ICT and freedom in the Middle East: The best and worst

Stereotypes are everywhere—but stereotypes of the Middle East tend not to include phrases such as “my, what free and open political systems they have!” or “I would invest in the flourishing ICT industry there.” And, as with most stereotypes, ideas about Middle Eastern politics and technology apply better in some places than others.

To get an idea of how countries with varying levels of political and economic freedom are faring in the ICT sector, I used data from the Economic Intelligence Unit, Freedom House, and The Heritage Foundation, each of which compile a yearly ranking of freedom indicators in the world’s countries. Using an average of all their scores, I found that Israel, Lebanon, and Turkey are currently the most free countries in the Middle East, with Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Syria taking the lowest spots—and their ICT situations don’t always follow exactly the patterns you might expect. Iran and Saudi Arabia actually have nicely-developed infrastructure, despite their lack of freedoms—though Israel and Lebanon have a distinct advantage in the actual development of industry.

The most free ICT in the Middle East

green-thumbs-3#1: Israel

It will not come as a huge surprise to anyone that Israel heads up the list of free countries in the Middle East—and, coincidentally, it also leads the region in economic success stories. Its secular government and good political/economic relations with the West give it a sizeable advantage in the ICT field, with almost no restrictions on access to information, a high level of private domestic business activity, and plenty of foreign investment. In some ways, comparing it to the rest of the Middle East is like comparing figs and, well, some other kind of Middle Eastern fruit that is laughably different. Israel is an obvious outlier on most measures, but that is precisely what makes it noteworthy.

Israel is also home to what many call “Silicon Wadi” (Arabic for valley)—the second-most-important tech cluster in the world (after, you guessed it, Silicon Valley). In fact, it might almost be more accurate to say that Silicon Wadi is home to Israel—it actually covers much of the country, with varying levels of concentration.

In the 1960s and 70s, Israel, due to its volatile political situation, spent a great deal on military R&D, which ended up jumpstarting a successful technology industry. Later, it took off in the world software market, and now houses R&D departments from companies like Facebook, Google, IBM, Oracle, Microsoft, Cisco, and more. High levels of emphasis on education, a Western-friendly market, and good old chutzpah have gotten Israel a long way, and despite regional instability, nothing seems likely to derail it. 

green-thumbs-2#2: Lebanon

Despite its difficulties with Hezbollah and a long history of political tension, Lebanon is rated as the second most democratic country in the Middle East by the Economic Intelligence Unit (which translates to 98th worldwide, tied with Turkey). It is also the only country in the top three freest that is a member of the Arab League.

Though it is classified as only “Partly Free” by Freedom House’s measures of internet and press freedom, it is 36th overall in the world for internet freedom (third in the Middle East), despite a marked decline since 2013/14 due to some political internet censorship that broke their longstanding tradition of non-interference. Nonetheless, internet penetration in 2014 was 70.5%, jumping from only 20% in 2008—a sign that their efforts to improve infrastructure have paid off.

With the penetration rate significantly above the region’s average and general speeds of around three megabits per second (low for the Western world, but good for the Middle East), Lebanon’s infrastructure is good enough to support a growing domestic and international ICT industry. And is looking at some massive improvements in the future, including upgrades that could increase internet speeds by a factor of six or more.

The government has a good record of maintaining a free market economy. And, like Israel, it has proven to be a friendly business environment for foreign companies (though bureaucratic corruption and red tape are still unfortunately prevalent), and is home to many of the same ones—such as Microsoft and Cisco. Though its “partly free” media rating may raise some red flags, online censorship, while legal in Lebanon, is practiced quite rarely (recent events being an exception). It remains one of the freest countries in the Middle East—as well as one of the most technologically developed. If it continues its development trend, the future remains bright for Lebanon.

green-thumbs-1#3: Turkey

Unfortunately, though it still makes the top three, Turkey has been losing its freedoms at a rate that could soon make its placement on this list obsolete. In the past year over 11,000 websites have been blocked (though Twitter and YouTube were unblocked in mid-2014) and limits on content range from the political (such as censoring news sites reporting on the Kurdish conflict in the south of the country) to the moral (such as the general ban on LGBT sites).

One recent case even included the arrest and imprisonment of a blogger accused of “publicly insulting the religious values of the population”. Despite its secular government and recent economic boom (which may actually be more of a bubble), Turkey is looking less and less like a place where ICT can thrive.

Nonetheless, levels of government spending on ICT have been quite high for some time, and to some extent it is working: since 2001 the market for ICT has grown substantially, with 45.1% of Turkey’s population connected to the internet in 2013. The potential of domestic ICT industries, however, is up for debate.

Hardware is where Turkey stands out in terms of production, but much of that consists of assembling imported parts. ICT firms may develop with the rest of the economy, especially as it has been emerging as a regional communications hub and outsourcing location, but as it stands right now, Turkey’s centrally planned R&D system (known as TUBITAK) is doing the lion’s share of the work, and dwindling political freedoms could discourage the investment Turkey knows it needs to reach its self-stated goal of developing the sector.

The least free ICT in the Middle East

red-thumbs-1#3 Iran

While Turkey is on the decline, Iran, one of the Middle East’s most oppressive countries, may be facing a brighter future. Its infrastructure is highly developed [PDF], despite myriad sanctions, and it’s getting better all the time—in fact, its ICT budget has doubled [PDF], going from 7.5% of the national budget to 15% in the past two years.

This is in part due to their president, Hassan Rouhani, whose more liberal policies may act as a good counterweight to the dominant religious/political officials. In an interview with NBC in 2013, Rouhani declared that: “In today's world, having access to information and the right of dialogue, that is sharing ideas, is the inalienable of all people including Iranians”. Though some have criticized him for not following through on other promises, he has been consistent in his actions towards internet freedom.

Nonetheless, roughly 50% of the world’s top 500 websites remain banned in Iran (including YouTube, which no doubt has contributed to what I can only assume is a thriving black market for cat videos), and the government still controls users’ access and monitors their activity more heavily than almost any other country in the world.

A Sharia-driven morality-based legal system and a conservative, closed-off political atmosphere mean that ICT in Iran will likely remain underutilized for some time—especially if it completes its country-exclusive national network.

Regardless of what happens though, you can be sure that the government will need to drive it; “private” industry in Iran is still overwhelmingly tied to the religious/political complex, making a truly vibrant ICT sector unlikely in the near future. The long-term outlook, though, if Rouhani succeeds, is better than it has been for some time.

red-thumbs-2#2 Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia’s brand, online and offline, is that it is the center of Islam. Accordingly, while it has built one of the Middle East’s best technology infrastructures, and has ongoing initiatives to improve it, it is also on Reporters Without Borders’ list of “Enemies of the Internet” due to a strict application of Sharia law and repression of political discussion.

In accordance with Sharia’s prohibitions against things like pornography, it mostly uses a blocking approach rather than active monitoring. Nonetheless, monitoring exists, so you’re better off keeping your mouth shut if you have an alternative political opinion and don’t include “being flogged” or “being in jail” on your list of hobbies.

Like Iran, much of Saudi Arabia’s technological progress [PDF] is centrally planned, but with more vital privatization and free trade measures, it has been even more successful in building decent infrastructure. 60% of the population is online: 8.5 million total, which is the largest internet population in the Middle East. The average speed is around 10.5 megabits per second, which is not shabby when weighed against the worldwide average of about 3.9 Mbps and makes it one of the best connections in the region.

Telecoms are being privatized, and, as the largest ICT market in the Middle East, it has a lot of growth potential. Domestic industry, though, remains underdeveloped, and Saudi Arabia’s extremely oppressive social and political stance towards the internet is unlikely to help improve that. Nonetheless, at the same time, the country is used to dealing with the West and has managed to make itself a relatively welcoming target for investment despite its lack of freedoms; it may pull ahead even without political reforms.

red-thumbs-3#1 Syria

Syria has been in a bit of trouble for some time now, with civil wars and the Islamic State putting consistent pressure on Bashar Al-Assad’s regime. Rather than serving to distract the state from information technology regulations, though, the political situation has increased the already widespread blocking and monitoring. Though the government is technically secular, Sharia law is still a source of legislation, and the government has certainly taken advantage of it to crush dissidents.

While roughly 26.2% of their population is online, the infrastructure is well below the regional average and censorship policies are through the roof. Like Saudi Arabia, access to political discussion is aggressively blocked and monitored, along with any number of other moral and often subjective pieces of content.

Syria has repeatedly been named one of the most dangerous countries for journalists (yes, I’ll be crossing it off my list of vacation destinations) as it is not only quite turbulent, but it monitors political activity online and often hunts down those responsible. In addition, the telecoms themselves are the most heavily regulated in the region, making innovation and access to markets extremely difficult.

The 10+ country-wide internet blackouts over the past few years may point to a decaying ICT infrastructure, though it is more likely that they were government-initiated (possibly by the US government, if new information from Edward Snowden is true). The question of a domestic ICT industry in Syria will have to wait until one group or another actually takes control of the economy. It certainly has potential, but the sheer instability of the area, as well as the massive legal obstacles, will likely make actual development difficult for some time to come.


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Andrew Braun

Andrew Braun has an eclectic taste in music, a crippling addiction to change, and a time-consuming learning habit. He has held jobs as a writer, a web designer, a farmhand, a handyman, and a teacher, and plans to travel the world, teach, write, and work towards a master’s degree in political science.

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