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Smartphone boom predicted in the Middle East

The Middle East is perhaps not what many people think of as one of the hottest telecom market in the world but new numbers by Informa Telecoms & Media may change your mind.

In total, the Middle East will see over 250 million mobile phone subscriptions by the end of 2012. Iran, by far the biggest market in the Middle East for mobile phone subscriptions, will account for around 90 million by end of 2011, predicted to grow to 122 million by end of 2016.

In terms of smartphones, the UAE is predicted to have over 70% smartphone penetration by 2016, up from 47% today. Compare this with the United States, with a smartphone penetration of 40% as of September 2011.

Let’s have a look at some of the other numbers to see what else is interesting.

Massive growth predicted

According to Informa, the Middle East will see a massive growth in the number of mobile subscriptions over the next few years. In the report Informa has included Afghanistan, Bahrain, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, UAE and Yemen. Informa predicts:

  • The number of mobile subscriptions in the Middle East will exceed 250 million in 2012.
  • This will increase to total of over 350 million by end of 2016.
  • Average mobile phone penetration in the region is estimated to exceed 100% in 2012, thereby exceeding the North America market for the first time. To clarify, this means that there will be more mobile subscriptions than there are actual mobile users.

Considering that the countries included in Informa’s report have a current combined population of almost 210 million, the numbers are pretty amazing. Iran’s population alone is just over 75 million.

However, if you put this in relation to mobile giants like India and China the Middle East numbers pale in comparison:

  • China had 859 million mobile subscriptions (64% of the population) in December 2010.
  • India had just over 840 million subscriptions (70% of the population) in May 2011.

2G still going strong

It comes as no surprise that over the next four years included in Informa’s predictions, 2G will still be going strong. Iran will see a substantial drop, both in absolute user numbers as well as measured as percentage of users. The same is true for Saudi Arabia. The only country that keeps rising in 2G connections to 2016 is Yemen.

Iraq emerges as third largest 3G market in the Middle East

Yemen’s increase in 2G may be explained by the lack of 3G. Informa hasn’t included any 3G numbers for Yemen all the way to 2016. Most other countries in the Middle East will see a rise in 3G connections over the coming four years, Informa predicts. The sharpest rise, as you can see from the chart below, is for Iran, which is predicted to bypass Saudi Arabia in late 2016 sometime, and become the biggest 3G country in the region.

Another surprising detail in the 3G numbers is that Informa predicts that Iraq will become the third largest 3G country in the Middle East sometime in late 2015, bypassing Syria.

Saudi Arabia will dominate 4G

It’s of course early days yet for 4G in all of the Middle East, with only a few countries having active implementations. In terms of growth Informa predicts that Saudi Arabia will be the leading 4G market in the Middle East for the period covered, with just over 11 million 4G subscriptions by 2016.

Even though the UAE is much smaller than Saudi Arabia if you compare populations, it comes in on a clear second place by 2016 in Informa’s prediction.

Iran, biggest market but few smartphones

As we already mentioned, in terms of mobile phone subscriptions Iran is by a wide margin the largest market in the Middle East. But it appears Iranians haven’t taken to smartphones in quite the same way as people in some neighboring countries.

Informa tracks smartphone subscription growth in only four countries in the Middle East: Iran, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and UAE.

Out of the four, UAE is the country with the highest smartphone penetration, predicted to rise from 47% in 2011 to over 70% in 2016. Saudi is also predicted to grow quickly as a market for smartphones, reaching almost 50% by 2016. Iran and Jordan trail behind according to Informa’s predictions, but see an increased growth in smartphone penetration toward the end of the period.

Middle East: a heterogeneous region in transition

Informa’s report adds to the common picture of the Middle East as a very heterogeneous region in terms of a range of factors like economical, social, political, and more.

In the Middle East region we find big a big country like Iran, which is transitioning from 2G to 3G, managing a large user base. We also find countries like UAE, which doesn’t have as many users, but a tremendous smartphone penetration predicted to reach over 70% by 2016.

With such amazing smartphone numbers, clearly among the highest anywhere in the world, we’re bound to see more of the Middle East in terms of mobile news going forward. And if the numbers from Saudi Arabia, Iran and some of the other countries are anything to go by, we’ll se the mobile revolution continue to spread across the Middle East.

Middle East map courtesy of Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the BPL.

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