Multiple geographies of the Arab Internet

Authors


Abstract

The Arab world plays a relatively minor role in the rapidly changing geographies of global cyberspace. This paper explores the multiple geographies of the Arab Internet. First, it addresses Internet penetration rates, which averaged 7.8 per cent in 2006, although these varied widely among and within the region's countries. Between 2000 and 2006, the number of users jumped by 830 per cent, indicating these geographies are in rapid flux. It then examines the telecommunications infrastructure of the Middle East and North Africa, including fixed and mobile telephone networks and Internet cafes. Third, it turns to the reasons why the Internet has experienced relatively late adoption among Arab countries, including the dominance of the Latin alphabet, high access costs reflecting state-owned telecommunications monopolies, low Arab literacy rates, and restrictive gender relations that keep the proportion of female users low. The paper pays special attention both to government censorship of the Arab Internet as well as resistance to such controls and attempts to utilize the Internet counter-hegemonically. Finally, it explores the impacts of the Internet on some Arab societies, including the opening of discursive communities of politics, the Palestinian–Israeli conflict, Iraq and electronic commerce.

Introduction

In 2006, more than one billion people used the Internet, making it a tool of communications and research accessible by roughly 16.7 per cent of the planet (http://www.internetworldstats.com). A sizeable body of literature has charted the origins, growth, nature and impacts of cyberspace, its uneven social and spatial diffusion, and its multiple impacts, ranging from cybercommunities to electronic commerce (Kitchin 1998; Crang et al. 1999; Jordan 1999; Castells 2001; Kellerman 2002; Crampton 2003). This literature, however, has remained overwhelmingly focused on the economically developed world.

Roughly 300 million Arabs comprise about 5 per cent of the world's population. With an average Internet penetration rate of 7.8 per cent in 2006, or 23 million users, the Arab world lags well behind the world average, particularly industrialized regions. There exist to date remarkably few systematic attempts to understand the Arab world's Internet geography. Understanding the nature and impacts of the Internet in the Arab world is made difficult in part by the widespread Orientalist misconceptions about Arabic culture and society found in the West: like all societies in the age of intense and rapid globalization, Arab societies are complex mixtures of the traditional, the modern and the postmodern (Fandy 1999). Considerable diversity may be found among Arab states in terms of Internet usage. Whereas more than one-quarter of the populations of prosperous and relatively moderate societies such as the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Bahrain have Internet access, in destitute countries such as Yemen and Sudan the rate hovers around or below 1 per cent. Typically, Arab states with the best-developed Internet systems are those that have diversified their economies from petroleum, have competitive telecommunications markets, relatively equalized gender roles, numerous cybercafes and high rates of wireless phone usage.

This paper opens with a review of the telecommunications infrastructure and relatively poor status of the Internet throughout the Arab world generally; although penetration rates have grown recently, this region lags far behind the West and even most developing countries. It considers the reasons that underlie the relatively late adoption of the Internet among Arab countries, including the dominance of the Latin alphabet, high access costs reflecting state-owned telecommunications monopolies, low Arab literacy rates, and restrictive gender relations that keep the number of female users low. Next, the paper explores Arab governments’ censorship of cyberspace: the Internet has often been hailed as stimulating a global tidal wave of democracy, offering multicentred, non-authoritarian avenues for creating, dispersing and acquiring information. This rhetoric is rendered problematic when we examine what happens when the alleged horizontality of the microelectronics revolution and digital democracy confront the highly vertical politics of the Arab world. In many Arab states, repressive governments fear the emancipatory potential of the Internet, which allows individuals to circumvent tightly controlled media. Third, it turns to the potential and actualized impacts of the Internet on Arabic societies, including e-commerce. The conclusion examines the potential political implications of the Arab Internet. The Internet serves a variety of counter-hegemonic purposes in civil society, including human rights groups, gay and lesbian Arabs, and ethnic opposition to governments such as Morocco. There are cautious grounds for hoping that cyberspace offers a Habermasian community of shared discourse that widens the sphere of public debate in this region (Anderson 2003).

The Internet infrastructure and users in the Arab world

The social and spatial distribution of Internet users varies widely across the Arab world (Table 1). In 2006, roughly 23.3 million people in Arab countries (including non-Arabs, e.g. Berbers and foreign nationals) logged on. In absolute terms, the largest numbers were to be found in Egypt, by far the most populous Arab country, which had 5 million users, Morocco (4.6 million), Sudan (2.8 million), and Saudi Arabia (2.5 million), followed by Algeria (1.9 million) and the United Arab Emirates (1.4 million). The average Internet penetration rate in 2006 was 7.8 per cent, and was highest in the Persian/Arabian Gulf states (Figure 1), particularly the UAE, which, with 36.1 per cent, rivalled the rates found in many countries of Europe. Like many Gulf states, the UAE has a large immigrant population from South and Southeast Asia; Privacy International (http://www.privacyinternational.org; Accessed 16 February 2007) estimates that 60 per cent of that country's users are Asian. Among the seven emirates that constitute the UAE, Dubai and Abu Dhabi have taken the lead in facilitating Internet growth (Kalathil and Boas 2003). Kuwait (26.6%), Bahrain (21.1%) and Qatar (20.7%) also exhibited significant rates of usage. More impoverished Arab countries, in contrast, exhibited much lower rates, ranging as low as 0.1 per cent in Iraq and 1.1 per cent in Yemen.

Table 1.  Internet users in the Arab world
CountryPopulation 2006 (millions)Internet users 2000 (thousands)Internet users 2006 (thousands)Users as % of population 2006% Growth in users 2000–2006
  1. Source: http://www.internetworldstats.com (Accessed 10 August 2006)

Algeria 33.0   50.0  1 920.0 5.83 740.0
Bahrain  7.2   40.0    152.721.1  281.8
Egypt 71.2  450.0  5 000.0 7.01 011.1
Iraq 26.6   12.5     36.0 0.1  188.0
Jordan  5.3  127.3    629.511.9  394.5
Kuwait  2.6  150.0    700.026.6  366.7
Lebanon  4.5  300.0    700.015.5  133.3
Libya  6.1   10.0    205.0 3.31 950.0
Morocco 30.2  100.0  4 600.015.24 500.0
Oman  2.4   90.0    245.010.1  172.2
Palestine  3.2   35.0    243.0 7.5  594.3
Qatar  0.79   30.0    165.020.7  450.0
Saudi Arabia 23.6  200.0  2 540.010.81 170.0
Sudan 35.8   30.0  2 800.0 7.89 233.3
Syria 19.0   30.0    800.0 4.22 566.7
Tunisia 10.2  100.0    953.0 9.3  853.0
United Arab Emirates  3.8  735.0  1 397.236.1  90.1
Yemen 20.7   15.0    220.0 1.11 366.7
Total300.22 504.823 306.4 7.8  830.5
Figure 1.

Internet penetration rates in the Arab world, 2006

Source: Authors

A highly significant feature of the Arab Internet is its very rapid rate of growth: for the region as a whole, the total number of users jumped 830.5 per cent between 2000 and 2006. This growth tended to be concentrated in countries with the lowest rates of connectivity in 2000, e.g. Sudan (9233%), Morocco (4500%), Algeria (3740%), Syria (2566%) and Libya (1950%) (Figure 2). These rates of growth brought 20.8 million new users on-line in the Arab world during this period; in absolute terms, these new users were found largely in Morocco and Egypt (4.5 million apiece), Sudan (2.77 million) and Saudi Arabia (2.34 million) (Figure 3). In general, rates of absolute growth reflected countries’ total population, although Egypt exhibited a lower relative growth rate during this period than did most Arab states.

Figure 2.

Growth rates in Internet users, 2000–2006

Source: Authors

Figure 3.

Absolute growth in Internet users, 2000–2006

Source: Authors

The distribution of ISP accounts (Table 2) mirrors the distribution of total population and Internet penetration rates. In 2006, there were roughly 6.56 million accounts distributed roughly according to national population size. The number of ISP providers varied markedly among countries, ranging from 1 in Yemen, Libya and, surprisingly, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates to a high of 38 in Egypt. The average number of users per account ranged from 0.6 in Qatar to 38.8 in Sudan, which reflects, inter alia, national educational levels, the affordability of Internet services, average family size, the number of Internet cafes, and so on.

Table 2.  Total IP accounts and ISP providers in Arab countries, 2006
CountryISP accountsISP providers
  1. Source: http://www.whois.sc/internet-statistics/country-ip-counts.html (Accessed 16 February 2007)

Algeria  140 80711
Bahrain  121 382 3
Egypt1 445 06038
Iraq   81 684n.a.
Jordan  218 72810
Kuwait  591 577 2
Lebanon  112 68716
Libya   34 988 1
Morocco  596 97011
Oman  239 496 1
Palestine   14 320n.a.
Qatar  260 257 1
Saudi Arabia1 399 29725
Sudan   72 152 1
Syria   38 930 2
Tunisia  107 332 5
United Arab Emirates1 062 918 1
Yemen   21 264 1
Total6 559 84936

Another measure of the Arab Internet concerns the number of webpages in each country's domain (as found by the Google search engine) (Table 3). In September 2006, Google listed 23.78 million webpages in the Arab world. Some of the most visible countries on the web included Saudi Arabia (3 370 000), Lebanon (2 930 000), Egypt (2 780 000) and United Arab Emirates (2 690 000). However, when assessed against the size of countries’ populations, visibility on the Web is manifested differently: for example, Bahrain (914 pages per 1000 people) ranks well above Saudi Arabia (143 per 1000). Impoverished countries such as Sudan and Yemen have a minimal presence on the Web, with 1.2 and 4.6 webpages per 1000 people, respectively.

Table 3.  Webpages in Arab country domains, 25 September 2006
CountryTotal Google pages in domain (000s)Google webpages per 1000 persons
  1. Source: Authors

Algeria   653 19.8
Bahrain   661914.2
Egypt 2 780 39.0
Iraq     0.3  0.0
Jordan 1 440272.6
Kuwait   907344.8
Lebanon 2 930649.7
Libya   320 52.2
Morocco 3 480115.3
Oman   299123.3
Palestine 1 150352.8
Qatar   361453.8
Saudi Arabia 3 370142.8
Sudan    41.6  1.2
Syria   671 35.2
Tunisia 1 930188.7
United Arab Emirates 2 690694.9
Yemen    96.2  4.6
Total23 780.1 79.2

The unfolding of the Internet in the Arab world is heavily conditioned by the extent and nature of the telecommunications infrastructure there, which generally is less well developed than in North America, Japan or Europe. The first Arab country to connect to the Internet was Tunisia in 1991. Kuwait established Internet service in 1992 as part of its reconstruction after the Iraqi invasion. Others followed suit, including Egypt and the United Arab Emirates in 1993 (Table 4), roughly the same year as the US White House. As late as 1997, Syria had only two ISPs, the Syrian telephone company and the Syrian Computer Society. The year in which the first Internet link was established, however, is a highly imperfect measure; in some countries with undemocratic regimes, democratization and mass access were only made possible several years after the first introduction. In Syria and Libya, for example, mass access only began after 2001.

Table 4.  Year of first Internet access
 First accessExtended to public
  1. Source: Kalathil and Boas (2003); Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (2004)

Tunisia1991 
Kuwait1992 
Egypt1993 
United Arab Emirates1993 
Saudi Arabia19941999
Jordan1994 
Bahrain1995 
Yemen1996 
Qatar1996 
Syria19972002
Iraq19982003
Libya19982001

A key variable throughout the world shaping Internet access is the telephone penetration rate (Table 5). Among Arab countries, Egypt, with one-third of the world's Arab people, has by far the largest number of telephone lines. However, the relative density of lines is more telling in this regard. Gulf countries such as Bahrain, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates tend to have the best-connected telephone systems, while the poorest Arab states such as Yemen, Sudan and Morocco tend to have the least access. Cell phone usage is roughly correlated with landlines, ranging as high as 71 per 100 people in the UAE (among the highest rates in the world). In many Arab countries cell phones have surged well ahead of landlines, indicating the potential to leapfrog old technologies in the development of the Internet.

Table 5.  Telephone penetration rates in the Arab world, 2003
CountryTelephone lines (000s)Lines per 100 peopleCellular subscribers (000s)Cellular per 100 people
  1. Source: International Telecommunications Union (http://www.ituarabic.org/arabbook/2004/Indicatros.pdf; Accessed 16 February 2007)

Egypt 7 75011.5 4 500 6.7
Saudi Arabia 3 50215.5 7 23831
Syria 2 10012.2   400 2.3
Algeria 1 872 6.0    88 0.28
Tunisia 1 14211.7   603.9 6.1
Morocco 1 127 4.1 7 33224.4
United Arab Emirates 1 09332.1 2 42671.4
Iraq   675 3.1  n.a.n.a.
Jordan   62211.3 1 32524.2
Lebanon   60016.3   81322
Libya   500 9.1    20 0.4
Kuwait   46025.5   32914.8
Palestine   316 9   265 8.5
Sudan   300 1.1    22 0.1
Yemen   291 1.7    27 0.1
Oman   23610.1   59325.5
Bahrain   17526.3   39058.4
Qatar   15322    8515
Total22 91612.326 457.926.7

Fibre optic lines are a key technology to the Internet, especially to high-speed access (Graham 1999). Fibre optic links to the Arab world consist of three distinct but interlinked systems. The Fiberoptic Link Around the Globe (FLAG) is a 27 300-kilometre cable connecting Asia, Europe and Africa, running through the Mediterranean and Red Seas. Additionally, the Africa ONE recently completed by AT&T will circumnavigate that continent, including Arabic North Africa. Third, the 1300 km Fiber Optic Gulf (FOG) cable project, which began service in 1998, connects Fujairah (UAE), Qatar, Bahrain and Kuwait, and is jointly owned by Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Qatar, offers a capacity of five gigabits per second (equivalent to 180 000 simultaneous telephone calls).

These regional systems are supplemented by national ones. In 2000, the United Arab Emirates created the Emirates Internet and Multimedia (EIM), a division of the national telecommunications carrier, Emirates Telecommunication Corporation (Etisalat), 60 per cent of which is owned by the government, which operates three dedicated international Internet links, all located in Dubai. Etisalat estimates the composition of its users as being 40 per cent private, 20 per cent schools, 30 per cent businesses and 10 per cent government agencies (http://www.American.edu/carmel/lr2962a/internet.html; Accessed 16 February 2007). In Saudi Arabia, the Saudi Telecom Company introduced ADSL (Assymetric Digital Subscriber Line) service in 2001. Complementing the fibre optic network are wireless satellite services such as ARABSAT and INTELSAT, which allow access to high-speed Internet services.

Because personal computer ownership rates are relatively low in the Arab world, and because ISP access charges are often high, most Arab Internet users rely upon Internet cafes for access rather than individual ISP accounts (Wheeler 2004). Their popularity varies among Arab countries. Jordan made the Guinness Book of World Records for the largest concentration of Internet cafes anywhere: more than 200 are clustered on a single street in Irbid (Wheeler 2006). Cafes are also popular in Algeria and Morocco, which have more than 3000 and 2120 of them, respectively (Table 6). Cafes are particularly important for those who lack dial-up access at home, and as Wheeler (2004) notes, they constitute ‘informal communities, where users come and go, activities are not measured and monitored, where the effects of Internet use are difficult to assess’. Users spend an average of 12 hours per week on-line, often in chat rooms. An important alternative to cybercafes is publicly-funded Internet community access points such as Tunisia's Publinet centres and Jordan's Knowledge Stations (Wheeler 2006).

Table 6.  Internet cafés in selected Arab countries, 2002
  1. Source: Wheeler (2006)

Algeria3 000
Morocco2 150
Libya  700
Syria  600
Jordan  500
Egypt  400
Tunisia  300
Kuwait  300
Saudi Arabia  200
Lebanon  200
UAE  191
Sudan  150
Yemen  120
Bahrain   90
Oman   80
Qatar   80
Palestine   60
Iraq   50

Obstacles facing the Arab Internet

The late introduction and slow growth of the Internet in the Arab world may be attributed to several intersecting cultural, economic and political factors. Loch et al. (2003) note that in order for technological diffusion to occur, it must be compatible with the local cultural climate. In the Arab world relatively few people have been trained to use the Internet.

One obvious obstacle is the widespread predominance of English and the Latin alphabet. The Arab Region Internet and Telecomm Summit of 2001 noted ‘there is a shortage of Arabic language content and Internet applications relevant to the region's existing and potential users’ (http://www.itu.int/arabinternet2001/conclusions.html; Accessed 16 February 2007). In Lebanon, for example, no Internet portals use Arabic, meaning its usage is limited to those who speak French or English. However, this problem may be gradually removed with the creation of software such as Microsoft's Arabic Office and the Sindbad browser produced by the Sakhr Corporation, which facilitates surfing in Arabic (Pons 2003).

A second issue that has delayed the diffusion of the Internet through the region is the Arab world's relatively low literacy rates (Table 7). There is considerable variation among countries in this regard, ranging from less than half of adults over 15 in countries such as Yemen and Morocco to above 90 per cent in Jordan. In general, literacy rates are markedly higher for men than for women. The impacts of the Internet in a culture that is predominantly oral must thus be viewed with caution.

Table 7.  Adult (age 15 and older) literacy rates in Arab countries, 2002
  1. Source: UNESCO (http://www.undp.org; Accessed 16 February 2007)

Jordan90.3
Palestine89.2
Bahrain87.9
Lebanon86.5
Kuwait82.4
Qatar81.7
Libya80.8
Saudi Arabia77.1
United Arab Emirates76.7
Syria75.3
Oman73.0
Tunisia72.1
Algeria67.8
Egypt56.1
Morocco49.8
Yemen47.7
Iraqn.a.

Conservative Islamic gender roles are a significant barrier to Internet access for most Arab women. In all Arab nations, the bulk of users are young men, typically in their teens or twenties, often college graduates and frequently single (Wheeler 2004). Thus, a significant access of the digital divide that has been largely overcome in the West (Warf 2001) remains firmly entrenched in Arab countries. While exact numbers of female users are difficult to come by, most observers hold that the proportion is roughly 20 per cent (http://www3.estart.com/arab/women/http://www.html; Accessed 16 February 2007). The low participation rate of women is one of the major reasons for the relatively low use rates of the Internet in the Arab world. Women's usage rates vary considerably among countries. In Morocco, for example, 31 per cent of Internet users are women (http://Haverford.edu/pscy/ddavis/inptpapr.html; Accessed 16 February 2007). However, in conservative Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia, women are essentially proscribed by social mores from entering Internet cafes unaccompanied by a male relative. The exclusion of women also reflects their relatively lower literacy rates, including fears that they will be exposed to pornography. However, the growing number of Arabic women using the Internet may empower them by providing a new public space for interaction, including anonymous roles in chat rooms, sources of helpful information and forums for discussions, fuelling a silent gender revolution. Indeed, some Arab women have even set up web logs (‘blogs’), much to the consternation of traditionalists (http://www.csmonitor.com/2006/0619/p06s02-wome.html; Accessed 16 February 2007).

A fourth factor that retards the spread of the Arab Internet is the relatively high costs of access to be found there. Costs of ISP service vary among countries, ranging from as little as US$20 for 30 hours per month (comparable to the USA) to as high as US$76 in Saudi Arabia (Table 8). Coupled with the low incomes and high poverty rates found in many Arab countries, this obstacle is often very significant. High prices also reflect the fact that in many Arab countries ISPs are not allowed to provide their own international gateways (Aladwani 2003). In Syria, for example, access costs until 2003 were more than US$2 per hour in a country in which per capita income averages US$110 per month. With limited access and competition, prices and subscription costs tend to be much higher than in Europe or the USA. In part, the higher prices can be attributed to the presence of telecommunications monopolies in a sector that Arab countries have not deregulated as much as in most of the world. For example, in 2004 the Qatari government granted the Qatari Telecommunications Company a 15-year monopoly on Internet service provision. Similarly, in Oman the government-owned OmanTel is the monopoly provider of fixed and mobile telephony services.

Table 8.  Cost of Internet access ($US for 30 hours/month), 2002
  1. Source: Dewachi (2002)

United Arab Emirates20
Kuwait33
Bahrain47
Iraq55
Saudi Arabia76
Egypt40
Syria72
Lebanon63

Despite the general tendency toward state-dominated monopolies, deregulation and enhanced competition have made limited inroads among Arab states, lowering Internet costs. For example, Jordan Telecom's monopoly ended in 2004. Saudi Telecom was privatized in 2005. In 2002, Bahrain adopted a Telecommunications Law that fostered competition in the sector, divested state control in Batelco as a shareholder, established a non-profit Internet Exchange to distribute data to Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and eased the censorship that had been in operation.

Some Arab states have attempted to facilitate public access by reducing access prices or introducing free ISP services, including Jordan and Lebanon. Oman's major carrier, OmanTel, facilitated the purchase of PCs through instalment payments.

In Yemen, telephone call centres have been successful, while in the UAE, relaxed government licensing requirements have led to the growth of Internet Surfing Centers (191 in 2001) in shopping centres and restaurants (http://www.privacyinternational.org; Accessed 16 February 2007). Egypt, in contrast, advocates multipurpose community telecentres. In 2002, Egypt launched its first free Internet service provider, Noor, and the Egyptian government's newly established Ministry of Communications and Information Technology passed the Free Internet Initiative to promote access within the country. The associated rise in users, making Egypt Africa's second largest Internet market (after South Africa), has been concentrated in Cairo, where 80 per cent of the nation's subscribers live.

Internet censorship in the Arab world

In addition to economic and cultural considerations, there are also serious political barriers to the growth of the Arab Internet. In authoritarian regimes with relatively weak civil societies, opposition to state control is often weak and ineffectual. The media in the Arab world is generally closely monitored and controlled by governments, either through explicit laws or via direct ownership in state monopolies. Newspapers, journalists and television stations may face harsh penalties for ‘slighting the Islamic faith’, blaspheming a royal family or president, inciting regime change or promoting immoral behaviour. Informal pressure is also common. Not surprisingly, these attempts to regulate the public's access to information extend into cyberspace (Human Rights Watch 1999).

Some Arab countries, such as Kuwait, Bahrain, Egypt, Morocco, Jordan and Lebanon, display relatively liberal approaches to Internet regulation that allows more freedom of expression than is found in the local news media. However, many Arab governments, particularly those not noted for being disposed toward democracy, are concerned about the freedom of information and speech that the Internet offers and may be openly hostile to it. Arab governments typically excuse their censorship on the grounds that they are protecting Islamic values and morality by banning certain websites. Sometimes this justification is linked to an alleged onslaught of Western decadence against Islamic values (Fandy 1999). The UAE Minister of Transportation, Ahmed Hameed Al-Taier, claimed that his government's filtering system

was the main reason behind the spread of the Internet in the country. Many people allowed access to the Internet inside their homes upon the condition that there be some sort of censorship to protect their families from websites offensive to their morality. (Arabic Network for Human Rights Information 2004)

Offensive sites generally are held to include pornography, homosexuality, drugs, gambling and atheism. However, Arab governments tend to be opposed to civil and political freedoms in general (http://www.hrinfo.net/en/reports/net2004/; Accessed 16 February 2007); autocratic regimes are afraid of their citizens having access to any substantive political information about the outside world. Censorship may also generate profits for the government, including limited potential access of customers to rivals of the state-owned telecommunications companies.

Propensity toward censorship is uneven across the Arab world, with the most active and acute censorship in Saudi Arabia. Public access to the Internet in the kingdom was made possible only when the state deemed that it could effectively control it; the entire Internet backbone network is state-owned. The Saudi state has erected extensive firewalls to control the flow of digital information. Internet cafes in Saudi Arabia are required to record the names of the customers and the times they arrive and depart, information that must be delivered to state security upon request; persons under 18 are forbidden unless accompanied by an adult. By royal decree, the King Abdul Aziz City for Science and Technology (KACST), a government-owned research centre, is the only portal through which ISPs can make international connections (http://www.unesco.org/webworld; Accessed 16 February 2007). This mechanism operates using commercial software produced in the United States, Secure Computing's SmartFilter (Lee 2004). Requests from Saudi ISPs to access the outside world must pass through state-controlled servers. According to the OpenNet Initiative (2004), in 2004 more than 400 000 webpages were banned by the Saudi regime (about 2.2% of all sites tested in a sample), the vast bulk of which pertained to adult material but also including some games, recreational sites, on-line shopping, Yahoo, America On-Line, and even medical websites that use words like ‘breast’, if only in a medical context. Access attempts to banned sites are logged by the state, which leads to widespread self-censorship.

Egypt's government, which has been generally lenient concerning the Internet, nonetheless created a new agency in 2004, the Department to Combat Crimes of Computers and Internet, to crack down on subversive Internet sites, and has arrested programmers, journalists and human rights activists for violating censorship standards. In 2001, the web master for al-Ahram Weekly newspaper was arrested for putting a poem online critical of the government. Despite that government's attempts to halt the printing of some books, many authors found alternative outlets on the Web (Gauch 2001). In Syria, access to Kurdish-language news websites in Germany is blocked. In Jordan, authorities banned the Arab Times website. The UAE sought to block a website based outside the country, the UAE Democratic Discussion Group (Kalathil and Boas 2003). Yemen's government ordered all Internet cafes to remove barriers between computers to ensure users lacked privacy when on-line, leading to a decline in the number of such establishments. In Tunisia, the government bans access to Hotmail, many Palestinian and Egyptian websites, and human rights websites; moreover, every ISP must submit a monthly list of its subscribers to the state-run censorship agency. In 2002, a Tunisian court sentenced its first cyber-activist, journalist Zohair Ben Said al Yehiawy, to 30 months in jail for criticizing the judiciary and police practices (http://www.hrinfo.net/en/reports/net2004/tunis.shtml; Accessed 16 February 2007). Tunisia's oppression led Reporters without Borders to criticize the United Nations’ decision to hold the 2005 World Summit on the Information Society in Tunis as a joke.

Arab Internet censorship has not gone unchallenged. As Warf and Grimes (1997) note, the Internet is a contested space in which hegemonic and counter-hegemonic forces play out contingently and unevenly. By banning some information on the Internet, Arab governments may decrease their credibility in their own subjects’ eyes. Unevenness in the cost and ease of access, as well as censorship, have led many users to log-on in other countries using proxy servers. Many Saudis, for example, use Internet sites in Bahrain, while thousands of Syrians use Internet hosts in Lebanon. As Lee notes,

Saudis dial up foreign Internet service providers, use Web sites that protect the user's identity or engage in a cat-and-mouse game with Web sites that frequently change their addresses to elude filters. (2004, 1)

In other contexts, resistance to government controls is more explicit, albeit rare. In Bahrain, government attempts to block the websites of opposition groups sparked protests and resistance (BBC News Online 2002; MacFarquhar 2006). Internet-based organizations like the Digital Freedom Network (http://www.dfn.org; Accessed 16 February 2007) have been making censored materials available online. Some Arabs turn to the Internet for relatively unrestricted news and information. Moroccans, for example, can find information posted on the Web by the Polisario Front and others who challenge the official Moroccan line on the Western Sahara (for example, http://www.arso.org; Accessed 16 February 2007). However, in a culture in which word-of-mouth carries more credibility than text on a screen, the substantive impacts of such webpages is difficult to ascertain (Kalathil and Boas 2003).

Many opposition groups rely on websites located outside of the countries with which they are concerned, often making use of diasporic Arab communities in Europe and North America. Anderson (1997a), for example, notes that the ‘cybernauts of the Arab diaspora’ find one another and establish communities of discourse by bypassing traditional gatekeepers found at home. In the war of ideas in cyberspace, powerful governments may find themselves brought to their knees by individuals: as Fandy puts it, ‘In the world of the internet, a homepage supported by an entire regime competes with a homepage maintained by perhaps only one college student’ (1999, 146).

Impacts of the Net, actual and potential

The uses to which the Internet is put in the Arab world resemble those found elsewhere, viz. email, web surfing, bulletin boards and chat rooms, and databases. However, the impacts of cyberspace in Muslim cultures is also likely to be markedly different from those in the West: given the culturally-specific context of community in the Arab world, in which group rights often supersede individual ones, the emergence of ‘virtual communities’ connected digitally has generated consternation among conservative circles, particularly in states ruled by despotic and authoritarian political regimes.

As a contested site of competing discourses, the Internet facilitates voices of both conservative elements supporting the status quo as well as groups seeking to change it. For example, cyberspace has been used by Islamic traditionalists to organize and promulgate their message (Sedgwick 2000). Despite widespread government censorship, the Internet offers the potential for cyber-resistance to authoritarianism. Marginalized political minorities, such as gays, have taken up the Internet, e.g. the Gay and Lesbian Arabic Society (http://www.glas.org; Accessed 16 February 2007) (Figure 4). In Egypt, Coptic Christians use the Internet to publicize their persecution at the hands of Muslim fundamentalists (Kalathil and Boas 2003). In Libya, groups opposed to the Qadafi regime have become the most popular type of website within the country (Arabic Network for Human Rights Information 2004). In London, the Muslim Brotherhood has sponsored websites critical of the Jordanian and Egyptian governments since 1998 (McLaughlin 2005). In Saudi Arabia, cyber-resistance to the Saudi state, often centred around criticism of the corruption endemic in the royal family, has arisen from pro-democracy groups such as the Committee for the Defense of Legitimate Rights (CDLR) and the Movement for Islamic Reform in Arabia (MIRA), which outline their concerns about the government's commitment to sharia, or Islamic law, attempts to recruit supporters, and offers links to human rights groups such as Amnesty International (http://www.islahi.net/; Accessed 16 February 2007) (Figure 5).

Figure 4.

Homepage of the Gay and Lesbian Arabic Society (http://www.glas.org; Accessed 10 August 2006)

Figure 5.

Movement for Islamic Reform in Arabia (MIRA) website (http://www.islahi.net/; Accessed 10 August 2006)

In addition, Islamic fundamentalist movements such as Hawali-’Auda, which previously relied upon faxes and audiocassettes to circumvent state restrictions on the flow of information, now heavily utilize the Internet (Fandy 1999). In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood utilized the Web extensively in its effort to gain representation in parliament, where it is the largest opposition party. Indeed, people seeking schooling in jihad can check http://www.al-farouq.com/vb/ (Accessed 16 February 2007), which belongs to the Global Islamic Media Front, which sponsors the Al Qaeda University of Jihad Studies.

The long-running conflict between Israel and the Palestinians has also found its way into cyberspace. The Israeli telecommunications company, Bezeq, never exhibited significant interest in serving the Palestinian occupied territories. Prior to the Oslo Accord of 1995, Israeli Military Order 1279 forbade Palestinians from using electronic transmissions for political purposes, and they were prohibited from using leased telephone lines (which are crucial to the Internet) for security reasons (Parry 1997). In response, Jerusalem Palestinians created a wireless network, PalNet, using microwave transmitters; this network has been subject to occasional interventions by the Israeli army. The Intifada spurred another round of growth in Palestinian Internet usage (El-Haddad 2003). In 2000, the Israeli government attempted to overload Hezbollah websites (Doyran 2000), leading to retaliation by hackers that closed the Israeli Foreign Ministry's website. Some attacks on Israel, including flooding sites with spam, originated in the United States. Israeli hackers in retaliation invaded the Hezbollah website and replaced its home page with an image of the Israeli flag and a recording of the Israeli national anthem. More constructively, Israel launched ArabYnet, an interactive Internet site oriented to Arabs that allows them to circumvent their governments’ depictions of Israel. With one million users per month, ‘ArabYnet is the most interactive news site on the Arab Internet’ (Diker 2003).

The situation in Iraq is complex. Under the regime of Saddam Hussein, although the country enjoyed reasonable connectivity via Intelsat and coaxial cable to neighbouring countries, Internet access was strictly limited (Ghattas 2002). In 1997, the Iraq government newspaper al-Jamhuriyya denounced the Internet as ‘an American means to enter every house in the world’ (Anderson 1997b). The First Gulf War largely destroyed the telephone network, which was concentrated in the vicinity of Baghdad. Prior to the 2003 invasion, the US military attempted to spam Iraqi Internet users via mass emails, only to find that the Iraqi government strictly limited and censored all incoming messages (Delio 2003). Following the US occupation and ensuing chaos, the status of the Internet in Iraq has been highly fluid. Despite assistance from USAID and Japan, the telecommunications infrastructure there remains unreliable and Internet usage among the lowest in the Arab world.

A rapidly growing application of the Internet is electronic commerce (‘e-commerce’), which reduces transactions costs for business-to-business (B2B) and customer-to-business (C2B) sales. Most Arab e-commerce is concentrated in the Gulf states and in Saudi Arabia, which generates roughly US$1 billion in e-commerce transactions annually (Pons 2003). As the most wired nation in the Arab world, the UAE offers access for foreign companies through Dubai Internet City, modelled after the Singapore Science Park, opened in 2000 and has attracted 1200 companies, including Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard and Oracle, making the UAE the leading Arab commercial centre of cyberspace (http://www.dubaiinternetcity.com/; Accessed 10 August 2006). The UAE's al-Lootah International University features the Arab world's first online degree programme (Kalathil and Boas 2003). Banks have also energetically adopted online services (Dudley 2001). In 1999, Bahrain's Batelco launched @ltijara.com, the Arab world's first real time e-commerce service, which expanded to include electronic advertising, credit card purchases, corporate registration and databases. The Saudis have followed the UAE's lead closely. The state-owned oil monopoly Aramco has initiated on-line procurement of inputs via the ISP OgerTel. In 2001, Saudi Arabia hosted the Arab world's first international conference on e-commerce. In addition to B2B functions, finance and schools, other Internet applications include job-matching sites (e.g. CareerEgypt.com).

Obstacles to the growth of Arab e-commerce included the relatively lower use of credit cards, lack of secure on-line transactions and the lack of a critical mass of users. Aladwani (2003) notes that most Arab e-customers, including business managers, rank the lack of Internet security and intellectual property rights to be among the greatest hindrances to the rise of e-commerce.

E-government in the Arab world is in its infancy. Dubai pioneered an e-government portal in 2001 (http://www.dubai.ae; Accessed 10 August 2006) which allows access to services and payment of bills (Kalathil and Boas 2003). Egypt has a central government site (http://alhokoma.gov.eg; Accessed 10 August 2006), which provides information but not interactive services. The Saudi state set up Web browsers to carry prayers from Mecca and Medina, and established a web portal to facilitate processing of paperwork for those visiting Islamic holy sites. To the extent that e-government improves states’ abilities to deliver services, it may increase satisfaction with existing regimes; conversely, in societies in which public sector jobs are often allocated through patronage networks, increased efficiency of e-government may minimize the growth of public employment.

Concluding comments

The Arab world lags behind the West and much of East Asia in terms of Internet development, with an average penetration rate of only 7.8 per cent; nonetheless, this amounts to roughly 23 million users. However, Internet usage is growing rapidly among many Arab states; in some countries (e.g. Syria, Sudan), it has approached 400 per cent per year. Between 2000 and 2006, this growth brought 20.8 million new Arab users on-line. To a large extent, Arab Internet access reflects the uneven patterns of wealth and poverty to be found there; Arab countries far from constitute a homogeneous whole, and there are wide variations among and within them. The Arab Internet exhibits the most intense development in the oil-rich states of the Gulf, particularly the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain, which have made concerted efforts to construct an infrastructure dedicated to the unfolding of cyberspace. More impoverished countries with low literacy rates, such as Yemen, Sudan and Egypt, exhibit much lower rates of usage. Arab users are overwhelmingly males, generally young and relatively well educated. The heavily patriarchal cultures of the region have generally restricted Internet access by women. The growth of a new generation of tech-savvy Arabs – in contrast to their frequently illiterate elders – may well portend significant changes in the future as they rise to positions of prominence and influence within the state and the private sector. As Kalathil and Boas note,

the current generation of Saudi youth (which is large and growing rapidly) is better educated, more literate, and more aware of the outside world than ever before and is likely to want increased access to information on the Internet. (2003, 116)

Because of the expense of ISPs and shortage of landlines, most users in the Arab world rely on Internet cafes for access; low-paid foreign workers, typically from South and Southeast Asia, are a significant clientele. The presence of government-owned or regulated telecommunications monopolies has contributed to high access prices, which restrict growth.

To the extent that the Internet symbolizes the information-intensive economies of contemporary globalization, it offers the potential for economic growth, diversity and upgraded human capital (Nour 2002). The impacts of the Internet are diverse and still in their earliest stages. To some extent, despite rigorous (yet often contested) government censorship, users may access sources of news and information outside of government-controlled channels. Just as the advent of printing broke the control of the ulema over knowledge (Sedgwick 2000), so too does the Internet allow the ideological hegemony of existing states to be undermined. Several dissident groups employ cyberspace to voice their opinions, allowing non-state actors to challenge officially sanctioned views of governments. Thus, the Internet offers an important forum with minimal barriers to entry that allows authors to publish unmoderated works cheaply and without official approval, which may be its most important implication (Anderson 1997b). To this extent, the Internet offers liberatory potential in a part of the world not often known for its commitment to democracy. The fact that this medium allows groups to target segmented audiences belies the notion that the Internet inevitably generates homogeneity.

More broadly, the Internet may be expanding the public sphere within the Arab world (Anderson 1999). As Habermas (1979) argues, communications are central to the social process of consensus and truth construction, through which individuals and communities of interest partake in the public, discursive interpretation of reality. Of course, the Internet will not automatically generate independent effects by itself (a view that subscribes to naïve technological determinism), for its information is filtered through the pre-understandings that people take with them on-line. Yet by bringing ever larger numbers of people into contact with one another, the Internet offers unprecedented opportunities for expanding the sphere of politics, and may redefine the public sphere in societies long dominated by autocratic governments by pointing out alternative models of authority. However, such comments need to be viewed with caution: Kalathil and Boas (2003), for example, note that the authoritarian states of the Middle East have weathered numerous crises and argue that they are likely to co-opt digitally-based opposition.

Arab e-commerce is still in its infancy, yet great potential for growth in this domain exists. Gulf states such as Bahrain and Qatar, which have sought to diversify their economies from petroleum, have taken the lead in this regard. Information-intensive sectors such as banks have played a prominent role as well. However, barriers to Arab e-commerce include insufficiently well-developed credit markets and the absence of regulations guaranteeing security and privacy in cyberspace.

Geographies of the Internet are necessarily complex and change with astonishing rapidity. In the Arab world, the multiple spaces generated by digital networks are reflected in the labyrinthine and rhyzomatic topologies that unevenly infiltrate various nooks and crannies of societies gripped by intense globalization, political and religious upheaval, and rapid demographic change. When we move beyond the simple dichotomy of off-line versus on-line, it becomes clear that the Internet is having, and will have, numerous, largely unpredictable consequences. Given the rapid changes facing the Arab world – globalization, rapid population growth, volatile oil prices, rising political unrest – the onslaught of the Internet will likely generate a variety of impacts in the foreseeable future.

Acknowledgements

The authors thank several anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments.

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