When it comes to the Arab digital books market the field is surprisingly competitive, with Dhad, Booklava and Kitab Sawti among the competitors to relative newcomer Storytel Arabia.

Last year Dhad raised an undisclosed sum in additional funding from Raed Ventures, Vision Ventures, 500 Startups and Saudi angel network Oqal.

And that in turn came hard on the heels of a $6 million investment into Kitab Sawti by Bonnier Ventures, Paltel Group, Kaaf Investments and others.

But thus far the focus is on a handful of the wealthier MENA countries – UAE, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait – and a meaningful pan-Arab service has yet to emerge. That’s something we’ll likely see long before this new decade is over, but at this early stage in MENA’s digital books evolution there simply isn’t the pan-Arabia infrastructure in place to make this happen.

When it does happen it’s most likely telcos will play a central role, which brings us to the headline of this post – the deal struck late December between Starzplay, a video streaming service, and the telco Asiacell, with a focus on the Iraqi market.

Of course, digital video is an easier package to sell than digital books, so no surprise that video arrives first, but will digital books be far behind?

Divest yourself of any notion that Arabs aren’t interested in books. TNPS headlines like these tell a very different story:

And for digital books, tapping into these book-loving millions should be relatively easy. In the core Middle East we start 2020 with 175 million Arabs online, and when we look at the North African Arab markets we can add another 123 million internet users.

In Iraq, Asiacell already reaches 14 million consumers, and we start 2020 with 20 million Iraqis online, even though the country has yet to reach 50% internet penetration.

Iraq provides an exciting opportunity for publishers and digital books operators, and the Starzplay-Asiacell deal may be the wake-up call needed to start expansion.

StarzPlay VP of sales and business development, Raghida Abou-Fadel, said:

One of our objectives as a business since we launched in the region was to establish a clutch of partnerships with telecommunications providers so that we could offer the best value deals to customers, with flexible payment options through existing mobile contracts.

This latest partnership with Iraq’s Asiacell underlines our commitment to this strategy, offering enhanced customer service through hard bundled packages for subscribers. We’re also pleased to announce our continued penetration of what is a fast growing and important consumer market as we progress in achieving our expansion plans across the Middle East and North Africa region.

Given the recent funding maneuvers by Storytel –

and given Storytel’s long history of global expansion –

we must consider Storytel the most likely candidate to step outside the comfort zone of the UAE, but I wouldn’t rule out any of the others.

If not this year then next, but a pan-Arabian digital book market is just a matter of time.