With its US$85 million acquisition last year of Maktoob.com, the largest online Arab community, Yahoo demonstrated its intent to become a leading content provider in the region. The company has a big challenge ahead. An oft-stated fact among Arab Internet entrepreneurs is that despite the market’s 350 million Arabic speaking users online worldwide, less than 1% of all Web content is in Arabic.

Heading up this project is Hossam Sokkari, head of audience at Yahoo Middle East. With over 15 years experience creating Arabic content for BBC Arabia, Sokkari brings with him a strong background in journalism and a firm understanding of the region’s cultural diversity.

Sokkari also brings a dynamic skill set in creating digital media for the Arab world. As one of the first Arabs to hold a top position in the BBC network, he spearheaded the re-launch of BBC Arabic and unified its content by integrating online, television and radio into one platform.

Speaking with Arabic Knowledge at Wharton at the Middle East North Africa ICT forum in Amman, Jordan, Sokkari discussed Yahoo’s plans to bring the Arabic language to the Internet, and the challenges of creating local content that is relevant.

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: There is an acknowledged dearth of Arabic content online, so what has to change?

Hossam Sokkari: Number one, I don’t like it when people talk about content as if they are talking about leather or shoes or something. It’s as if we are manufacturing content. This idea of shortage of supply is awkward. What we did was turn the business of content into the business of data, and we see it as how much, instead of how good. Our demand is fueled by content we can advertise around. We need to think of it as a qualitative issue, not a quantitative issue.

The issue that we have is Arabic content in general. We are talking about it because we are expanding, and it has to be content-driven. When we talk about content in the Arabic world, we think of the stuff we see in newspapers and what not. When we talk about digitizing content, we can talk about analog content that we need to format into a digital format. So this can be a movie digitized for the Internet. It can be documents and artifacts at museums that explain histories and legacies. It can be about anything that captures a picture of the Arab world.

There is a wide range of content that we can have. We can buy intellectual property and put it on the Web. On other occasions, imagine the Arab League would put some effort into making some of [its] content digitized and distributed. It can be international organizations like UNESCO that work on analog material about heritage. They can upload the content … that is of value. The universities can use the students and start projects. It can be a public initiative. It’s a very wide-ranging responsibility that can be distributed among a lot of people. It doesn’t have to be about giving money, it could be just the efforts of a group of people.

Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: What about personal sharing? Do you feel Arabs online are sharing their personal feelings? Internet content often is very raw. Is the Arab world ready for that sort of raw content for personal consumption?

Sokkari: Communities in chat rooms very often are raw. But there is Facebook, which is very personal, and it is very popular with Arabs. There is a sharp increase in signing up for Facebook accounts. I wouldn’t be able to make a general judgment. Social media as a phenomenon is popular in passing information in the Arab world. But this is just a small part of the content that can be put on the Web.

Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: What about politics? Governments have targeted Arab bloggers, especially political bloggers, across the region.

Sokkari: There are definitely people who are shying away from blogging, but it’s also fueling activities, where people are turning into activists. I can see that it’s affecting things both ways. It’s tilting things both ways, this tension. There are political repercussions and it’s creating a more dynamic and interesting discussion. User-generated content is content. But I don’t think this is what people are talking about when they talk about when they say "Arabic content."

Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: What kind of content can actually succeed here? Is there a type of a kind of content that they think will resonate with Arabs the most?

Sokkari: It’s difficult to judge. From what we see, people are very interested in sports and entertainment. But we feel that educational and historical material is very important. So there’s a dilemma on whether we should put what we think we should have and what people want. Right now, we are working on all sorts of fronts by expanding our content deals. We are working on a content deal with Saudi Research and Publishing for business, sports and politics publications. They are working on getting the material digitized and onto our website. We hope that will enrich the experience on Yahoo.

Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: What are Yahoo’s plans for the Middle East?

Sokkari: Lots of companies are interested in emerging markets. Yahoo went about it in a different way, in the sense that they didn’t want to just establish a team to create the Arabic portal of Yahoo. They decided to go and acquire a company that has knowledge and interest in the regional content and has a strong understanding of user experience in the region. This is why Yahoo bought Maktoob at the end of last year. With this, Yahoo acquired a big repository of knowledge that Yahoo will rely on in terms of establishing a presence in the Middle East.

So for the time being, we are creating a Yahoo portal for the Arab world. We are expanding into different markets, and we are building a new team now to manage our media properties or our media channels. So we are now expanding in Egypt, Morocco and Saudi and we are creating different initiatives for the Arab region.

Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Are your initiatives region-wide or country specific?

Sokkari: Our initiatives are both region-wide and submarket specific. We are very much interested in providing content for the whole Arab region, and there are lots of culture and common traits that bind all users in the Arab world. But at the same time, we are interested in certain sub regions. So we treat the whole region as a big environment or cultural pool, but at the same time we are trying to create an enhanced and more locally relevant experience for submarkets.

Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: How different is the environment in the Arab region from the West, i.e. America and Europe?

Sokkari: It’s a very different environment in the sense that the nature of the competition is different. The maturity of the market is different; the understanding of the different layers and how we interact with them is very different. To give you an example, when you go and try to create a cooperative or an initiative with a media company in the West, it is not something new to them. You don’t need to educate them on the importance of digital media or the different business models that exist there. They have an understanding of it. You will be able to pick and choose the model that suits both parties. In the Arab region, there is still a need to educate the market. There is still a need to get people to understand models that we can work with. I think it’s something we have to work on. We have to join our forces to create an environment we can all work within: An environment that business, public initiatives and personal initiatives can collaborate in to create an information environment that can beneficial to anyone.

Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Are you finding it easy to hire people from this region to create these initiatives?

Sokkari: There is a lot of talent in the region. I wouldn’t say it is difficult to hire people in the region. On the contrary, there is an abundance of talent in different markets. This doesn’t mean we’ve reached saturation in terms of the availability of the people with knowledge, understanding and experience. But I think over the past few years, people have come up with various ideas, and local educational institutes have created different curricula to address the market’s needs.

Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Other than just translating information from Yahoo in America into Arabic, is there something new the company is doing?

Sokkari: We are not a translation service. We are not in the business of translating what is available in our platforms in other markets. We work with local content producers. We work with media production companies. We do our best to surface and serve the best content for the region across our portals. We will be working with freelancers and we will commission people to produce content for us. So the bulk of our material is not coming from the West, it’s material that is originally produced in the region.

Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: There are a number of other large Internet companies that are breaking into the MENA region. How is Yahoo different?

Sokkari: I wouldn’t be able to make a comparison with everyone in the market. Our model is very different in the sense that we do base our experience on aggregating content from local media production houses. We work directly with the users. Maktoob has been known for its forums and user-generated content. That is now an integral part of Yahoo and there is nothing similar to that in the rest of Yahoo. It’s very unique to the region, but it became Yahoo because Yahoo acquired Maktoob and that became a part of the [company.] These forums have served the Middle East for quite a long time together with Modawanat Maktoob (Maktoob Blogs). This is genuine Arabic content formed within the Arabic cultural context. It is not imported from the outside, and Yahoo didn’t come to the region with the intention of recreating the models that they have created in other markets. It actually did the reverse, which is to encompass a regional experience and build around it the tools that are used globally by Yahoo. That makes us very very different.

Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Yahoo has always had a strong base in the MENA region. Its communication tools are very popular — has that continued?

Sokkari: Yes, I mean we have a very large base of users who have Yahoo mail as their e-mail service of choice, and have Yahoo Messenger as their [online chatting] tool. That has been growing, and I think it will continue to grow, with the support that we will have for the whole information experience, by producing content and surfacing content in news, business, sports and entertainment. There are new digital platforms we are creating. Hopefully we will soon have cloud sourcing that will serve the region, from the region itself.

Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: What are your plans for video content? Will it be different from what we are seeing on YouTube and Google Video?

Sokkari: We have two different types of video experiences. We have the video experience that is similar to what you see in YouTube and Google, which is the user-generated content. People select their favorites clips, upload them and expose them to the rest of the community that is using this specific platform.

We have another platform that we created recently called Video Taht Al-Talab (video on demand). This platform is more structured and we work with professional providers for that content. We have Rotana [the largest Arab entertainment media company, owned by Saudi prince Al Waleed bin Talal] and we have different channels for Al-Jazeera and we are working with other video providers. It’s a slightly different experience because you know what you expect to see. We have Al-Resalah [an Arabic Islamic satellite television channel] for example. So these are structured programs and structured experiences based on the material we have acquired from media publishing houses.

Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Are these videos created solely for Yahoo?

Sokkari: These are videos that have been aired on television and now are available on this digital platform. We are making it possible for people to access them, and those who missed the opportunity to watch on television are able to now see it on the Yahoo digital platform. With the exception that this is Arabic, and Hulu is American, it is a similar experience. You wouldn’t be able to access Hulu from here and it doesn’t have Arabic content.

Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Google is always offering new features to their services, either through its e-mail client or through their Google Labs website. Is there something similar for Yahoo?

Sokkari: I think that what Yahoo is providing is an integrated experience. Yahoo is one of the few places where you go and log in, and you will be invited to use your Google e-mail account in order to log into Yahoo. We do acknowledge the experience people are having on Facebook, on Twitter, on Google and we don’t see that our relationship should be based only on competition. We also try to make sure that our users would like to enjoy the content that we have, and want to access the platform that we have, and access the services we have, so that they integrate their experiences with what we have in Yahoo. So if you go to the link on the front page of Yahoo, it invites you to go to a special page where you can design your experience and you can use your log in credentials on Google to integrate your experience on Google with Yahoo as well.