March 2012
By Mohamed Hassan

Mohamed Hassan holds a BA in Foreign Trade. He was first introduced to localization when he joined Arabize in 1998, where he has worked as an accountant, a DTP specialist, project manager, client relations manager and most recently business development manager.



Arabic in a nutshell

With more than 300 million speakers around the world, Arabic is a language that certainly can’t be dismissed by global organizations. Yet, many companies struggle with Arabic localization, the language’s right-to-left-format as well as other specialties that provide lots of challenges.

Arabic is one of the most widely used Semitic languages. It is an official language in 25 countries/states, mainly in the Middle East region. It is spoken by about 374 millions, making Arabic the fifth most-spoken language in the world, based on the number of speakers. It is also one of the six official languages of the UN.

A brief history of the Arabic language

Arabic is the only surviving member of the North Arabian languages used in the fourth century and is a descendant of the Classical Arabic language of the sixth century. The Arabic language was preserved because it is the language of Islam’s holy book “Al-Qur’an” and Islamic prayers cannot be completed without correctly reading parts of “Al-Qur’an”. Arabic is also used in prayers in some Christian churches in Arab regions.

Arabs now use the Modern Standard Arabic, which is the language derived from the Classical Arabic of “Al-Qur’an”. It is the language taught in schools and universities, and used by the media as well as in varying degrees in business and government.

There are different spoken dialects among Arab countries to the extent that Arabs from the Gulf may not understand their peers from Morocco when they use their spoken dialects, but this does not apply to written Arabic. Modern Standard Arabic is the one written language that every Arabic person can understand.

The Hijri calendar (Muslim calendar) is a lunar calendar that consists of 12 lunar months, which makes a year of 354 or 355 days. The Hijri calendar is used as an official calendar in some Arab countries and is used to determine the date of many events and holidays in Arab and Muslim countries.

Weekends in Arab countries are different from Europe and the U.S.. The majority of Arab countries have Friday and Saturday as a weekend, others Thursday and Friday. Friday is a common weekend day across all Arab countries because Friday is a holy day for Muslims. Accordingly, the week starts either on Saturday in some countries or on Sunday in others.

Cultural aspects

Arab communities represent the majority of the Middle East region and these communities have a common distinct culture developed mainly by language, religion and major traditions of a conservative nature. There are differences in the level of openness between Arabic countries. Some are open, the majority is moderate, and others are conservative. Different levels of openness are mainly represented within specific categories of the communities and regardless of these differences in openness there is still a common ground of traditions across all Arab countries. There are some cultural restrictions on types of content and media, and in some countries these restrictions are not merely cultural, but also legal.

Arabic culture is intrinsically linked to Islam, therefore, conservative values should be carried over into any advertising or marketing strategy that is to be implemented in Arabic cultures. For example, ads should focus on the quality and functionality of a product instead of making comparisons with other products.

Linguistic challenges

In accordance with the above mentioned factors, localization of content requires taking special care of sensitive issues like photos, gambling, nudity as well as some other kind of content that is not acceptable for the majority of these communities. So, the localization team takes on the critical role of bridging the cultural gap between Western and Arab communities, encouraging mutual understanding and resolving conflicts.

Localization and translation into Arabic requires understanding both the linguistic and cultural differences between Arabic and Latin languages. There are some notable features that differentiate Arabic from Latin languages:

  1. The writing direction is right-to-left (RTL), horizontally.
  2. Arabic is a bidirectional language (BiDi), which means that in one sentence there may be both Arabic and Latin words each flowing in their correct direction RTL and LTR.
  3. Arabic requires logical-to-physical transformation algorithm where text is entered in logical order and the output appears in a physical order. Unicode layout algorithm is applied (Bi-Di).
  4. The Arabic keyboard has to have two languages Arabic and English.
  5. More than one key stroke may be used to write one letter.
  6. The Arabic alphabet contains 28 letters plus 8 diacritics called in Arabic “Tashkeel”.
  7. The diacritics are used for correct pronunciation since the same word may have different meanings or tenses.
  8. Diacritics are typed after each respective letter and appear above or underneath the letter. Font type affects their display.
  9. Arabic has no capitalization, alternatively single/double quotes may be used to compensate the absence of the capitalization feature in Arabic.
  10. The Arabic letters may be linked or separate; in initial, final or medial position; or isolated. One word can contain five linked letters. Letters may also acquire different shapes according to their position in the word. Moreover, two letters may be combined to give one shape.
  11. The fact that Arabic letters are linked to form words leads to another fact that acronyms and abbreviations are not supported in Arabic.
  12. Two numbering formats are used in Arabic. Contrary to Arabic letters, numerals are written left-to-right. The reading order of numbers whether Arabic or Hindi is also left-to-right (LTR).
  13. There are two formats for calendars: Gregorian and Hijri (Islamic Lunar year).
  14. Nouns have more than one form: singular, plural, dual. Each form differentiates between masculine and feminine. In other words, Arabic has six forms of the noun.

Technological challenges

Having a totally different nature compared to Latin languages, Arabic faces many challenges when it comes to technology. It usually requires special handling on all levels, starting from the layout of the software windows to the workflow system. The direction of layout items (dialogs, buttons, scroll bars, rulers, columns, menu bars and tables) has to be reversed; to be right-to-left aligned. In some cases, photos and images require flipping. In addition, most software used, whether for localization or for desktop publishing, is Latin languages-oriented. This entails creating workarounds to solve issues.

Coupled with the fact that Arabic has a different nature in handling, some tools do not support BiDi languages. This poses extra challenges. DTP work has always been a major concern in Arabic as it requires intensive labor. Automatic features made for Latin languages usually have to be done manually on Arabic. Glossary sorting, indexing, links & cross reference creation are good examples when speaking about manual work. Furthermore, some testing features for errors (duplicate hot keys, spelling checks, corrupted characters, translation quality, etc.) are not working in Arabic or do not give an accurate result.

In terms of machine translation, Arabic translation quality is poor. Up until now, many attempts have been made for a proper machine translation tool, but the results never met the expected level. Being a highly inflectional, complex language at both the morphological and syntactic levels, it becomes difficult to adapt tools used for other languages to translate Arabic texts. As tools are also underdeveloped, words may be incorrectly translated, translated in a disparate manner or missing the context.

In addition, to the above-mentioned challenges, some standard character sets do not support Arabic. Consequently, Arabic characters don't appear correctly. Unicode and UTF-8 are the most common encoding standards that fully support Arabic. The latest version of Unicode includes rules for the correct display of BiDi languages.

Arabic business culture

To conduct business in the Arab world, it’s equally important to understand the Arabic business culture, which has its own set of unspoken rules and expectations. Neglecting these rules and customs of the region can be detrimental to your business.

A conscious awareness of how the Arab culture is different from other cultures is essential for business and to facilitate client relations, media training, and message appeals. Arabic communication relies on symbols, emotional resonance and language used to create social experience. Arabic culture is a high-context culture which depends on how much meaning is found in the context versus in the language code. Thus, the listener must understand the contextual cues in order to grasp the full meaning of the message. The Arabic culture also prefers indirect, ambiguous communication styles, and words may be tied more to emotions rather than concrete realities.

Business opportunities

There is a rising demand for e-commerce and Arabic content services in the Arab world. According to Google, only 2% of web content is in Arabic, although Arabic speakers account for 5% of global Internet users. The majority of investments that emerge in the IT sector are related to developing content in Arabic and promoting e-commerce. In addition, there are also other fields with opportunities for growth, such as animation and mobile apps. There is a huge potential for the growth of Arabic mobile applications and localization in the MENA region (Middle East and North Africa) due to the following reasons:

  • Most mobile applications today do not support Arabic encoding or Right-to-Left text.
  • Mobile apps with Arabic UI will be increasing rapidly as smart phones (iPhone and BlackBerry currently lead the region’s market for smart phones) are growing in the Arabic market. Smart phones will have a 50% market share in the region by 2015 for mobile devices.
  • iPhone, BlackBerry and Android support Arabic reading and typing. Google is working on native Arabic support for Android.
  • Google has promised the development of a paid Android market for the MENA region, as a free app market is already available.
  • Mobile application usage and downloads in the Arab world: 50% from Nokia, 30% from Apple phones.
  • Saudi Arabia is the number one mobile broadband community in the Arab world based on subscriptions per 100 inhabitants.

The Arabic market is classified one of the fastest growing markets in the world. The number of Arabic Internet users has grown by 2,500% since the year 2000, and currently Arabic is the seventh most important language on the Internet based on the number of users. The Arabic market has an increasing demand of IT hardware and software, and lots of investments are made in sectors such as education, infrastructure, health and real estate. Arabic governments are annually investing billions of USD on IT, automation, e-learning, e-government, and Arabic content programs.

Recent revolutions (Arabic Spring) in many Arab countries were initiated by youth and are expected to bring up new revolutionary governments that will tend to re-construct their countries during the next few years. The youth and middle aged people who used the latest technologies in initiating and managing the revolutions are expected to use the same level of technology to build their dream countries.


Page 1 from 1
#2 essay writing service reviews wrote at Fri, Jul 14 answer homepage

Very nice of sharing. Recently I had been looking for this type blog . I am very happy by seeing your post and I got several ideas from your story. Looking forward to getting your next story .Thank you.

#1 Ryan wrote at Fri, Jan 08 answer

To manage Arabic localization, a good idea would be to use the translation management platform which has support for RTL languages and a very nice user interface to translate the software strings in a team.