Digital Corridors

Digital Corridors: Why the Middle East Is A Growing Hotspot for Digital Exchange

Europe is a major conduit for Middle East digital traffic, but local MENA capacity is expanding

Matthew George
Martin Atkinson

Our first “Digital Corridors” post explored how interconnection links Latin America business ecosystems to the world via U.S. hubs. In a similar manner, European metros, particularly the FLAP markets (Frankfurt, London, Amsterdam and Paris/Marseille) are a gateway for digital traffic from the Middle East. In fact, 83% of the Middle East’s internet bandwidth is still connected to Europe according to TeleGeography.[i]

The submarine cable map below highlights this reliance on European destinations for traffic exchange. Middle East traffic is “tromboning” to servers, content origins and Internet Exchanges in Europe, with European and Global Tier 1 network service providers (NSPs) acting as upstream carriers for regional incumbents.

Source: TeleGeography[ii]

However, many emerging EMEA markets, such as those in the Middle East/North Africa (MENA), are also beginning to increase local capacity to improve routing efficiencies and lower costs by caching content and digital media in region that is delivered from Europe via subsea cable systems. By moving content from remote locations in Europe to local carrier-neutral data centers hosting a private and public Internet Exchange peering ecosystem, service providers can reduce the cost of tromboning data across regions and improve performance by lowering latency between end users and the content origin.

IDC - A Cloud-First Approach for a Value-Driven DX Strategy for the Middle East Region

According to IDC, Middle East and North Africa (MENA) organizations that do not invest in cloud solutions are expected to suffer greater operational risks, even though they may have put off such investments due to security concerns.

Learn More

Content and digital media is a major driver for digital traffic in the Middle East

Of the 83% of total Middle East capacity routed to Europe, nearly 80% of it is content and digital media (CDM), particularly video. And, like other regions, the COVID-19 global pandemic has accelerated demand for all forms of at-home content consumption for work, education and entertainment. Many regional network service providers (NSPs) host content caches for global content providers such as Google and Facebook, and also directly connect to content delivery network (CDN) nodes from operators such as Cloudflare, Akamai and Limelight. Points of presence (PoPs) in strategically located data centers can support the lowest latency reach to this increasing volume of eyeballs.

Gaming and e-sports are also driving demand across the region, where people aged 24 and under make up close to half the population. Video games revenue is expected to reach an estimated $4.1 billion by 2024, while online and downloaded games are set to increase their market share from 81% in 2019 to 91% in 2024.iii While e-sports is still a small part of the entertainment and media spend, the absence of live events during the pandemic is accelerating its growth. E-sports revenue is projected to grow by 23.3% CAGR between 2019 and 2024 in the region, driven by increases in media rights, sponsorship and digital advertising.iii

EMEA digital corridors

The map below illustrates two major digital corridors for the Middle East. These include:

  1. Turkey to Europe
  2. Saudi Arabia to Europe

We will also take a few smaller corridors that are growing fast:

  1. United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Oman to Europe
  2. Egypt to Europe
  3. Intra-region corridors

Source: TeleGeography[iii]

Turkey to Europe corridor

With nearly 48% of the region’s international internet bandwidth,i Turkey is the largest consumer of internet services at the edge of the Middle East region. The bulk of that traffic flows through Germany (Frankfurt) and Bulgaria (Sofia), followed to a lesser extent by the Netherlands, but two corridors (Turkey to France and Turkey to Bulgaria) are growing fast.

Source: TeleGeography[iv] (Note: Chart represents the 2020 provisioned capacity (in Gbps) between Turkey and various remote, predominantly European, destinations.)

With the opportunity to interconnect to 45+ of the world’s leading organizations, our Equinix International Business ExchangeTM (IBX®) data center in Istanbul, Turkey (IL2) is a key hub linking the Middle East to Europe along this digital corridor.

Saudi Arabia to Europe corridor

As the second largest digital corridor in the region, Saudi Arabia has a high rate of internet penetration (95.7%) and social media users (79.3%), a trend of interest to brands, agencies and media companies alike for advertisements. Watching online videos is the top activity, with 96.6% of Saudi internet users consuming video content each month.[v] Unlike Turkey, Saudi Arabia’s traffic is distributed more evenly across the FLAP markets (Germany, U.K., Netherlands and France), with Italy coming into play as well. It is also becoming an important hub for intra-regional traffic with the UAE and Oman.

Source: TeleGeographyiv (Note: Chart represents the 2020 provisioned capacity (in Gbps) between Saudi Arabia and various remote, predominantly European, destinations.)

UAE and Oman to Europe corridor

The UAE lags behind Turkey and Saudi Arabia in consumption of internet services but still routes the majority of its traffic through Europe. At the same time, the country is growing as an interconnection hub both intra-regionally (with Saudi Arabia and Oman) and internationally to non-European locations such as Singapore.

Dubai has been home to Equinix IBX centers in the UAE since 2012. The UAE Internet Exchange (UAE-IX), hosted in our Dubai facilities provides public peering opportunities with global networks, content providers and supply chain partners.

Source: TeleGeographyiv (Note: Chart represents the 2020 provisioned capacity (in Gbps) between the UAE and various remote, predominantly European, destinations.)

Oman is also still somewhat reliant on the FLAP markets, but it is quickly becoming an international hub for digital traffic exchange in its own right. The Muscat IBX data center (MC1) and Internet Exchange, a joint venture with Omantel, are strategically located in the heart of the digital ecosystem connecting Asia, Africa and Europe. Muscat’s four submarine Cable Landing Stations land 11 large international cable systems today, which will rise in the coming years to 13 or 14. This confluence of cable systems with carrier-neutral colocation, interconnection and peering has accelerated the growth of digital corridors linked with Oman during the four years 2016-2020, including Singapore (5,900% growth) and Pakistan (1000%+ growth), and this is expected to continue.

Source: TeleGeographyiv (Note: Chart represents the 2020 provisioned capacity (in Gbps) between Oman and various remote destinations – less centered on Europe than any other Middle Eastern country.)

Egypt to Europe corridor

Egypt exemplifies traditional Middle East dependency on Europe for digital traffic exchange. Due to growth in international submarine capacity passing via Egypt and lack of carrier-neutral facilities supporting regional network diversity, traffic with France increased 453% over four years (2016-2020), with the U.K. and Italy growing by 278% and 270% respectively. For these reasons, it looks like Egypt will continue to route traffic into European content hubs for some time to come.

Source: TeleGeographyiv (Note: Chart represents the 2020 provisioned capacity (in Gbps) between Egypt and various remote, predominantly European, destinations.)

Intra-region corridors are emerging

The economic benefits of a digital economy have been reported in many studies, but it depends on having low-latency, reliable and affordable end-user access to content and applications. By adding local capacity, regional service providers can avoid the high cost and latency of routing traffic through remote locations as illustrated in the diagram below.

Based on Figure 6 in the Internet Society’s report “Middle East and North Africa Internet Infrastructure.”[vi] (Note: High international transit and local connectivity pricing stifle digital transformation and filter through to cost of broadband and mobile services, affecting economic growth as measured by GDP.)

As a result, some intra-regional digital corridors are beginning to emerge as shown below:

Source: TeleGeographyiv (Note: Chart represents the 2020 provisioned capacity (in Gbps) between each location as shown.)

Interconnecting EMEA digital corridors on Platform Equinix

Providing fast, reliable access to content and digital media is becoming an increasingly important driver for digital business between Europe, the Middle East and Africa. With interconnected, network dense locations on five continents, Platform Equinix® is uniquely positioned to help businesses traverse these EMEA digital corridors to manage demand, lower cost and improve performance. On Platform Equinix, it’s easy to cache content locally and interconnect with all the clouds, networks and partners you need to serve your customers.

Read IDC’s “A “Cloud-First” Approach For A Value-Driven DX Strategy Middle East Region,” to learn more.

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[i] TeleGeography, Global Internet Geography Regional Analysis: Middle East, 2021. [Gated]

[ii] TeleGeography, Submarine Cable Map, last updated April 2021.

[iii] TeleGeography, Middle East Telecommunications Map 2020, Internet.

[iv] TeleGeography, Global Bandwidth Research Regional Analysis: Middle East, 2021. [Gated]

[v] We Are Social, Hootsuite, Digital 2021: Saudi Arabia.

[vi] The Internet Society (ISOC): Middle East and North Africa Internet Infrastructure, Sept 2020.

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Matthew George Director, Equinix Research Group, EMEA
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Martin Atkinson Senior Manager of Peering and Interconnection EMEA
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