arab Youth Survey 2020

Amidst this challenging backdrop, one Abu Dhabi publisher aims to change consumption patterns by launching a subscription-based digital Arabic content network that its co-leaders, brothers Abdulsalam and Ammar Haykal, view as a “catalyst to unlocking the Arabic web, ushering a new dawn for an industry that is crucial to progress in our region”. 

It’s a brave move, and whilst the publisher in question – Majarra (Arabic for galaxy) – is already the Arabic-language licensee of many global titles including Harvard Business Review, MIT Technology Review, Popular Science, and Fortune, its revenue model to date has included advertising, events, and consulting, but little subscription revenue. Moreover, Arabic subscription-funded content is rare and not part of the cultural lexicon – HBR Arabia remains one of only a handful Arabic-speaking publications that has a paywall, an experiment that has worked well and provided the inspiration for Majarra’s pivot to subscriptions.

Speaking to WNIP, Majarra’s executive chairman Abdulsalam Haykal outlined the problem facing Middle Eastern publishers, “Arabic content online is dominated by old forums, user-generated content on social media, and mistranslations of pirated content. With Arabic Internet users having to turn to English sources for help, this scenario works only for an elite fraction of Arabs in the vast area of the Middle East and North Africa. For the majority, it is a significant barrier.”

The online presence of Arabic, the world’s fifth largest language with 420 million speakers, sits between that of Greek and Polish, with 14 and 40 million speakers respectively. This is a massive lost opportunity for our societies and for countless Arabs who look to quality information to support their growth and progress. It is a constant frustration.

Abdulsalam Haykal, Executive Chairman, Majarra

The need for a new Arabic-content publishing model

Despite the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) launching an award to encourage the creation of Arabic content to ‘bridge the digital content gap’, there is still no effective solution to the challenge – a fact readily admitted by Haykal, “The content business model is broken, free content is an illusion. Content was paid for through advertising spend but that stream has become small and unreliable.”

Big Tech is sucking digital advertising budgets dry in the Middle East leaving online publishers a very small pie to compete for. What we have now are fragmented small players, akin to corner shops.

Abdulsalam Haykal, Executive Chairman, Majarra

Haykal admits that Majarra, with its staff of 110, faces considerable hurdles, adding, “There’s no real industry for Arabic online content and no existing Arabic web standards or benchmarks”. He believes, however, that the “opportunity is ripe for a scalable subscription model”, saying, “Arabs are hungry for quality Arabic content, and based on our experience, they are willing to pay for it so long as it’s a smooth and enjoyable experience, distributed well and easily accessible.”

Haykal, and the publisher’s investors, are so convinced that an Arabic subscription model will work they are shortly launching a single subscription paywall that will allow readers to consume all its content across multiple titles using a single log-in, a strategy gaining popularity with a number of US publishers. Majarra is also planning to launch three new content verticals in 2021, in partnership with some of the world’s leading publishers who will be named over the coming weeks.

Through a single sign-on, subscribers can use their subscription to access multiple websites, each offering written, audio, and video content on topics they need in daily life.

Abdulsalam Haykal, Executive Chairman, Majarra

Haykal stresses that what defines any content company is its content, whether it’s Netflix or Majarra, telling WNIP, “the full product is a combination of content, technology, user experience, and distribution, but without content there’s no product. This is especially true when what you are trying to measure is the number of subscribers and not website traffic only.”

“Producing online content based on a business model to increase traffic then sell it to advertisers feeds a spiral of lower-quality content. Copy, paste, and repackage, then enhance SEO, will create business that will only thrive for a short while because the utility to the end-user is minimal.”

You see it now around the world. Any company that offers unique, quality content, good distribution, and a seamless experience, can put a price on the value it is offering, this is the model that we are proposing – a subscription-based ecosystem for quality Arabic content.

Abdulsalam Haykal, Executive Chairman, Majarra

Creating the right alliances

Abu Dhabi, where Majarra has been based since 2014 (it was founded in Syria in 2004), is a growing home for Arabic content platforms. One of them is Anghami, the regional contender of Spotify, which announced in March 2021 a deal to list on Nasdaq via a Singapore-based SPAC at a valuation of $220 million. Starzplay, a Netflix contender, also recently moved headquarters to Abu Dhabi, whilst Mubadala Capital, part of Abu Dhabi’s sovereign fund, is raising $200 million via SPAC targeting media and entertainment companies.

As for Majarra, its vision seems to be attracting global interest. It has recently received an investment from North Base Media (NBM), a US tech and media investment firm with high-profile partners including Bloomberg Beta, Graham Holdings, and Singapore Press Holdings. Marcus Brauchli, the former Editor-in-Chief at The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal, will also join Majarra’s board to help guide its future path.

We want to make Majarra the gold standard of Arabic online content and the Arabic internet will be better for it. It’s a big mission, and we have the right allies. The timing is right, too.

Abdulsalam Haykal, Executive Chairman, Majarra

Will it work? Plenty of subscription businesses have failed for a variety of reasons, chief amongst them that readers will not pay for content they can access easily elsewhere. Majarra aims to face this challenge by only publishing premium content which, crucially, will be in the Arabic native tongue. These two reasons alone should be enough to carry them through. Time will tell but they deserve the best of good fortune, not least because of its contribution to Arabic societies in the Middle East and around the world. As the graph below attests, there is some ground to make up.