Middle East's Mobile-subscription Count Will Cross 250-million Mark in 2012

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The number of mobile subscriptions in the Middle East (see note) will cross the 250 million mark during 2012 reaching 271.27 million at end 2012 and rising to 352 million at end 2016 according to forecasts by Informa Telecoms Media.

Additionally, the average mobile penetration rate for the Middle East will cross the 100% mark in 2012: It will rise from 97.72% at end-2011 to 107.09% at end-2012, exceeding the mobile penetration rate in North America (US/Canada) for the first time. (The mobile penetration rate in North America at end-2012 will be 102.77%.)

Iran will continue to be the biggest mobile market in the Middle East by subscriptions with 82.91 million subscriptions forecast for end-2011, rising to 122.13 million at end-2016.

Saudi Arabia has the next biggest mobile market in the region by subscriptions, with a 50.8 million active mobile subscriptions forecast for end-2011, rising to 71.32 million at end-2016.

"The impact of competition, the availability of new data-based services, increasing affordability and population growth will all contribute to the continued rise in mobile subscription numbers in the Middle East in the coming few years," said Matthew Reed, Dubai-based head of mobile research for the Middle East and Africa at Informa Telecoms & Media.

"However, the rate of growth in mobile subscriptions in the Middle East will slow over the coming years," said Reed. "The markets have become tougher as they have become more competitive and mature, and operators have been seeking to cut costs where possible; put more effort into customer retention; and focus more on the main clear growth area, which is data services."

Despite the take-up of smartphones and, to a lesser degree, mobile broadband in some parts of the Middle East, data services only account for a relatively small proportion of mobile revenues in the region overall. Data accounted for 13% of mobile revenues in the Middle East in 2Q11; the lowest percentage for any major world region other than Africa.

But this low figure also points to the growth potential for data in the region. Iraq and Iran, both of which are substantial markets, have yet to introduce 3G networks, for example.

In the UAE, smartphone penetration is already high and will continue to rise further: The smartphone penetration rate in the UAE is forecast to be 47.23% at end-2011 and to rise to 70.35% at end-2016, according to Informa.

In Saudi Arabia, the smartphone penetration rate is forecast to rise from 25.01% at end-2011 to 48.63% at end-2016.

But the rates of smartphone penetration will be lower in some other markets in the region. In Jordan, for example, the smartphone penetration rate is forecast to be 2.2% at end-2011, rising to 17.98% at end-2016.

While some countries in the region do not yet have 3G services, all three of Saudi Arabia's mobile operators have unveiled LTE services. Etisalat is also poised to launch LTE in the UAE.

However, it will take some time for LTE to gain momentum. LTE subscriptions in the Middle East will number only 1.94 million at end-2013 but will reach 15 million at end-2016, according to forecasts by Informa.

Fixed-broadband subscriptions are also set to grow strongly in the region: The number of fixed-broadband subscriptions in the Middle East will rise from 6.51 million at end-2011 to 11.6 million at end-2016.

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