Mobile phone user base in the Middle East and Africa (MEA) is now second only to that in Asia-Pacific, with “just over 606 million people (in this region) to have at least one mobile phone this year, and the total will pass 789 million in 2019”, according to a report released Wednesday.

eMarketer, the independent market research company, came out with the findings on digital trends in tandem with Starcom Mediavest Group (SMG).

The UAE easily retains its regional standing as having the highest per capita mobile phone penetration, estimated at 80.6 per cent of the population and going up to 82.8 per cent by 2019, as per the report, titled ‘Global Media Intelligence (GMI).’ Saudi Arabia is second, with 72.9 per cent.

Of more importance to marketers and advertisers, the smartphone user in the Middle East and Africa is looking to end the year at around 106 million, higher than projections made last year.

“Smartphone usage is climbing more rapidly and we have revised our forecasts upward,” said a statement issued by eMarketer.

While 106 million smartphone owners sound impressive, that is still only 18 per cent of the overall mobile phone user base in these markets. “In 2019, that share is expected to reach 22 per cent, as the number of residents with a smartphone approaches 174 million,” the report states.

Two categories of users are driving usage — those trading up from more basic feature phones, and new subscribers — particularly the younger, affluent ones — entering the market at a time when smartphones are affordable for them. ‘Tablets are also proliferating, though cost is still a barrier for many consumers,’ eMarketer stated.

In terms of current smartphone usage, 91 per cent of the UAE population used one last year, while in Saudi Arabia, the figure was 79 per cent, according to Ipsos estimates. (In Kuwait, usage rose from 49 per cent to 86 in two years.) “As mobile usage increases globally, so does the need for data and precision marketing to fuel advertisers’ ability to get closer to the point of purchase through e- and m-commerce,” Kate Sirkin, Executive Vice-President and Global Director of Audience and Measurement at SMG, said in a statement. “Mobile continues to penetrate the global market, with 61.1 per cent of the global population using mobile phones in 2015. That number is expected to increase to 67.1 per cent by 2019.”