Notes from CIRS’ The Digital Middle East: Working Group I

Cross-post from The Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar’s Center for International and Regional Studies (CIRS) website. NB: I am fortunate enough to be involved in this project.

CIRS held the first Working Group on “The Digital Middle East” research initiative on September 27-28, 2014. Academics from various backgrounds gathered for this first meeting to discuss their research findings and papers around the Digital world in the Middle East. The topics ranged from the effects technology has had on the Arab uprisings to state measures being undertaken to incorporate technology into everyday life.

Opening the discussion, participants focused on how the socio-political landscape of the Arab world has been changing due to the spread of the Internet. In places such as Egypt and Iran, youth have taken to technology to express their discontent towards political regimes, trying economic conditions and social injustices. The decentralized nature of the media model has led to mass social movements arising in several Arab states, helping facilitate in the fall of several regimes and the severe weakening of others. In the Gulf states, digital anonymity in places such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait has provided an outlet for the youth to articulate themselves online without fear of reprisal. As a result, political experiences were no longer isolated to the offline world, they were incorporated into digital form having been able to transverse physical, cultural, and national boundaries.

People’s instantaneous connections on social media have encouraged academic focus on civil engagement frameworks and the creation of online civil societies that are both inclusive and transnational. In the case of Egypt for instance, online activism has radically affected the nature of mediated experiences since 2011. Prior to the establishment of video sharing and communication platforms, coverage of political events was heavily reliant on television and print journalism. But during the Arab Spring, in certain states social media allowed for the most reliable coverage of events due to the impact of state censorship on traditional media forms. During the Arab uprisings, cyber communities also were made possible by the work of individuals that would spend a substantial amount of time online, collating and contributing crucial information through various digital platforms, without monetary compensation. Discussants voiced their interest in understanding how the nature of information transmittance into the digital world has had an effect on labor theory of value in relation to free labor.

The events of the Arab uprisings have also instigated changed patterns in political behavior in various social groups, especially among women. Engaging in the digital landscape in the Middle East has proven to be a liberating experience, forging alternative collectivities defined by a common, greater cause and uninhibited by definitions of gender, class or race. However, while social movements may initially emerge online, a physical space is still necessary for civic action to occur. During the uprisings women took to the streets alongside their male counterparts; yet, sexual harassment and various other grave violations during protests still took place in great numbers, outlining the disparity in behaviors that still exist in the offline world.

It is important to note that women’s activity online also extends to gaming and game development. Recent published reports on videogame consumption in Europe and America show that female gamers far outnumber males. The trend of female gamers is also on the rise in the Middle East, tangible proof of which can be seen in the recent phenomenon of Saudi Arabia’s annual female-only gaming convention. Participants at the working group noted that even though a digital divide still exists between the genders, the expedited evolution of the digital world has given users more of a stake in shaping alternative discourses on gender in the region.

Working Group members also discussed linkages between videogames and activism. Recently videogames have become places of encounter in the digital landscape, where users engage with one another in a non-physical space. Interviews conducted with producers and users of videogames show that they do not perceive videogames as having the potential to influence thought. However, state initiatives in Iran show otherwise, with the launching of the Iran Computer and Video Game Foundation created with the intention of portraying positive Muslim identities in videogames. The traditional narrative in videogames produced in other parts of the world often portray Muslim characters as terrorists and villains, whereas the Iranian foundation aims to portray Muslim characters in a more favorable light while also improving the videogame economy by supporting local game development. Access to videogames in the Middle East is a relatively simple process, due to the lack of robust copyright laws. The illegal nature of these pirated copies leads to a lack of recorded sales, which in turn affects the gathering of quantitative data on gamer demographics such as age, gender, income level, and time spent playing. Questions that arose from this discussion called for more quantitative and qualitative research on user profiles and needs.

Issues of intellectual property infringement are widespread in the Middle East, due to the lack of a unified copyright law, creating a myriad of issues surrounding this topic. Considering that the globalization of media culture has not been accompanied with equivalent access to media, people in the Middle East infringe on copyright out of convenience and comfort. Such behavior can affect software designers greatly because it restricts developers from selling their products in a fair market. However, for educational purposes, software piracy has contributed greatly to the education of younger generations by giving them free access to expensive software that they could train and learn from.

Working Group members also discussed the role state actors have had in the changing face of the digital world, choosing to develop once offline activities such as commerce and governance into electronic format. Naturally, the growth of political activity and online activism has also caused states to rethink their methods of authoritarianism, leading to acts of state censorship targeting social media sites, such as in the cases of Iran and Turkey. This has led to much debate about the role technology plays within existing power structures in state and society.  This innovative technological behavior in the Middle East is indicative of growth in access and usage of the Internet, yet limited statistical analysis is available to fully understand this phenomenon.

Commerce has always played an integral role in strengthening and sustaining Middle Eastern societies both historically and at present. With the advance of technology, commerce has taken a different form in the shape of online shopping. In 2013 approximately a third of GCC residents accessed the internet only to shop, a 7 percent increase from the year before. The e-commerce experience in the Gulf has also made use of various digital platforms, created initially for sharing pictures and communication purposes, to selling products online. The change in cultures of consumption has been aided by the development of digital technology, yet evident gaps in the e-commerce model, such as efficiency and growth, still need to be addressed and accounted for.

In terms of e-governance in the Gulf, attempts have been made in recent years to use technology as a way to improve information and service delivery to citizens. Practically, this proved to be harder to implement as issues of transparency conflicted with Gulf government’s initial commitment to e-governance. Discussants problematized the centralist nature of Gulf states as being an obstacle for e-governance, especially since citizens are often suspicious of various state initiatives and often are too fearful to fully engage with the state and its agencies online.

Article by Haya Al-Noaimi, Research Analyst at CIRS

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