Facebook Grows in Egypt, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, but Faces Challenges Ahead

[Editor’s Note: The data cited in this article is excerpted from Inside Facebook Gold, our data service tracking Facebook’s business and growth around the world. Please see Inside Facebook Gold to learn more about our complete data and analysis offering.]

For several months running, Arabic has been one of the fastest-growing languages on Facebook. Like other languages, the biggest gains for Arabic have come from a handful of countries: in this case, Egypt, Morocco and Saudi Arabia.

At first glance, these countries seem too widely scattered to be a cohesive market. A resident of Morocco probably might not be able to carry on a spoken conversation with a Saudi Arabian, three thousand miles and several dialects away. However, the written language is the same. And Facebook has been busy going after this greater Middle East market, inking a deal in February with a regional ad service provider that allows it to better target users in the area.

Since then, Facebook presence has continued to expand. Here’s a view of three months of growth for Egypt, Morocco and Saudi Arabia:

With penetration rates and overall user numbers beginning to reach an interesting size, it’s worth a brief look at what might keep Facebook from becoming dominant in these countries.

The good news for Facebook is that there’s not a clearly entrenched competitor — decade-old competitor Maktoob, for example, said recently that it has 18 million total users, but it’s not clear how active the site is now versus what Facebook has already gained.

But being the only contender, at least for the moment, does not equal safety. As Facebook has found during the “Everyone Draw Mohammed” scandal, when it was banned for a time in both Bangladesh and Pakistan, its own desire for openness can play against it when users or governments get offended.

Saudi Arabia, the most religiously strict of the trio we’re looking at today, did not ban Facebook at the time. But its own priorities may lie elsewhere. As more Saudi women find access to the internet and create Facebook profiles, the country’s clerics could turn against it. In a February article, the Global Post pointed to both increased online freedom for women and a cleric naming the network “corrupting” and “the door to lust.”

In Egypt and Morocco, the potential problems are more political. Take for instance Egypt’s contentious 2011 presidential election, in which Hosni Mubarak, who has been president for 29 years, will take on Nobel prize winner Mohammed ElBaradei. For the moment, Facebook is a strength for both men.

ElBaradei, on the other hand, has accumulated almost 250,000 followers on Facebook and called for civil disobedience. Egypt’s freedoms are fragile and potentially subject to change; if Facebook finds itself unintentionally allied to ElBaradei, it could potentially suffer censorship.

Similarly, in Morocco, which is ruled by one of the world’s few remaining monarchies, civil rights groups have taken to Facebook to call for change in ways not condoned by the government.

It will take time for the political and religious authorities in these countries to learn about and understand Facebook. The results won’t be entirely predictable. One potential outcome could be a user exodus to a culturally sensitive network, like the recently-founded Madina.

But for now, Facebook is still enjoying unimpeded growth in these markets — and that trend may well continue into the future.

The traffic and growth data cited above is excerpted from the full Facebook Global Monitor, September 2010 edition. The Global Monitor is available through Inside Facebook Gold, our data and analysis membership which also includes analysis on developments, risks and opportunities in the Facebook business ecosystem. To learn more or join the membership, please visit Inside Facebook Gold.