- Mobile subscriptions: 83.2m (Largest in the Middle East)
- Internet penetration: 55%
- Facebook users: 58%
- Mobile penetration: 110% – 143% (2014 – 2017)
- Smartphone users: 8 million
- A country with a very strong engineering culture but lacks business skills when it comes to startups.
- A country with political highs and lows – although recent political changes have made it more prone to reform and reconciliation with the Western world.
Iran Mobile Market
At an Iran networking session, I had a very interesting conversation with a fellow attendee about the growing scope of Iran’s startup scene. Before I left to catch another presentation, he stopped me with a smile. Reached into his pocket, he pulled out his latest iPhone 5 and asked me for my Facebook name to keep in touch. I couldn’t help but notice he had a better phone than I did.
Mobile connectivity and Iran goes together like pizza and New York (or Chicago, depending on where you’re reading this from). This is probably not surprising given that Iran is in fact the largest mobile market in the Middle East, with 83.2 million mobile subscriptions and 8 million smartphones in 2012. This is evidently a large market of untapped Candycrush users, especially since a wide range of sanctions, some covering iPhones, were recently lifted by the US Treasury Department. Of course, it should be noted that these sanctions did not stop many Iranians, like my above friend, from getting their hands on the latest Apple products.
This mobile market is only going to expand even further, with a mobile penetration rate of 110% that is set to increase to 142% in 2017.
Social Media in Iran
When it comes to Internet presence, all it takes is a quick look at the numbers to show that Iran has more online users as Bahrain, UAE, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Yemen and Jordan combined. Contrary to popular belief, these aren’t just government-sponsored accounts that troll the Internet, but one of the largest organic communities in the world. In fact, Iran has the world’s largest blogosphere relative to its population, with nearly 25% of users running a blog and another 21% of users that read or contribute to forums at least twice a day.
Number of Internet users in millions in Middle-East and North Africa, 2012
In a country where social media is frequently attacked and blocked by the government, roughly 60% of internet users still access their Facebook accounts through proxies. As evidenced in countries like China, any government suppression of social media tends only to increase the population’s technological sophistication in bypassing artificial barriers.
Most ironically, there are parts of the Iranian government itself that seem to be aware of the importance of being social media savvy, with the Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif maintaining a popular Facebook page with over 900k likes. For comparison, the British Prime Minister David Cameron has a paltry 250k likes.
Yahoo! CEO Marissa Meyer would also be heartened to know that Yahoo! is kicking ass, with 63% of Iranians preferring Yahoo! Mail to Gmail’s 32% or Hotmail’s 2%.
A New Iran
All in all, Iran is no longer the Iran we knew from the 80s. Even in politics, the 2013 elections has brought in a reformist president, with a significant reduction in tensions between Iran and the Western powers as a result of a series of progressive nuclear deals. Although Islam is obviously still the official religion, there is a great deal less emphasis on formality, such as dress code, as it prepares itself to adapt to a new position in the world.
It is no wonder to hear how Diasporas have related their interests in coming back to Iran to grow businesses while potential emigrants are growingly hesitant to leave what is steadily being identified as a significant emerging market. The educated tech-savvy youth have always seen the government’s attempts of technological control as a means to practice creative hacking. With growing liberalization, increasing resources and a huge mobile potential, it will be very interesting to see how Iran will take possession of mobile technology in the coming years.