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Yahoo! announced today that it plans to buy the biggest online community in the Arab world - Maktoob.com - for an undisclosed sum.

The Dubai-based online portal claims to have 16.5m users throughout the region.

"This acquisition will accelerate Yahoo!'s strategy of expanding in high-growth emerging markets where we believe Yahoo! has unparalleled opportunity to become the destination of choice for consumers," said Yahoo! boss Carol Bartz.

She said the firm’s takeover of Maktoob.com, as well as its other investments in the region, meant that Yahoo! would be delivered to users in the Arab world with “relevant local language content, programming and services”.

Accordingly, Yahoo! was also quick to point out that such an acquisition represented something of a challenge for the company.

“We… recognise the Middle East is deeply complex, a complexity mirrored in the online world, and that it will present certain challenges. As an internet pioneer in the emerging markets, we’ve learned important lessons and we’re committed to responsible global engagement,” said Yahoo in a corporate blog post on its Yodel site.

“This means being sensitive to local laws, customs, and norms while also protecting and promoting the rights of our users. We believe our engagement in the Middle East can be a positive force for people by increasing access to information, supporting a thriving marketplace for the exchange of ideas, and bridging local, regional, and international communities.”

Sunnyvale, California-based Yahoo!, which finally signed a search deal with Microsoft last month that brought the company’s long-developed independent search engine to an abrupt standstill, also reckons there’s revenue to chase from advertisers in the region.

The web outfit said it would initially debut Arabic versions of Yahoo! mail, messenger, search and its homepage - which was recently given a Web 2.0 facebooklift. In the future it plans to serve up news, sports and finance in local versions too.

“No other global company has made this kind of investment in local relevance for the Arab world,” it proclaimed.

Maktoob.com’s Arabic/English web-based email service was founded in 2000 by Samih Toukan and Hussam Khoury.

The acquisition is expected to complete in the final quarter of 2009 when Maktoob.com will become a wholly-owned subsidiary of Yahoo!. Its current general manager Ahmed Nassef will stay on at the firm. He will report to Yahoo!’s emerging markets boss Keith Nilsson.

Yahoo! said that the remaining Maktoob Group companies, which include Souq.com and cashU.com, will be renamed the Jabbar Internet Group and headed up by Toukan. ®

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