Mind the Gap: Understanding tech bans and outages in the Middle East

Messaging and chat apps have often found themselves banned or blocked in the region, but the events of the past 12 months might mean change is coming.

Many countries in the Middle East have a complex relationship with technology, and with messenger and chat apps in particular. On the one hand, they recognize the economic opportunities that digital communication and transformation can create. On the other, they worry about the potential impact of such rapid and uncontrolled conversations, especially in countries where dissenting views are not always openly tolerated.

This tension plays out in a number of ways across the region. One recent example; Clubhouse, Silicon Valley's app du jour found itself recently banned in Oman which said it didn't have a license to operate in the country – while there are concerns that the social audio platform may soon be blocked in other countries, potentially stifling online debate and discussion in the region.

The region has had a historically problematic relationship with many VoIP and messenger services, many of which have been banned on either a temporary of permanent basis. However, some of these blocks were overturned with both Oman and UAE lifting blocks on popular apps like Zoom during the crisis, and so far these blocks have not returned. For all this, multiple underlying issues remain.

How we got here: a brief history of tech blocking in MENA

During the Arab Spring, a decision by the Egyptian government to "turn off" internet and cellular services highlighted how authorities in the region might try to stifle dissent and opposition. Although the move was ultimately unsuccessful, with President Mubarak stepping down just two weeks later, it offered a playbook that several regimes have followed since.

According to the digital rights group Access Now, 29 countries purposefully shut down or throttled internet services last year. That list included eight Middle East countries: Yemen, Jordan, Algeria, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. Of the 15 shutdowns seen in the region, Yemen was home to half of them.

Alongside widespread online outages, specific services can also be targeted.

In Yemen, Houthi rebels have purportedly criminalised the use of WhatsApp, mirroring a similar move from 2016. That same year, Turkey temporarily blocked Facebook, Twitter and YouTube following an attempted coup.

Turkey's problematic relationship with social media continues to be in the headlines after the introduction of legislation regulating social media content.

Platforms with more than one million daily users must open offices in the country or face stiff penalties. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Periscope, YouTube and TikTok have all fallen foul of these rules, and are now stepping into line. Furthermore, local offices are expected to remove any content the Turkish government deems offensive within 48 hours.

Outside of this, business-oriented products like Skype, Google Meet/Hangouts, BlueJeans, Slack and Zoom have also endured challenging relationships with many administrations in markets across MENA.

During the early stages of the pandemic, some of these constraints were lifted across the region, but it remains to be seen whether this will remain the norm.

Why services are blocked

There is no single rationale for these policies. Some of it stems from a nervousness about platforms being used to criticize policies or public figures. This is also accompanied by fears that online environments might promote discussion of subjects seen as taboo or at odds with the local culture.

But, as Northwestern University in Qatar has shown, it's not just governments who hold this opinion. Many Arab nationals believe the internet should be more tightly regulated for culturally sensitive and political content.

In Jordan, Algeria, Sudan and Syria, governments have taken to blocking access to apps and services during specific times of year – in particular, when schools are holding exams. 

SEE: Guide to Becoming a Digital Transformation Champion (TechRepublic Premium)

While this has been explained as a move designed to prevent students from cheating – by discussing questions (and their answers) with one another – NGOs have expressed concern that the moves inhibit freedom of expression and also impact on other users who are reliant on these services.

The motives behind the banning of VoIP and other video calling services is also open to question. Often wrapped up in questions of security, licensing and regulation, this issue can be looked at more cynically. With many leading telecom providers in the region owned by the government (or they are the major/majority shareholder), it's arguably in their interest to have people pay for these types of services that are often offered by apps for free.

Unless you use a VPN, typically the only internet-calling services you can use are apps that are often unique to a specific country in the region. This can be especially problematic for expats in places like the UAE, who cannot access services like WhatsApp video or FaceTime, that are used by the friends and family "back home." 

Looking Ahead

Preventing people from using apps or even accessing the internet may have some benefits for the governments that make the decisions, but there are significant costs involved, too.

Internet shutdowns are estimated to have cost the Middle East and North Africa over $3 billion in 2019, more than any other region in the world. That figure may be higher still once ongoing blocks of popular SaaS programs are factored in.

Perhaps cognizant of this, it's interesting to note that Saudi engineers and researchers at the King Abdul Aziz City for Science and Technology (KACST) are developing an alternative to WhatsApp.

"The advantage of the app, designed by the all-Saudi workforce, is that it is free from external servers controlled by foreign agencies and will hence ensure confidentiality," says Basil Al-Omair, director at the National Information Security Centre at the KACST, told reporters.

SEE: A city that knows your every move: Saudi Arabia's new smart city might be a glimpse of the future

Such developments may throw up privacy concerns for users, but it will be interesting to see if other populous countries in the region follow suit, exploring ways to replicate leading tech products, in a manner that gives them more control.

But unless domestically produced equivalents take off, blocking popular tools and platforms may – in the long term – harm efforts in Middle East countries to drive digital and pivot towards becoming knowledge-based economies.

As the Internet Society argued in 2017, service blocks deprive people and companies "of information and new ways of doing things, and disincentivizes risk-taking by businesses and entrepreneurs."

Moreover, with COVID-19 unlocking many previously inaccessible services in MENA, the longer this new-found availability remains in place, the harder it will be to turn back the clock.