The Arab uprisings of 2011 gave rise to a utopian vision of information and communication technologies (ICTs), highlighting their abilities to bypass government control and restrictions and give voice to disadvantaged groups, thus disrupting existing power structures. That is still true to some extent, especially as ICTs facilitated activist movements’ outreach to connect with a wider public and helped support political mobilization, enabling the public sphere, and aiding revolutions and activists in the process toward democratization. However, the limitations and dangers of these digital tools soon became apparent. In the last decade, repressive regimes have heavily invested in cyber capabilities to help advance their political survival and geopolitical agendas. Authoritarian and repressive powers may now even have the upper hand in the digital sphere, as control of the cyberspace is subject to traditional power structures and availability of financial resources.
Three models have played an important role in providing the tool kit for Arab digital authoritarianism, imported primarily from China, Russia, and Israel.
The moment of the Arab Spring may have pushed Arab autocrats to accelerate their efforts and investments in surveillance, censorship, and manipulation of technologies with the primary aim of preventing challenges to their own survival. Authoritarian regimes have been employing creative methods to capitalize on digital tools for purposes of control and repression. Many of these methods and technologies were imported from countries at the forefront of digital authoritarianism, like China and Russia, and from those that invest in the fields of surveillance and population control, like Israel. As a result, in the last years a new model of digital authoritarianism has emerged in the Arab world, giving autocrats the sophisticated tools to entrench their authoritarian rule and deepen their human rights abuses. The pervasive use of repressive digital technologies is advancing at an alarming rate with serious and dangerous consequences for human rights, democratic principles, and emerging conflict. Understanding the origins and scope of digital authoritarianism in the Arab world is the first step in confronting it.
Imported Models of Digital Authoritarianism: China, Russia, and Israel
Digital authoritarianism is commonly defined as the use of digital information and communication technologies by authoritarian and autocratic states to monitor, manipulate, repress, and control populations, both domestically and outside their borders. The proliferation of surveillance and censorship technology has helped bolster authoritarian regimes and provide them with the capability to stifle dissent through monitoring their populations online, controlling what information is available, and tracking dissidents across the globe. Three models have played an important role in providing the tool kit for Arab digital authoritarianism, imported mainly from China, Russia, and Israel. Understanding these models sheds light on the forms and methods of digital authoritarianism that are emerging in the Arab world.
Digital authoritarianism is commonly defined as the use of digital information and communication technologies by authoritarian and autocratic states to monitor, manipulate, repress, and control domestic and foreign populations.
First, the Chinese digital surveillance state is one to which Arab autocrats aspire. China’s model of digital authoritarianism began developing in the early 1990s into what was termed the “Great Firewall” of China. It involves a set of software, hardware, and legal structures to monitor and block information and communication from entering the country. Since then, and in addition to the ongoing strategy of data filtration and censorship (such as banning Facebook, Twitter, and Google), China has been developing an infrastructure of comprehensive and widespread mass surveillance. Through various projects, like Skynet and “Sharp Eyes,” the Chinese state is integrating multiple technologies and highly sophisticated artificial intelligence tools to collect and analyze massive quantities of data including video surveillance, physical movement mapping, image collection, face recognition, fingerprint databases, phone scanning, medical and financial records, online behaviors, and even a social credit system. Through the country’s “Digital Silk Road” initiative, China’s techno-authoritarian tool kit has already been exported to at least 18 countries, including some in the Middle East: Egypt, Morocco, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The UAE has gone the farthest in actively pursuing this mass surveillance architecture, which requires financial resources and centralized governance, through smart cities technology and its “Police without Policemen” program, adding sophisticated digital surveillance tools to an already pervasive authoritarian rule.
While China is the leading supplier of advanced public surveillance technologies to illiberal regimes around the world, it is not the only player. Cybersecurity companies and agencies in western democracies like the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, and France also supply surveillance technologies to repressive states in the Arab world. Russia’s model of digital authoritarianism, on the other hand, is more ad hoc compared to China’s more methodical digital surveillance. Yet the Russian government’s surveillance system, SORM (System of Operative-Search Measures), has been sold to telecom companies in Bahrain, Iraq, Qatar, and others. However, while the Russian regime has excelled at devising a model of deliberate information manipulation operations, China is relatively new to this game. This part of the Russian model has proven most useful for Arab regimes, providing them methods for intimidation tactics and silencing domestic dissent as well as using new media tools, as part of a government’s military arsenal, to undermine foreign entities it considers rivals or potential competitors. These foreign influence operations, which use troll farms for the intentional mass spread of false and misleading information to influence politics, are particularly powerful because they are low-cost but high-impact offensive cyber operations. Arab regimes have been following this model; they even buy services provided by Russian entities, such as toll factories and Twitter armies, for the purpose of information manipulation.
Foreign influence operations, which use troll farms for the intentional mass spread of false and misleading information to influence politics, are particularly powerful because they are low-cost but high-impact offensive cyber operations.
The Israeli spyware industry is another major model being exported around the world, including to Arab regimes. Whereas China’s surveillance tool kit relies on public mass surveillance infrastructures, Israeli offensive cyber capabilities and surveillance programs rely on targeted techniques such as hacking personal devices and intercepting private communication channels. Israel uses sophisticated surveillance technologies against the occupied Palestinian population to collect information through scrutinizing landlines, smartphones, text messages, and emails. Private and potentially damaging information like sexual orientation, financial need, or health problems is then used for extortion and blackmail. As has become evident from the NSO Pegasus hacking scandal, numerous secretive Israeli cyber espionage companies—that are largely connected to the Israeli state military apparatus and sanctioned by the government—are selling spyware technologies to authoritarian regimes around the world to target journalists, human rights defenders, dissidents, and activists. These companies even market their spyware products “as being ‘field-tested’ and ‘battle-proven’ against Palestinians.” Several examples show how Arab autocratic regimes have utilized Israeli spyware to target activists and journalists; perhaps the most prominent is that of Saudi Arabia and the UAE infiltrating communication channels used by Jamal Khashoggi and his family and friends, before he was brutally murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
These three models and various technologies are being exported worldwide by China, Russia, and Israel, and Arab authoritarian regimes have been first in line to import such tools of digital repression. As such, the emerging model of Arab digital authoritarianism is one that employs a variety of tools and combines several of these methods of digital control, repression, and manipulation.
A Typology of Arab Digital Authoritarianism
The Arab digital repression toolbox consists of three main methods of control and oppression. These include various forms of censorship and service shutdowns, methods of digital deception and manipulation, and mass and targeted surveillance technologies.
The first set of tools revolves around censorship and the silencing of the online public, particularly dissenting voices, through service shutdowns and access restrictions as well as the criminalization of online speech.
1) Arab regimes have used internet and network shutdowns to prevent activists from accessing information, connecting with each other, and communicating with the international community to narrate their experiences. This was most evident during the protests in 2011, when governments in several Arab countries (e.g., Bahrain, Egypt, Libya, and Syria) ordered internet shutdowns to keep their populations in the dark. More recently, during the 2019 protests in Iraq, the government cut internet access across the country. Similarly, internet blackouts during the protests in Sudan in October and November 2021 were designed to prevent mobilization and provide cover for the military’s violent takeover and repression. Additionally, censorship software and internet filtering technologies are deployed on a national level on public-facing internet service providers to block certain websites in specific countries. Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) is used on a large scale to monitor, redirect, and block internet flows of content that is deemed unfavorable. For example, filtering software was used in Bahrain to block websites related to opposition movements and human rights activists. An investigation by The Citizen Lab found similar filtering and censorship programs in Egypt, Iraq, Kuwait, Lebanon, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE.
Governments shut down the internet and block social media platforms and other applications especially during periods of protests and unrest, to prevent mobilization, keep their populations in the dark, and provide cover for military attacks on protestors.
In Egypt, the government restricted websites belonging to human rights groups, while LGBTQ sites were blocked in Jordan. Governments have also blocked social media platforms and other applications especially during periods of protests and unrest. For instance, FaceTime, Skype, WhatsApp, and Zoom are blocked in the UAE, forcing residents to use government-approved platforms like ToTok (which are part of mass surveillance). Egypt, Oman, and the UAE also block the encrypted messaging app Signal, while Oman, the UAE, and Jordan banned the invitation-only audio app Clubhouse. In July-August 2020, the Jordanian government restricted access to Facebook Live during the teachers’ union protests.
Arab regimes employ internet filtering technologies as geopolitical instruments to manage intraregional conflicts by blocking content aligned with rival states.
Other methods of censorship and control increasingly used against activists and critics include the practice of de-platforming, which is the revocation of user access to social media content and accounts. Thousands of activists in the Arab world have had their content removed or accounts suspended, with prominent examples in Palestine during the protests in Sheikh Jarrah and with regard to Syrian accounts documenting Assad regime abuses. Regimes also employ internet filtering technologies as geopolitical instruments to manage intraregional conflicts by blocking content aligned with rival states. For example, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt block websites that oppose their state narratives and are feared to spark dissent, such as Iranian websites and websites affiliated with Qatar, including Al Jazeera. While filtering internet content and “kill switches” are a violation of international human rights law regarding freedom of expression and access to information, they continue to be used by Arab regimes as means of information control and collective punishment.
2) Authoritarian regimes in the Arab world have also used social media platforms to police political discourse, attack dissidents, and suppress influential voices. The government of Saudi Arabia employed targeted and highly organized Twitter campaigns against female journalists who were critical of the kingdom. A coordinated campaign by thousands of Twitter accounts originating from Saudi Arabia disseminated hacked private photographs of the women (using Israeli spyware) and orchestrating sexual harassment and misogynistic smear attacks against them online. These fear tactics are utilized to silence dissent and intimidate and threaten critics. To this end, Arab regimes employ legal mechanisms of using ambiguous cybercrime laws, under the pretext of counterterrorism and maintaining public order and morals, to undermine human rights and crack down on free speech online.
Countless examples exist. Egypt, for instance, jailed two TikTok influencers charged with “inciting debauchery and violating family values,” while the UAE sentenced human rights defender Ahmed Mansoor to a 10-year prison sentence and a one million dirham fine for his social media posts criticizing the country’s human rights violations, under the charges of spreading false information and harming the UAE’s reputation. These attacks on and the silencing of human rights defenders, under the guise and weaponization of law, are intended to deter critics and foster an environment of fear in which no opposition is heard.
The second set of tools of digital authoritarianism involves the weaponization of social media platforms by states and commercial entities for the purpose of digital deception, manipulation, and disinformation warfare, against both domestic and foreign populations.
1) Arab regimes use a wide range of inauthentic activities and disinformation on their populations to control the narrative, manipulate the public, and promote certain ideas and political leaders. Arab governments now hold the power to determine truth and manufacture public opinion through organized social media manipulation campaigns. Arab regimes have been using Twitter bots and automated accounts to mass-produce tweets favorable to their leaders and to inflate certain perspectives, while co-opting social media influencers and trendsetters in order to spread this propaganda. For example, in the aftermath of the Khashoggi murder, a study of related tweets showed that out of 2.4 million tweets, only 281 of the 370,000 Twitter accounts that posted them drove 80 percent of the discourse either in support of or against Saudi Arabia. In fact, after the Khashoggi murder on October 2, 2018, Saudi Arabia employed a network of Twitter bots pushing pro-Saudi talking points intended to spread false accusations about Khashoggi and justify the murder.
Arab governments now hold the power to determine truth and manufacture public opinion through organized social media manipulation campaigns.
Indeed, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt represent the biggest bloc of global abusers of Twitter, after Russia and China, in terms of the number of fake and bot accounts taken down by Twitter. Globally, Saudi Arabia has the second highest number of accounts removed by Twitter, after China—but higher than Russia and Iran. Saudi Arabia also engages in “astroturfing”—that is, crafting campaigns that seem, falsely, to have wide public support—in which Saudi Twitter trolls even hijacked accounts of dead public figures to spread propaganda in support of Saudi Arabia. The purpose of such domestic manipulation operations is to create an illusion of popular support for the state and its leaders and drown out dissenting voices, thus undermining the right to information and democratic principles.
2) Foreign influence operations involve the orchestrated dissemination of state disinformation across borders to influence politics using computational propaganda. Arab governments, especially in the Gulf, have been using technology and social media tools to exert their political influence in the region and bolster fellow authoritarian rulers. Saudi Arabia and the UAE are at the forefront of such operations. Saudi Arabia has been named by Facebook and Twitter as one of the seven countries that have used their platforms in foreign operations to influence global audiences. For example, in May 2020, hundreds of accounts based in Saudi Arabia started tweeting about a “coup in Qatar,” spreading rumors believed to be part of the Saudi-led campaign to discredit Qatar’s leader, Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. Similarly, the Gulf crisis of 2016 was sparked by the UAE’s hacking of the Qatar News Agency and publishing false comments attributed to the emir of Qatar, after weeks of a targeted online campaign with thousands of Twitter bots tweeting coordinated anti-Qatar propaganda.
Arab regimes have been using social media as tools of information warfare to exert their political influence in the region and bolster fellow authoritarian rulers.
In another example, in 2019, the UAE and Egypt waged a social media disinformation and propaganda campaign in support of Sudan’s military, just days after a crackdown that killed at least 100 protesters. Similar social media operations were used in Libya by renegade Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s allies (Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, and Russia) to support him and in an attempt to overthrow the UN-backed government. The UAE has also used extreme methods of social media deception to improve its image internationally. For example, a network of 19 fake journalist accounts and AI-generated individual profiles were used to disseminate opinion pieces to the international media in support of the UAE government; they managed to publish 90 articles in 46 different international news outlets, including in the United States. Such foreign influence campaigns serve to entrench authoritarian rule, exacerbate conflict, and influence regional and international policies in the interest of the repressive regimes and perpetrators of these operations.
The third set of methods in the Arab autocrat’s tool kit involves surveillance, both mass and targeted. Arab governments, especially Saudi Arabia and the UAE, have invested millions of dollars on offensive technologies used for targeted espionage against those who challenge the regime and to surveil the populations at large..
1) The UAE and Saudi Arabia have emerged as the first Arab countries to pursue the Chinese model of sophisticated AI-enabled mass surveillance by investing in technology and championing “smart cities” that harvest mass scale data from residents. Examples are in Dubai and Abu Dhabi and the Saudi planned megacity Neom, which intends to use a data collection program called Neos. In Dubai, under the Oyoon (Eyes) project, thousands of closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras with automatic facial recognition technology employ artificial intelligence to monitor and track individuals around the city, including at tourist destinations, in public transportation, and on the roads. The UAE also uses the messaging app ToTok to track the conversations, images, audio, calendars, and physical movements of the millions of users who downloaded the application.
The UAE also uses the messaging app ToTok to track the conversations, images, audio, calendars, and physical movements of the millions of users who downloaded the application.
Furthermore, Google announced an agreement with the Saudi oil giant Aramco to establish a Google Cloud regional platform in the country, which would be one of the largest data storage and cloud computing services in the world. This vast data infrastructure hosting large quantities of regional information in Saudi Arabia is a major cause for concern. Given their abysmal record on human rights and that they deploy technology to stifle rights and freedoms and bolster autocratic regimes across the region, Saudi Arabia’s and the UAE’s potential access to such mass quantities of personal data—whether through smart cities, mobile tracking, or Google Cloud—is alarming. Such agreements between big tech companies and autocratic regimes enable the access and exploitation of international tech platforms and services for the purpose of digital repression.
2) Targeted surveillance methods, including spyware and tracking apps, are prevalent across the Arab world. The Israeli spyware industry, particularly NSO Group, has been selling cyber capabilities for at least a decade to authoritarian regimes around the world, including several Arab states. Both the UAE and Saudi Arabia are clients of NSO Group and have used its Pegasus spyware to target activists, journalists, and critics, including the murdered Saudi Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi and Emirati human rights defenders Ahmed Mansoor and Alaa Siddiqi. Other than the known case of NSO’s Pegasus spyware, countries across the region have used various means to hack and surveil online activists for years. Following the protests of 2019 in Egypt, the government used downloadable applications to install software on the phones of opposition figures and activists and gain access to files, emails, and locations.
Given their abysmal record on human and digital rights, Saudi Arabia’s and the UAE’s potential access to mass quantities of regional personal data is alarming.
The UAE went even further and invested in developing its own surveillance companies and products, such as spy firm DarkMatter and Project Raven with its Karma spyware. The UAE used Project Raven to target hundreds of individuals and governments in the Arab world, Europe, and the United States using the Karma spyware. With new technologies, as was shown in the Pegasus case of zero-click attacks, targeted surveillance methods have become more sophisticated such that the spyware can attack a smartphone without a user’s knowledge. More so, these surveillance methods transcend borders and enable autocratic regimes to reach targets and activists around the world, expanding the reach of their repression and control to transnational digital spaces.
Protecting Digital Rights
The ubiquity and proliferation of digital tools and infrastructures have created and facilitated new forms of oppression and authoritarianism. State and non-state actors across the Arab world continue to devise strategies and acquire cyber capabilities to entrench their control and squash challenges to their rule through surveillance, censorship, disinformation, manipulation, and targeted repression. Arab autocratic regimes are importing and developing models, systems, and technologies of digital authoritarianism and reshaping the power balance in the region.
Arab autocratic regimes are importing and developing models, systems, and technologies of digital authoritarianism and reshaping the power balance in the region.
With Saudi Arabia and the UAE leading the way in shutting down access to services and information and criminalizing free speech, while conducting organized mass manipulation and propaganda operations and manufacturing public opinion across borders, the future of human rights and democracy in the region looks bleak. While the proliferation of targeted spyware and mass surveillance infrastructures is already underway in the Arab world, this is only the beginning. Technological advancements continue to develop rapidly and big tech companies persist in expanding deals in the lucrative Saudi-Emirati market. In addition, with the growing imports of highly sophisticated spyware technologies and AI-assisted mass surveillance systems, a dystopian future awaits the region.
In order to address the distinct challenges presented by various tools of digital authoritarianism, a large-scale, universal, whole-of-society approach is needed, one that recognizes the transnational and multilateral nature of the challenge and integrates the different actors.
As digital authoritarianism is threatening the rights and freedoms of Arab citizens in their private and public lives and facilitating a widespread system of manipulation and control, immediate measures must be taken to protect digital rights and promote a free and democratic digital domain. Protecting digital rights in the Arab world is a challenge not only because of the lack of genuine interest and effort by Arab governments, but it is primarily due to the international and transnational nature and scope of the problem.
In order to address the distinct challenges presented by various tools of digital authoritarianism, a large-scale, universal, whole-of-society approach is needed. Such an approach would recognize the transnational and multilateral nature of the challenge and integrate the different actors, including tech companies and the private sector, civil society, governments and policy-makers, and international bodies. First, a universal digital governance code of conduct should be established to govern uses of information and communication technologies and services according to agreed-upon norms and principles within the framework of human rights and international law. Second, stronger legal frameworks and international mechanisms (such as those encompassing personal data protection and export controls) could prevent the use of digital technologies for repressive and authoritarian ends. Third, tech companies must be required to provide transparent information on uses of their platforms and held accountable for their role in supplying autocratic regimes with deadly tools. And finally, governments and civil society organizations in the Arab world and elsewhere should institute public awareness and digital literacy programs to increase resilience against misinformation, spyware, and malign influence operations.