An impressive array of analysts are predicting that Internet-based technologies will change Middle Eastern politics.
Thomas L. Friedman of The New York Times asserts that Middle Easterners today are by-passing government surveillance via the free flow of Internet information. Citing as evidence anecdotal stories about his meetings with various Internet-savvy individuals, he argues that a "silent invasion" of information is taking place in the Middle East and that, unlike previous invasions, "there will be no cease-fire" for this one.1 Charles Maynes argues that the Internet is replacing traditional Middle East policies of stealth and repression with transparency and liberalization.2 In a similar vein, Kemal Dervis and Nemat Shafik highlight the Internet as a key factor in the region's development, whether positive or negative. If things go wrong, Middle East governments will fail to block Internet access and a large number of their citizens will become frustrated after using the Internet to discover the true nature of their regimes. If things go right, the Internet will grow to become an important part of a blossoming new Middle East economy.3
Others observers concur. Jon Alterman of the United States Institute of Peace argues that "the Arab world has joined in the global enthusiasm for the Internet." He proposes that Internet web pages and e-mail messages that travel anonymously or with encryption over international telephone lines "are confounding old-fashioned censors and posing new challenges to regimes" across the Middle East.4 He can restrain his excitement over these new developments mainly because of the relatively small number of Middle Easterners who have discovered the Internet, as well as obstacles to its acceptance. Nonetheless he declares: "the Internet holds out the promise of allowing Arabs to dip into a vast sea of information that currently lies beyond their grasp."5 Ingrid Volkmer proposes several models in which a new Internet-based regional network can contribute to prosperity in the region. The Internet is also portrayed as a tool to combat radical protest groups, to jump start the stagnating economies of the Middle East, to facilitate cooperation among scholars and journalists across borders, and to join Arabs and Jews to promote common regional goals.6 Anticipating all these Internet gains, Clement Henry called on foreign aid organizations such as USAID to invest heavily in promoting Internet technologies in the Middle East.7
And on it goes. But what evidence supports such projections and what rationale underlies such policies? How valid are the arguments that the Internet will produce these many benefits?8
By way of an answer to these general questions, we identify nine widely accepted statements that together constitute what might be called the Internet dream, then examine the evidence to test for their validity.
Our geographic scope in this analysis is the Levant: Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Egypt, and the Palestinian Authority. There are three reasons for this narrow focus. First, the Arab states in this circle seem to constitute a technological-economic sphere. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) of the Persian Gulf exhibits phenomenal Internet growth, but there are few signs that this growth is trickling into other Arab countries.9 Hence, it is meaningless to average the Internet use in Syria and Dubai just because people in the two countries speak Arabic.
Secondly, the Levantine countries share a reasonably homogeneous international situation in that all of them depend on an Arab-Israeli peace to achieve more political stability and to pave the way to increased international investment. They all expect to reap economic benefits from the shift from war to peace.
Thirdly, leaders of Israel's neighbors have voiced fears about Israeli "economic and technological colonialism." That, in turn, introduces a unique factor into projections of Internet growth: the gap between Israel and its neighbors in terms of information and communications technologies (ICT) at a time when these technologies are widely perceived to be the economic engine of the future. In fact, by February 1998, The Syrian regime mouthpiece Tishrin published an Internet survey that "clearly demonstrated" that Israeli and Jewish organizations have colonized "100 percent" of the Internet and that there are no materials on the Internet that are "benign to Syrian interests."10 Hence, the Arabs' frustration over their prolonged technological backwardness and their political fear of Israeli economic domination could slow down Internet growth in the region as a whole, and plans for inter-state regional Internet projects that are initiated or sponsored by Israel might even encounter opposition from neighboring countries. It is therefore interesting to examine the Internet growth in the Levantine Arab states without factoring in the quite different situation in Israel.
I. The Political Dream
The Internet strengthens civil society. Anderson proposes that the Internet extends the informal structure of Middle East countries, where citizens rely mostly on information gathered via social networks of trust and mutual obligations.11 The Internet is seen as expanding and strengthening the foundations of civil society in the Levantine Arab states. A stronger civil society, in turn, has the benefit of leading to a more efficient, responsive, and less corrupt regimes.
A growing body of evidence suggests, however, that the Internet is eroding, rather than extending, social networks of trust and mutual obligations. For example, based on the largest online commercial survey of Internet users to date (one involving 18,000 people), David Greenfield defined 6 percent of all Internet users as "addicted" and an additional 10 percent of all web surfers as "abusers;" These people, Greenfield argued, have become so obsessed with the Web that they have begun destroying their real-life relationships at home, work, and school.12 Similarly, Norman Nie of the Stanford Institute for Quantitative Study of Society and Lutz Erbring of the Free University of Berlin recently surveyed 4,113 people, asking them about the Internet's impact on activities ranging from their daily routines to their social relationships. The results of this survey, they argued, show that the more time people spend online, the more socially isolated from real people, family members, and society at large they become.13
There is little reason to believe that Middle East web surfers will behave differently than their American counterparts. In fact, the power of the Internet to isolate individuals and fragment communities is especially strong in traditional regions such as the Middle East where swelling numbers of young people are discovering through it the long-forbidden, narcissistic, Western cultural "fruits" of pornography and rap music.14 Arab youngsters are likely to immerse themselves in the new materials that were unavailable to them before, at the expense of nurturing social and communal relationships that are key to the emergence of a strong civic society which can challenge the power of the state. The potential of the Internet to degrade social networks of trust and mutual obligations is as strong as its potential to contribute to the free flow of information.
The Internet will democratize centralized regimes. According to George Gilder, new information technologies
will blow apart all the monopolies, hierarchies, pyramids, and power grids of established industrial society. It will undermine all totalitarian regimes. Police states cannot endure under the advance of the computer because it increases the power of the people far faster that the powers of surveillance.15
In the Middle East, Anderson argues, residents will circumvent the data provided by state authorities, reach out to new global information sources, and transcend familial, political, professional, economic, and international boundaries.16 For example, Edward Said writes that his ideas penetrated the mainstream media of the Middle East only after they were first published on the Internet.17 Friedman believes that the new communications technologies—including the Internet—render inevitable a transparent, democratic, decentralized, and market-based society. Technology makes globalization inevitable and irreversible. The Internet, he maintains, extends the flow of free information from mobile phones and satellite televisions in a way that authoritative government can no longer control.18 Friedman's logic suggests that the Internet will cause the centralized regimes of the Middle East to collapse.
But, as Ithiel de Sola Pool has argued, government policies determine if computer technologies become "technologies of freedom."19 Governments can effectively curb, supervise, or channel residents' Internet activities. They can prohibit the commercial use of the Internet, as the Syrian government does.20 They can create extensive new Internet-censorship laws as Tunisia has done. Such laws send a strong message early on to the society that the Internet is no different from other aspects of life, including modern media, tightly controlled by the government. Eric Goldstein, who compiled the comprehensive Human Rights Watch survey on the impact of the Internet on free expression and censorship, writes about Tunisia:
Without exception, the Tunisians we interviewed said they believed the government monitored e-mail correspondence. None of them could cite concrete evidence for this, but said they made this assumption because of the level of police surveillance of telephone conversations and other aspects of Tunisian life.21
Governments can extend existing Draconian press and publication laws to cover Internet communications, as Jordan did with its Press and Publication Law, which took effect on September 1, 1998. The Jordanian law neither explicitly prohibited access to international sites nor did it restrict Jordanians from publishing on the web. However, the law was phrased deliberately in a broad and ambiguous way to permit the courts to apply it virtually to anything Jordanians publish (on or off line). For example, Article 5 of the law prohibits individuals from publishing "anything that conflicts with the principles of freedom, national responsibility, human rights and values of the Arab and Islamic nation." Article 37 requires Jordanians to refrain from publishing any materials containing content deemed objectionable, including material that "disparages the King and the Royal family... infringes on the judiciary or undermines its independence... [and that] encourages perversion or leads to moral corruption."22 Although the Jordanian minister of information, Nasir Juda, vowed the government would pursue a "soft implementation" of the law, Alterman correctly argues that such soft implementation "could swiftly turn draconian at the government's whim."23
Governments can also curb Internet activities by deploying and supervising the physical network lines that connect neighborhoods and homes. For example, the Singaporean government bans households from installing direct satellite broadcast dishes. At the same time, the government has invested heavily in connecting every household to a new state-owned ultra-fast fiber optic data network. Poh-Kam Wong who studied the history of national information infrastructure (NII) initiatives in Singapore concluded that such communications infrastructure decisions were made at "the highest political level." The Singaporean government, it appears, believes it can "exert greater control over programming piped through cable television channels than programming sent via satellite broadcast."24
Governments can also employ powerful surveillance techniques to monitor what their citizens are doing online—by installing equipment in telecom firms to monitor telephone and data communications, by deploying systems to intercept satellite-telecommunications traffic, and by using the unique identification numbers of personal computers to track the online activities of citizens. In Jordan, intelligence services summoned at least two persons for questioning over messages with political content that they posted on bulletin boards or chat rooms.25 In Saudi Arabia, all Internet connections and the server communications of about forty Internet service provider (ISP) companies are routed through a national hub. This hub is comprised of high-speed computers that block access to thousands of sites catalogued on a rapidly expanding blacklist to insure the integrity of the country's puritan-like Wahhabi tradition. In fact, the Saudis twice postponed awarding commercial ISP licenses in order to ensure that their state-owned company, King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology (KACST), had a fully functioning central filtering system that could censor "material that would affect the religious and moral ethics of the country." The Saudis have also developed an elaborate "censorware" toolkit to control what citizens do online. As a result, Saudi users who request a site that is blocked get a message on their screens warning that all access attempts are logged.26
The Saudi example illustrates that Friedman was correct in predicting that countries cannot escape the "forward march of technology," but, at the same time, he was wrong in predicting that governments will no longer control the flow of information in our new high tech environment.27 Even Alterman who, in general remains upbeat about the prospects of the Internet eroding censorship in the Middle East recognizes this:
With an ability to search stored messages and Internet traffic for key words or specific strings of characters, governments can monitor the Internet even more efficiently and effectively than they can other media.28
In addition to exercising surveillance, governments can discourage international calls to foreign ISPs by raising the cost of these calls. In Jordan, for example, a monthly account for a moderate Internet user costs the equivalent of $70, including phone charges—well above the reach of middle-class citizens. The Jordanian government collects taxes and fees directly from the commercial ISPs and these levies are ultimately paid by Jordanian web surfers. It is therefore not surprising that the community of web surfers in Jordan is small (between 20,000 and 30,000 people) and that, of all web surfers in the Arab world, Jordanians are the most dissatisfied with their ISP services. In fact, it is even relatively expensive to surf the Web in an Internet cafe in the Levant ($4 per hour in Cairo, about $6.50 per hour in Kuwait, and about $7 per hour in Ramallah).29 The combination of high cost and user dissatisfaction discourages others, who then opt to remain off-line. Moreover, governments can develop Internet contents in native languages, thus ensuring that the English-illiterate masses are restricted to utilizing these resources; that is what the Chinese government has done by developing Mandarin Internet contents.30 Far from being a force for democratization, the Internet can be co-opted to support the existing power structure.
The Internet will create new opportunities for inter-state cooperation. Traditional economic resources such as oil are scarce, depletable, and benefit the few; information is abundant and can be shared by all. Hence, proponents of this thesis further argue, as Middle East national economies become more information-centered, there will be more opportunities for cooperation.31 Specifically, there would be exciting opportunities for genuine inter-state cooperation in the burgeoning new field of building new virtual information and communication networks.
Alas, information does not exist without physical infrastructures, such as telecommunications networks. And, in the Middle East, most telecommunications providers are, for all practical purposes, monopolies that rely on high tariffs, high minimum fees, and limited usage to secure their monopoly. True, one finds some telecommunication competition in Israel, Egypt, Lebanon, and the Palestinian Authority; and the national Jordanian Telecom Company has very recently become a private company. Nonetheless, the formerly state-owned telecommunication companies are still significantly better connected to the state bureaucracy than their new and weak competitors, and they dominate the local telecommunication markets.32 Naomi Collett reviewed and compared the privatization of telecom services in Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia's with similar processes elsewhere in the world. Sadly, she concluded that:
So far, Middle East governments have only very cautiously dipped their collective toes into the privatization process, and even fewer have show any willingness to end the state's monopoly over telecom services.33
Several Middle East states (most notably Egypt, Israel, and Jordan) have attempted to deregulate telecommunications services more vigorously. But deregulation threatens the former local telecommunication monopolies because large multinational corporations such as AT&T can step in and bite deeply into their revenues. Fears of such competition dominated the behavior of Egyptian bureaucrats who mounted an impressive opposition to hosting the Middle East Economic Summit in Egypt in 1996.34 In addition, more efficient telecommunications providers from neighboring countries can win public tenders to provide new types of cellular, satellite-based, Internet, and cable communications. To protect themselves from tough foreign competition, the former national telecommunications monopolies will once again raise the banners of "national security." After all, would the Syrian government permit Bezek, Israel's national telecommunications provider, to install new digital switchboards? Will Israel outsource the maintenance of its telephone lines to a Jordanian company because the latter charges less?
International telecommunications companies will also suffer from this "national security" paranoia. For example, Arafat recently granted two virtually identical "exclusive" rights to two competing American and European telecom providers to establish communications infrastructure in Gaza. Arafat has been using such dubious management techniques frequently in other domains as well (for example, he has several intelligence organizations supervising each other) as a means to tighten his grip on Palestinian society in the name of national security.35 Or, to give another example, when callback services were first introduced in Egypt, the government blamed them for abetting terrorists by allowing them to keep in touch while bypassing local exchanges (and the state security apparatus). Likewise, Saudi Arabia has banned callback services altogether. In light of these examples, it is easy to understand why, in 1997, Israel and Turkey were the only Middle East countries that signed the 69-nation World Trade Organization (WTO) agreement to open up the telecommunications sector worldwide.36 The Middle East has a long way to go before its states can overcome mutual suspicion and deregulate sensitive domains such as computers and data networks. In the absence of such deregulation, the structures of national Middle East economies will continue to resemble a zero-sum game, albeit one played by penniless gamblers determined not to reform their ways.
II. The Economic Dream
With time, all Middle Eastern states will benefit economically from the Internet. Anderson says that Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon will follow the trailblazing Internet path of the Persian Gulf emirates that quickly created up-to-date infrastructures.37 Indeed, some data supports this argument. Jordan, for example, vowed to adopt an Internet model in the future for its National Information Systems in order to give all citizens access to the information available to government employees. Commercial Internet service providers are proliferating all over the Middle East, with five in Jordan at the end of 1997, eleven in Lebanon, and thirty-two in Egypt.
Yet, overall the Levant remains one of the most under-represented areas of the world in terms of per capita Internet connectivity.38 Official data also points to Internet use in the Arab Levant states growing at a slower pace than in other regions. Currently the Internet is still largely a toy for most Levantine surfers, rather than a productive business tool. The governments of the Levant do not offer online services for citizens; the businesses of the Levant do not develop efficient business-to-business (B2B) and business-to-customer (B2C) Internet channels; and, overall, local Internet research and development is almost non-existent.39
The Middle East benefits from the advantage of its backwardness. Backward states can advance rapidly in new economic domains because they can deploy relatively advanced technology without having to traverse the costly intermediary steps that the economically advanced countries passed through. For example, poor countries can deploy mobile telephone networks rather than the more expensive cable-based networks. In the same way, Middle Eastern states can place their Internet contents on data servers in the West, so Western investors and clients can speedily access the data without having to travel through the low-bandwidth communications pipes and networks of the Middle East. In professional computer literature this technique is known as "mirroring." It permits governments and businesses in low-bandwidth countries to copy every night their World Wide Web (WWW) data to a powerful Internet server located in a high-bandwidth country (such as the United States) and to direct customers to this server. Investors and customers will not know that, in fact, they are accessing "Levant web materials" located, for example, on a web server in Boston.
Trouble is, the Internet revolution is progressing at a breathtaking pace and the Levant states are still lacking the critical mass of regular Internet users that fuel the demand for more sophisticated and up-to-date Internet services. So long as the Internet remains a toy for the elite, the Arab states in the Levant are likely to miss the next Internet revolution. Put differently, a country is doomed to remain hopelessly at the bottom of the emerging new global information economy if it always plays "catch up" with yesterday's Internet technologies. Take the burgeoning e-commerce revolution: only a handful of companies in the Arabic-speaking countries of the Middle East employ the Internet for business. Hence, entrepreneurs and investors are discouraged from developing Arab e-commerce Internet hubs. At a recent telecommunications conference in Beirut, participants heard stern warnings that Arabs will be left outside of the global e-commerce economy because currently only 0.11 percent of all the Arab population have access to the Internet and only 5 percent of all Arab households have a telephone line; hence, no one in the Arab world has an economic incentive to develop Arab e-commerce solutions.40
A vicious circle has developed: poor communications infrastructure and high connectivity prices result in modest demand for Internet services, and modest demand in turn does not generate enough public pressure to improve the communications infrastructure and to lower the cost of connecting to the Internet. This vicious circle causes the Arab countries of the Middle East to miss the economic benefits of the Internet revolution. The so-called "advantage of backwardness" can help only those countries that find ways to break such vicious circles and bootstrap themselves into the information age. Will the Levant governments understand that by banning "culturally perverted" sites (including pornography sites) and by maintaining high Internet connection costs they are, in effect, stifling the public demand for better and faster Internet infrastructure? Will they loosen up their attitudes towards the Internet to generate the public demand that is key to any future economic gains from the Internet?
The poor Arab countries of the Middle East also find that it is getting harder to benefit from information technology because it eviscerates existing jobs and requires highly skilled technical manpower that they lack. Some economists— citing the clash between the relentless application of jobs-destroying technologies and the surge of world population in these poor countries to unprecedented levels—depict a grim technological future in which poor countries will fare even worse than they did a century ago.41 The deepening cleavage between the few new high-tech rich and the rest of the society in Israel is a case in point. Members of the Israeli parliament (Knesset) enthusiastically embraced the Internet as a mechanism to increase economic equality in the society when they published their first comprehensive report on this topic in 1997. However, only three years later, Knesset members displayed much less enthusiasm, and their debates began focusing on the large groups of destitute Israelis that were left on the waste lines of the Internet revolution.42 Similarly, the Economist dedicated a good portion of its recent "Government and the Internet" survey to the emerging new "digital divide" between the "haves" and the "have-nots" of the information age.43 Hence, only a handful of technically skilled people benefit from the new "information economy" while the vast majorities of the Levant's citizens struggle to survive as exemplified by the stark differences between the economic fortune of the residents of the new gated golf course communities and the masses who live in tombs in the City of the Dead in Cairo.44
Thus, in the Internet age, most Middle Eastern states are likely to remain economically backward while a few of them may sink further to the bottom of the global economic ladder. The contrast with Israel here is once again illuminating. As with Arab teenagers, many Israeli youngsters develop familiarity with the PC, e-mail, the Internet, and the Web outside school while seeking new forms of pleasure and excitement. But the Israeli private sector's technological power is due above all to the fact that the country has the most technically educated population in the world with 135 engineers for every 10,000 people in the workforce (the United States is second with 70 engineers per 10,000 employees).45 Even if American engineers are better educated and more experienced than their colleagues, the immigrant Russian in Israel, those latter have enormously boosted the Israeli economy.46 In stark contrast, the number of graduates of tertiary education in Lebanon and Syria has actually declined between 1980 and 1996. Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon ranked at the bottom of the global scale between 1985 and 1995 in the number of research and development scientists, engineers, and technicians.47
Most future economic prosperity, Friedman argues, will stem from "hot zones" where "people—for reasons of culture, history or sheer DNA—are just naturally agile, and they have gotten even faster as their governments have provided them with the basics and then just gotten out of the way." Examples of such hot zones include northern Italy, Tel Aviv, Shanghai, South Korea, and Bangalore, India.48 With the possible exception of Beirut, none of these "hot zones" is located in the Arab states of the Levant, and the governments of these countries are doing all too little to nurture the human infrastructure and political environments within which such zones evolve and expand.
The Internet will help narrow the economic gap between Israel and its neighbors. The Internet provides cheap new opportunities to educate the masses in the Levant, to build new and more productive businesses, and to lower the costs of providing state service to millions of people. Dervis and Shafik, in their "good neighborhood" tale, describe how Middle Eastern countries can harness the Internet to improve the education of the masses and, by doing so, begin closing their productivity, prosperity, and confidence gaps vis-à-vis more advanced countries (such as Israel).49
But a closer examination reveals that the communications gap between Israel and its neighbors remains very large and may be increasing. Scholars divide the use of various communications media into four groups. Uni-directional communications are various types of electronic broadcasting where the individual is a passive recipient of information (e.g., television). Bi-directional communication refers to types of media where two parties are engaged in an exchange of information (e.g., the telephone). Productivity communications are means commonly used to enhance business productivity (e.g., cellular telephones and fax machines). Lastly, multi-directional communications are information technology tools that permit the individual to engage many individuals in an exchange of information (e.g., computers and Internet connections).50 Figure 1.0 compares the figures on Israel to the aggregated numbers of its neighbors in order to examine the telecommunications gap in the Middle East:
Thus, at the end of 1997, the Arab states of the Middle East led over Israel in the use of uni-directional communications but were behind Israel in the use of all other types of communications. World Bank data suggests that while the bi-directional communications gap between Israel and its neighbors shrank between 1996 and 1997, the multi-directional gap widened. The multi-directional communication gap between Israel and its neighbors was the most significant. Israel had nearly four times the number of personal computers (PCs) and thirty-three times the number of Internet hosts per 1,000 people than its neighbors combined at the end of 1997 (A host is commonly defined as one computer with a domain name and an Internet Protocol (IP) address connected to the Internet). Moreover, the volume of Internet activity in the Arab Middle East was miniscule because Internet use is largely confined to the business elite, and, at the end of 1997, Israel had more than ten times as many Internet sites as its neighbors.51
Using the official statistical reports produced by the Internet Software Consortium (ISC), figure 2.0 shows the widening Internet gap between Israel and all of its neighbors combined:
These explains why Arab Internet data sources such as Internet Arab World (IAW) and Dabbagh Information Technology (DIT), the leading publisher of the Arabic and Middle East editions of PC-Magazine, compare only data about Internet use among Arab countries; they rarely compare the growth of Internet activities in Arab countries with that of Israel, Western countries, or even other less developed countries.52 The Arab countries of the Middle East are also uninvolved in critical future developments of the Internet technology. For example, Israel alone in the Middle East is affiliated with the Internet-2 initiative of the University Corporation for Advanced Internet Development (UCAID). Hence, investments in Internet technologies are most advantageous to countries such as Israel where a significant portion of the society is technically skilled, where schools invest greatly in technological education, and where the Internet is already part of the daily routine for larger segments of the society.
III. The Cultural Dream
The Internet offers an opportunity to strengthen core cultural values. Jon Anderson argues that the Middle East could place a "distinctively Middle Eastern mark" on the Internet.53 According to Anderson, individuals who strive to strengthen the core values of their societies will find each other through the web, jointly generate websites that are devoted to these values, and use the new medium to recruit, involve, and bind together others who feel the same way. To be sure, Arab and Muslim Internet contents have proliferated in recent years. Many Middle East WWW sites celebrate the use of the Arabic script and language online. Iranian and Saudi authorities and seminaries are engaged in several projects to place authoritative versions of the Qur'an and other religious texts in Arabic on the World Wide Web.54
All true, but Western content dominates the Internet. After all, if the Internet becomes popular in the Middle East, where will Arabic-speaking youth surf? Will they settle for browsing Muslim canonical content, or, alternatively, will they visit popular pornography Internet sites? Is it not therefore more reasonable to argue that Muslim religious leaders will tend to view the Internet as a threat to religious values rather than as an opportunity to spread them? There are already indications that they are growing wary of the impact of the Internet on their communities. For example, a spokesman for the Syrian Computer Society (whose chairman, Bashshar al-Asad, is now the Syrian president) justified Syria's "go-slow" attitude towards the Internet by saying,
Our problem is... we are a traditional society, and we have to know if there is something that cannot fit with our society. We have to make it safe. We want to have Internet with a minimum of problems, so the solution was to go by stages.55
Clearly, in the Arab countries of the Levant, religious leaders are more concerned about the danger of the Internet corrupting young minds than its potential to bind together youngsters around traditional core values.
IV. The Technological Dream
Regional Internet networks are easy and cheap to build owing to the plummeting cost of hardware and software. Countries must cooperate in three areas to establish an Internet-based regional network: physical infrastructure, network and application protocols, and netiquette (i.e., rules and norms of behavior regarding the use of the network). According to this thesis, effective regional networks are mainly dependent on data storage capacity and transmission speed, the cost of which is rapidly declining. Indeed, the past three decades have witnessed the cost-effectiveness ratio of computer storage capacity improve by a factor of 10,000 as computer discs became standardized, smaller, stronger, and faster. Similarly, average network speeds have grown by 60 percent a year since the early 1960s.56 Hence, Middle Eastern countries can install cheap high-speed networks and powerful data servers and quickly deploy effective regional networks based on the TCP/IP Internet standard.
But, paradoxically, the incredible speed and enormous storage capacity of data networks exacerbate the problem of agreeing upon and enforcing inter-state norms of network behavior. Consider the problem of data encryption. Governments increasingly mobilize the strength and speed of computers to wiretap and analyze the network activities in other countries. For more than a decade, U.S. organizations such as Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility have failed to circumvent such activities carried out by the National Security Agency (NSA) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation's National Crime Information Center (NCIC). Though NSA's ability to intercept communications worldwide has declined, it still retains an impressive capability to intercept and decode "every modern type of high capacity communications," including pager messages, cellular phone calls, and Internet e-mails.57
In the Middle East, where mistrust and suspicion dominate inter-state relationships, what are the prospects that states and private sector companies will reach an agreement over encryption standards? For example, how can Egypt be assured that Israeli intelligence is not employing the regional network for espionage purposes? Since countries cannot require that an international communications network be off-limits to the national intelligence service of other states, the Arab countries of the Levant will be very reluctant to cooperate in all matters regarding the establishment of joint regional communications networks.
Hackers represent a similar problem, as exemplified by the recent destruction of an official Iraqi web site by an Israeli teenager. What will be the fate of an inter-state project to build a regional data network after the first Israeli teenager uses some of the project's resources to damage a sensitive Egyptian military database? Would the Egyptians accept the Israeli explanation that the vandal was a fourteen-year old hacker who manipulated his father's university Internet identification without his dad's consent or, alternatively, would the Egyptians decide that the Israeli intelligence services were responsible for the devastating attack on their sensitive computers? The prevalence and popularity of conspiracy theories in Middle East politics strongly suggest that the latter scenario is much more likely.
Private companies will build the right Internet—provided they have the appropriate incentives. The global Internet community is growing by leaps and bounds. At present, traffic on the Internet is doubling every 100 days, and the U.S. Department of Commerce estimates that one billion users will employ Web services by the year 2,005.58 Since the private sector is leading this explosive growth of Internet activity, Middle East governments should delegate all Internet projects to the private sector, which will execute them well in pursuit of its own profit.
But as of January 2000, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and the Palestinian Authority together had about 1.5 percent of the total world population and only 0.014 percent of the total number of Internet hosts – less than 1/100 of its proportionate share.59 In fact, in January 2000, the combined number of Internet hosts in these countries was about equal to that of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, which has a population just 0.5 percent as big as theirs. Though it is difficult to enumerate Internet users per country (i.e., because several users can share a single Internet account), Alterman estimates that the entire Arab world as a whole (including the Internet-savvy Gulf states) contained merely 0.3 percent of all Internet users worldwide by June 1998, and the Levant share in this number was miniscule. Internet access rate for the private sector in the Middle East are very low; merely 2 percent of all Internet users in the Middle East came from the banking and insurance sectors.60 Worse yet, the gap between the use of the Internet in the Arab countries of the Middle East and the rest of the world appears to be increasing.
Hence, the Middle East lacks the critical mass needed to convince foreign and local businessmen that it is wise to develop regional Internet-based private companies. Currently and for the foreseeable future, there is no vibrant private sector in the Arab countries of the Levant that can develop Internet solutions for these countries.
The Internet is a double-edged sword that can work to promote different, and sometimes conflicting, causes in the Middle East. It can open up economies yet at the same time increase the socio-economic gap between the knowledgeable few and the impoverished many. It can disburse free information and simultaneously provide governments with new powerful tools to track the daily lives of citizens. It can broaden political participation while fragmenting communities. Internet technologies can increase trust across borders through access to information or decrease it by introducing new threats (such as data encryption and hackers).
In all, the Internet revolution highlights and extenuates the political, economic, and technological backwardness of Arab countries of the Levant. Rather than boast about how the Internet will change the fortune of their countries, political leaders, businessmen, and scholars should address the real problems that inhibit growth and prosperity in their region – political restrictions on free speech and economic entrepreneurship, corrupt and wasteful bureaucracies, and collapsing education systems. Technological dreams must not be encouraged if they distract attention from these more urgent problems that require immediate attention and a great deal of hard work. Regrettably, all too many people conjure up unattainable Internet dreams as a way to escape the real problems of the Levant.
Alon Peled teaches the relationships between politics and technology in the department of political science and public administration at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
1 Thomas L. Friedman, The Lexus and the Olive Tree (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1999), pp. 207-210, 289-290.
2 Charles William Maynes, "The Middle East in the Twenty-First Century," The Middle East Journal, 52 (1998): 11-12.
3 Kemal Dervis and Nemat Shafik, "The Middle East and North Africa: A Tale of Two Futures," The Middle East Journal, 52 ((4), Autumn 1998): 512-513.
4 Jon E. Alterman, New Media, New Politics? From Satellite Television to the Internet in the Arab World (Washington D.C.: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 1999), pp. ix, 35.
5 Alterman, New Media, New Politics, p. xi.
6 Kelly R. Damphousse and Brent L. Smith, "The Internet: A Terrorist Medium for the 21st Century," The Future of Terrorism: Violence in the new Millennium, ed. Harvey W. Kushner (Thousands Oaks, Calif.: Sage, 1998), pp. 222-223; Pamela Ann Smith, "Global Publications Target Middle East," The Middle East, Apr. 1999, pp. 33-34; Maud S. Beelman, "International Journalists Use Internet Technology to Breach Borders," Nieman Reports, 53(1), Spring 1999, pp. 52-54; John Younger, "Caught in the Net: Electronic Opportunities in Archaeology," Near Eastern Archaeology, 61(4), Dec. (1998): 263-264; Eric Silver, "A Flight for Peace Begins in a Birdhouse," Time, Apr. 26, 1999, p. 52; "Mercury Center—In-Depth News," "Q&A: Arab World Stepping Into Internet Age"May 21, 2000, at http://www.mercurycenter.com/svtech/news/indepth/docs/qa052200.htm.
7 Clement M. Henry, "Promoting Democracy: USAID, at Sea or Off to Cyberspace?" Middle East Policy, 5(1) Jan. 1997, pp. 178-189; Ingrid Volkmer, "Universalism and Particularism: The Problems of Cultural Sovereignty and Global Information Flow," Borders in Cyberspace: Information Policy and the Global Information Infrastructure, ed. Brian Kahin and Chales Nesson (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1997), pp. 48-83.
8 Note, however, that the statistics for the Palestinian Authority (PA) available in sources such as The World Economic Indicators and the statistical reports of the Internet Software Consortium (ISC) are very limited. The PA was awarded its own Internet suffix (PS) at the end of 1999. One report claims that there were nine ISPs and 7,840 Internet dialup accounts mostly in the West Bank at that time. NUA Internet Surveys, "Birzeit University: Palestine Awarded Top Level Domain," Oct. 12, 1999, at http://www.nua.ie.
9 DITnet News Service, Nov. 7, 1997, at http://www.nua.ie; The Gulf Times, May 6, 1999, at http://www.nua.ie; DITnet, Jul. 5, 1999.
10 Alterman, New Media, New Politics?, pp. 40-41.
11 Jon Anderson, "The Internet and the Middle East: Commerce Brings Region On-Line," Middle East Executive Reports, 20(12), Dec. 1997, p. 8.
12 David N. Greenfield, Virtual Addiction: Help for Netheads, Cyberfreaks, and Those Who Love Them (New York: New Harbinger Publications, 1999), pp. 8-9.
13 USA Today, Feb. 17, 2000. See also U.S. News & World Report, Feb. 28, 2000.
14 A random scan of a popular index of Middle East Internet sites reveals that the number of Middle East websites dedicated to Western entertainment (such as rap music) is almost three times the number dedicated to local culture and religion. See http:\www.middle-east-pages.com.
15 Quoted in Ernest J. Wilson, III, "Introduction: The Why, Where, and How of National Information Initiatives," National Information Infrastructure Initiatives: Vision and Policy Design, ed. Brian Kahim and Ernest J. Wilson III (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1997), p. 19.
16 Anderson, "The Internet and the Middle East," pp. 15-16.
17 David Barsamian, "Interview with Edward W. Said," The Progressive, 63(4 ), Apr. 1999, pp. 34-38.
18 Barry Eichengreen, "One Economy, Ready or Not: Thomas Friedman's Jaunt through Globalization," Foreign Affairs, 78 (3): 119.
19 Ithiel de Sola Pool, Technologies of Freedom (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1983), p. 226.
20 Newsweek, "Syria Fighting Losing Battle Against Internet," Apr. 27, 1999, at http://www.nua.ie;; There are merely 2,000 Internet subscribers in Syria due to access restrictions. Reuters, "Syria Gets Serious About the Net" Apr. 25, 2000 at http://www.wired.com/news/politics/0,1283,35882,00.html.
21 "The Internet in the Middle East and North Africa: Free Expression and Censorship," Human Rights Watch, June 1999, at http://www.hrw.org/hrw/advocacy/internet/mena/index.htm.
23 Alterman, New Media, New Politics?, p. 47.
24 Poh-Kam Wong, "Implementing the NII Vision: Singapore's Experience and Future Challenges," National Information Infrastructure Initiatives, ed. Brian Kahim and Ernest J. Wilson III (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1997), pp. 44, 52. See also: Gary Leonard Koh and Lee Kwok Cheong, "Government Information Technology Policy in Singapore," Informatization and the Public Sector, 2 (1992), pp. 155-163, and Hung Kei Tang and K.T. identifies himself as K.T. Yeo Yeo, "Technology, Entrepreneurship and National Development: Lessons From Singapore," International Journal of Technology Management, 10 (1995), pp. 797-814.
25 "The End of Privacy: The Surveillance Society," no au listed "The End of Privacy: The Surveillance Society," The Economist, May 1, 1999, pp. 19-23; "The Internet in the Middle East," Human Rights Watch.
26 Sharif S. Elmusa, "Faust without the Devil? The Interplay of Technology and Culture in Saudi Arabia," The Middle East Journal, 51 ((3), Summer 1997): 345-357; BBC Online Network, "Saudi Arabia Delays Announcing ISP Licenses," Oct. 13, 1998 at http://www.nua.ie;Techserver, "Saudi Arabia Issues First ISP Licenses," Nov. 5, 1998, at http//www.nua.ie; USA Today, "Limited Internet Access for Saudi Arabia," Nov. 5, 1997; "Saudi Arabia Limits ISP Fees," Internetnews.com, Nov. 19, 1998, at http://www.nua.ie; "Saudi Arabia Opens Up Internet Access," Techserver, Feb. 3, 1999, at http://www.nua.ie; The Douglas Jehl, "The Internet's 'Open Sesame' Is Answered Warily," New York Times, Mar. 18, 1999.
27 Eichengreen, "One Economy" p. 119.
28 Alterman, New Media, New Politics?, p. 75.
29 Ibid., p. 38.
30 The China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC), which grants Internet addresses under the CN top-level domain, conducts all of its business and Internet registration processes through a website that is available only in the Mandarin language. See the China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC) at http://www.cnnic.cn/.: Vision and Policy Design, ed. Brian Kahim and Ernest J. Wilson III (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1997).
31 William B. Quandt, "The Middle East on the Brink: Prospects for Change in the 21st Century," The Middle East Journal, 50 ((1), Winter 1996): 9-17.
32 Naomi Collett, "Crossed Lines and Loose Connections," Middle East, (June 1998), pp. 35-37.
33 Ibid. p. 35.
34 Friedman, The Lexus and The Olive Tree, p. 275.
35 Daniel Klaidman and Matt Rees, "A Mafia State?" Newsweek, May 29, 2000.
36 No au provided "Company & Industry: Middle East," Country Report, Apr. 30, 1997.
37 Anderson, "The Internet and the Middle East," p. 11.
38 "The Internet in the Middle East," Human Rights Watch; Friedman, The Lexus and the Olive Tree, pp. 168-171.
39 Internetnews.com, Feb. 22, 1999, at http://www.nua.ie.
40 DITnet, Mar. 3, 1998; "E-Commerce in the Arab World — An Overview," Internet Arab World, Apr. 23, 1998, at http://www.nua.ie; Internetnews.com, Feb. 22, 1999, at http://www.nua.ie.
41 Stanley Aronowitz and William Difazio, The Jobless Future: Sci-Tech and the Dogma of Work (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994), pp. 3, 9, 33.
42 The Knesset, The Michael Eytan Committee, "Israel's Economy in the Information Age, Sect. 6," Israel Preparedness for the Information Age [Hebrew Document] (Jerusalem: The Knesset, 1997), pp. 11-12. The Knesset, "Israel Preparedness for the Information Age" [Session 67 of the 15th Knesset (January 4, 2000)], Israel Parliamentary Records [Hebrew Document] (Jerusalem: The Knesset, 2000), pp. 1-12. Documents are also available at: http://www.knesset.gov.il/knesset/hebframe.htm.
43 The Economist, June 24, 2000.
44 Friedman, The Lexus and the Olive Tree, p. 260.
45 David Rosenberg, "Ahead of the Game," In "Israel: 50 Years of Finance & Industry," The Jerusalem Post Special Issue, July 1998 at http://www.jpost.co.il.
46 Steve Yetiv, "Peace, Interdependence, and the Middle East," Political Science Quarterly, Spring 1997, p. 35.
47 World Economic Indicators, 1998, The World Bank, at http://www.oecd.org/dac/indicators/htm/datasource.htm.
48 Friedman, The Lexus and the Olive Tree, p. 174.
49 Dervis and Shafik, "The Middle East and North Africa," p. 513.
50 Christopher R. Kedzie, "The Third Waves," Borders in Cyberspace: Information Policy and the Global Information Infrastructure, ed. Brian Kahin and Charles Nesson (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1997), pp. 116-117.
51 Data based on reports from Internet Software Consortium at http://www.nw.com/zone/WWW/top.html.
52 DITnet, Nov. 7, 1997; and "Almost One Million Online in Arab Countries," Jul. 5, 1999, at http://www.nua.ie.
53 Anderson, "The Internet and the Middle East," p. 9.
54 For example, see the Saudi Ministry of Information at http://www.saudinf.com /main/start.htm..
55 "The Internet in the Middle East," Human Rights Watch.
56 Jim Gray and Gordon Bell, VLDB 95 Parallel Database Systems Survey, 1995, quoted in Glenn Ricart, "Dimensions of the Internet: Issues for the Next Five Years," presentation to the Internet Society of Israel Conference, Tel Aviv, Israel, Jan. 13, 1999.
57 Tom Forester and Perry Morrison, Computer Ethics: Cautionary Tales and Ethical Dilemmas in Computing, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1994), pp. 147-152; John Markoff, "A Mysterious Component Roils Microsoft," The New York Times, Sept. 4, 1999; Vernon Loeb, "Critics Questioning NSA Reading Habits," The Washington Post, Nov. 13, 1999.
58 Struggling with IT: The Growing Complexity of Information Technology, Integris White Paper, 1999 (Billerica, Mass.: Integris Group, 1999), p. 3.
59 Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and the Palestinian Authority had 9,982 Internet hosts of the 72,398,092 global Internet hosts in January 2,000. Israel had 139,946 Internet hosts at that time. Numbers are based on the statistical reports of the Internet Software Consortium at http://www.nw.com.
60 Alterman, New Media, New Politics?, pp. 36, 38.