Arabization and BiDi

A school of fish observe with awe the bubbles spew out of a creature with great dorsal protrusions and finned feet. A look behind the plasticized eye lids and the culprit is revealed, a human being at the lowest depths of the ocean! Similarly, a formation of birds choke with surprise; a palm tree is casually growing at 1500 feet, in coastal Dubai, United Arab Emirates. The rooftop gardens of gigantic architectural spectacles allow this anomaly, and the skyline of Doha, Qatar is equally garnished. Expectedly, due to the accumulated wealth, these two countries have the highest percentage of population using Internet of the Arab nations, and 1181.5% average growth of internet usage between 2000 and 2011. The rest of the Arab world is not far behind, usage in Somalia having grown 53,000%! Interestingly, Arab nations mostly in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), use the Arab script which is both a challenge and an opportunity for web developers targeting this giant market. Before looking at the challenges, a last trivia is Saudi Arabia’s proportion of mobile phone users: 1st  in the world at 188%!

Producing content for MENA is a topic in itself. Considerations include the permeation of Muslim religion in society, laws and norms that control media outlets, banning of certain political parties, a strong sense of tradition, heavy use of symbology, and high-context communication. Specific regulations include monopoly legislations, employment laws, and foreign investment laws. However, as you lay back in an armchair in that rooftop garden studying for your business meeting, make note that considerations are changing by the minute. The Arab Spring which has already affected Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Syria, and Bahrain continues to spread. This entails new symbols of a younger generation, but also the booming of social media and VoIP, technologies heavily dependent on language translation.

Besides being culturally aware, localization companies must be highly technical. The only respite is the dominance of Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) and the fact that dialects don’t influence written Arabic. However, dependent on the country, two different calendars are used (the Gregorian and the Hijri, based on lunar cycles), numbering formats can differ, as well as naming conventions. The biggest dilemma is the right-to-left (RTL) direction of Arabic written text. Two support this, and still include other languages, devices must be bi-directional (BiDi). To add to the confusion, numbers are still written from left to write, and Hebrew, the other main RTL language, places questions marks, units, and commas differently than in Arabic. Additionally, there is no capitalization, letters are connected, and no acronyms or abbreviations exist. Even more technical, flowcharts, tables, and dialogs must be flipped to remain compatible. For display compatibility, the only character-sets fully supporting Arabic are Unicode and UTF-8. For typing, the cursor has to correctly delineate the beginning and end of letters. This is made more difficult if the input is made with a Latin keyboard. Finally, with Software Development Kits (SDKs) RTL can be enabled easier than ever before, merely with code and resource enabling.

While Saudi Arabians are more intent on viewing and typing Arabic script than Qataris or Emiratis, these last countries turn towards the rest of the world, with Qatar readying to host the World Cup in 2022, and Dubai transforming itself into a major tourist pole. Arabic will coexist more than ever with Latin script and software and internet will have to cope with the dual-compatibility in the coming years. You can contemplate these remarkable facts and figures as you descend the 100 stories or so from the palm tree-lined penthouse, barely unattainable to even our friends the birds, and return from dizzying heights.

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Category: Foreign Language

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