Arabic social network says bigger than Twitter in Mideast

AreebaAreeba founder says user base of 5 million is bigger than Twitter’s Middle East following, but independent figures suggest otherwise

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The Arabic social-networking website AreebaAreeba has an important status update: It is bigger than Twitter in the Middle East.

The site’s chief executive Ayman Irshaid says its user base has hit 5 million, which he says eclipses Twitter’s in the Middle East.

However, other figures suggest that is not the case, placing the Arabic platform behind the U.S. microblogging service in terms of both active users and website visitors.

AreebaAreeba launched in 2011, billed as the Middle East’s answer to Facebook, and then claiming about 400,000 users.

The site – which allows users to share photos, form groups and play games – has grown its user base exponentially since then, Irshaid said.

“I’m bigger than Twitter in the region,” he said. “I have 5 million people. Twitter doesn’t have 5 million people in the Middle East.”

A Twitter spokesperson told Al Arabiya News that it does not break down its user base by country, but says it has more than 288 million monthly active users worldwide.

Other indicators put Twitter well ahead of AreebaAreeba in the Middle East.

The Arab Social Media Report, produced by the Dubai School of Government, estimated that the total number of active Twitter users in the Arab world stood at 5,797,500 in March 2014.

The top 10 countries alone, all of which are in the Middle East, have 5,288,000 active Twitter users.

According to Alexa.com, which tracks trends in website traffic, Twitter is the eighth most visited website in the United Arab Emirates, while AreebaAreeba ranks at 2,957th place.

In Egypt – which Irshaid said is AreebaAreeba’s biggest market – the site is ranked 14,893rd, while Twitter is the 26th most popular online destination, according to Alexa.

AreebaAreeba this week hosted the Social Media Summit in Dubai, which Irshaid said was partly designed to promote the site to advertising agencies ahead of the planned monetization of the site later this year.

He said the site, which he has so far funded himself, is planning to launch a mobile application as part of its aim to boost its user base to 10 million by 2016.

‘Fake accounts’

Asked to justify his claim to be “bigger than Twitter” in the Middle East, Irshaid said there are many “fake” Twitter accounts in Saudi Arabia, especially among followers of celebrities.

Harris Breslow, an associate professor in the Department of Mass Communication at the American University of Sharjah, says Twitter has approximately 7.5 million users – both active and inactive – in the Middle East.

Breslow – who is also director of the Emirates Internet Project, which examines online behaviour in the UAE – says this 7.5 million does include some fake accounts.

However, even with those excluded, Twitter is likely to be clocking more than 7 million accounts in the Middle East, Breslow told Al Arabiya News.

“In 2014, Twitter discovered that approximately 6 percent of its accounts were fake, and purged them. The vast majority of these accounts were found amongst the followers of key influencers, such as Kim Kardashian, Justin Bieber etc,” he said.

“Even if we assume that the figure of 7.5 million Middle Eastern users does not account for fake accounts, this still leaves Twitter with 7.05 million users in the region, assuming that the 6 percent rate of fake accounts distributes evenly on a global level – and there’s no reason to assume otherwise.”

Yet user numbers are not the main issue at play when comparing social media sites, Breslow added.

Image-based sites are likely to be much more popular among young people in the Middle East, he said: “Generation Z distinctly favours image-based platforms such as SnapChat and Instagram.

“So ultimately, the discussion of who’s larger in the Middle East between Twitter and AreebaAreeba may not matter much. The demographics in the region skew very young, and this will ultimately favour image-based social-media platforms.”

Facebook ‘likes’?

Irshaid also drew comparisons between his site and Facebook, the world’s largest social network.

He said changes to the algorithms that govern how Facebook works mean that posts have a lower reach, or response rate.

“I have 500,000 fans on my [Facebook] page. If I post something I get three likes, whereby on my Areeba page, if I post something I get 130,” he said.

With “Facebook pages now, for individuals and even corporates, the reach is now low because of this algorithm, so people start to find new alternatives.”

Facebook declined to comment. The U.S. site says it had 79 million active users in the Middle East and North Africa at the end of 2014. As of March 31, it had 1.44 billion monthly active users globally.

Suspended account

It is not the first time that Irshaid has crossed swords with bigger social media sites. He said he founded AreebaAreeba after his Twitter account was suspended for unspecified “tricks” he used to gain followers.

“I was among the first people in the Middle East to sign to Twitter, in 2007… At that time, I managed to bring in one month 70,000 followers, then Twitter suspended my account because I used some tricks,” he said.

“I started to ask them to bring it back but they refused, so I decided to build my own” socil media site.

Despite all that, Irshaid says he does not bear a grudge against Twitter: “They’re supporting us. It’s a good platform.”