Internet Pioneering in Four Arab Countries: The Internet as a Force for Democracy in the Middle East

September 15, 2008 at 8:37 am 1 comment

Jon W. Anderson & Michael C. Hudson

Can the Internet be a force for democracy? In the enthusiasm for all things Web of the 1990s, many thought it could be, and this period coincides with the Internet ‘going public’ throughout much of the Middle East.  Between 1999 and 2002, we conducted a comparative study of Internet implementation in Jordan, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt. Our study focused on the democratizing potential of the Internet, which we hypothesized would show up among advocates and early adopters and spread through their lateral relations in other sectors. This text is condensed from a final report (in 2003) to United States Institute of Peace, which provided a research grant, and a preliminary version of a planned Occasional Paper in the series published by the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies.

The Problem

To test hypotheses about the democratizing impact of the Internet, we sought to link three broad bodies of theory in a comparative and empirical study. The first, from International Relations, was that democracies do not go to war with each other, and so anything that promoted democratization in the Middle East would also be a factor for peace. This theory is well-grounded empirically, although its mechanics are still unclear. The second, from speculation about the Internet that flowered in the mid-1990s, was that its featuring of distributed responsibility, decentralized organization, user contribution of all information, and equal access to that information could be such a democratizing mechanism. The liberalizing affects of free access to and free flow of information is a longstanding, if problematic, proposition of liberal political theory. The third, more sociological, theory was that these effects would show up in and spread from a ‘middle management’ level of technically-trained and technically-inclined administrators in the public sector and their private sector counterparts, whom Anne Marie Slaughter had identified as new internationalists and the reality of globalization.[1] More specifically, their web of international and transnational relations forged around the technology, through conferences and planning for its implementation, and translating their cultural capital of valued expertise would provide not only a template for denser, more positive cooperation across borders hardened by politics and conflict, but would necessarily also spread ‘laterally’ into other sectors with the integration and spread of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) increasingly centered on the Internet and Internet principles.

So we focused on identifying, interviewing (repeatedly), attending the meetings and tracing the networks of advocates and early adopters, whom we identify as ‘Internet pioneers’, in four Arab countries. The countries were Jordan, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, whose differing economies, industrial and cultural policies provide a grid for comparison that can put findings and observations in context. Jordan and Egypt have embarked on policies of economic liberalization, which in the case of Jordan include significant social and limited political liberalization and growing pluralism. Syria and Saudi Arabia, by contrast, have much more controlled and centrally planned economies and industrial policies, still largely socialist in Syria’s case, though with some important openings that include the IT sector, and nominally capitalist in Saudi Arabia’s, with a heavy dose of ‘steering’ by political goals. Egypt’s is one of the larger economies in the region, and the largest population, while Jordan’s is among the smaller. Jordan and Syria share a common and regionally distinctive culture; while both are significantly poorer than Saudi Arabia. Jordan is the most integrated of the four into the American international economic system, the only Arab country with a free trade agreement with the US; Syria is the least. Egypt is the most economically dependent on the US, while Saudi Arabia arguably has the closest structural resemblance to the US economy and particularly in IT. Each has pursued policies, and had experiences, with IT that can be compared within this frame; and each has progressed in Internet implantation and implementation in different ways that relate back to these comparisons.

Over the two-and-a-half year course of this study, it expanded beyond the narrowest focus on pioneers. Broadly, our original hypothesis focused on where the early action – both technological and transnational – is rather than on where it has increasingly sunk into researchers that it isn’t, which is among end users. We’ve felt it necessary to broaden the original focus to include an attempt to understand why Arab countries have been relatively slow to embrace technologies important for developing knowledge-based societies,[2] and what the implications of Internet implantation might be for society and politics in the Arab world. Indeed, for policy discussions, this latter – known as the Digital Divide – has almost totally replaced earlier, optimistic projections of Digital Democracy anticipated to accompany the spread of the Internet. We believe that the original underlying hypothesis still has value: there is a democratizing potential in the Internet, if that potential is understood as increasing pluralization, dispersing decision-making, and forcing negotiations of power and policy into a less constrained public realm. Those effects do not show up as enhancement of individual agency at the expense of institutional power; they show up in a proliferation of institutions and inter-institutional relations, particularly of negotiations, and considerable activity around innovative alliance-formation.

Put differently, the Internet does not make actors more democratically inclined. Democratic inclinations are randomly distributed among Internet actors: there are Internet Authoritarians as well as Internet Libertarians in these – indeed, in all – societies. Visions of Internet liberation are just that, visions, and not well-grounded theories. They originate among software writers and in the engineering community that originally conceived and built the Internet in the image of its own (engineers’) work habits. They were subsequently picked up by promoters and early users of early versions of the Internet or its component technologies, notably journalists and pundits who experienced first-hand its transformative effects on their own work.[3] Much of what passed for Internet theory by the mid-1990s was generalization from a small sample of experience, not well contextualized, and in fact more properly a mix of folklore and promotion.[4] Its positive effect was to generate enthusiasm and to spread the word, which was fantastically successful. In fact this vision spread quickly to counterpart circles in the Middle East, where its most important impact was to support pro-IT policies, much as later fear of a Digital Divide spurred governments to spread computer literacy through educational and development projects.

The Project

We intersected early-to-middle phases of this process. In the Spring of 1999, before beginning our fieldwork, we were invited to address the second Al-Shaam International Conference on Information Technology, “Information Technology and Future Challenges in Developing Countries: Needs and Priorities” in Damascus, April 26-29. The conference provided an opportunity to establish a research foothold in Syria, one of the more challenging of the four country cases in our project. In Fall 1999, we formulated an open-ended interview questionnaire and pre-tested it with several ‘Internet innovators’ present in Washington, including the former Jordanian Minister of Information.

In Spring 2000, Dr. Anderson spent four months in Jordan as a Fellow at the American Center for Oriental Research,[5] made two trips of several weeks each to Syria and spent a month in Saudi Arabia, where he initiated contacts with Internet service providers, technical experts with those countries Internet regulators and others in the IT community. Dr. Hudson went to Syria and Egypt in June 2000. In Syria he interviewed several government officials concerned with Internet development, and also specialists in the Syrian Computer Society as well as emerging private sector IT entrepreneurs. President Hafez al-Asad died while he was there, setting off considerable speculation as to the future of IT in Syria inasmuch as he was being succeeded by his son Dr. Bashar al-Asad, a champion of the Internet. In Egypt we conducted a series of interviews in the engineering, educational, and policy community that brought the Internet to Egypt (in what turned out to be several stages).

Conferences, too, proved to be major sites for Internet thinking and networking at the time. In Jordan, Anderson was invited to King Abdullah’s 2000 conference for international IT executives and Jordanian companies that resulted in the formation of a business association with USAID assistance and whose first head later became Jordan’s ambassador to Washington. In September CCAS co-sponsored with the Center for Strategic and International Studies a presentation by Egypt’s first Minister for Communications and Information Technology, and in January 2001, when he returned to Washington, we conducted a long interview with him. Hudson traveled to Jordan and Syria in October 2000 for an additional series of interviews. In June 2001 Hudson and Anderson had an opportunity to visit Qatar to interview policy makers and the proprietors of several important Internet portals including and, and then went on to Jordan for further interviews and re-interviews. Among those interviewed in Amman were Queen Rania, who was already playing an active role in Jordan’s efforts to bring computer training into schools in order to bridge the Digital Divide. We also interviewed the first minister of communications and information technology as well as several politicians, academics, and members of the business community. Hudson addressed a conference on “The Impact of Transnational Processes on the Nation-State and National Cultures” sponsored by the Royal Institute for Inter-Faith Studies, and Anderson addressed the Jordanian chapter of the IEEE.

Our plan had been to identify early adopters in Arab countries and to begin to map the networks that emerge externally among counterparts and internally within their own countries.  We found a cadre of Internet innovators in Jordan, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Egypt and during the first phase of the project in 2000 identified key Internet players in those countries. Our inquiries led to a wide series of interactions with ICT researchers in the region and in the United States, and our main hypotheses were partly borne out by our empirical investigation. We did indeed observe a ‘top-down’ pattern of Internet diffusion in the four country cases, although there were significant variations among them. Heads of state and government and their advisors were particularly socialized to and influenced by global economic and ICT developments; and they were keen to utilize the technical capacity offered by the Internet to link their economies to the global order while at the same time trying to protect their societies (and their regimes). While these individuals exhibit ‘liberal’ and ‘participatory’ attitudes consistent with the Internet discourse in the West, they do not for the most part view themselves as performing a political democratizing mission. Instead, their perspectives are narrower, more pragmatic, and oriented toward improving business and governmental capacity rather than expanding democracy in their countries.

These findings lead us to question the generalizations being made by other researchers on the Internet in developing countries that the Internet has no democratizing effect and perhaps even enhances the authoritarian ruling structures.[6] First are considerable differences between countries. In our sample, Saudi Arabia and Syria exhibit ‘deeper’ authoritarianism than do Jordan and Egypt; yet even in these ‘information averse’ political cultures we find Internet innovators generating networks and creating communities of thought and interest that inevitably challenge the ruling structure. Internet innovators in civil society, notwithstanding stated ‘lukewarm’ attitudes toward liberal political reform, incrementally enhance a practical culture of liberalism. Moreover, while one of our main political findings is the ‘top-down’ nature of Internet diffusion, we doubt that rulers can fully succeed in controlling the Internet’s wider social effects, even assuming that this is their intention. The rulers in each country have energetically promoted Internet diffusion (accompanied by varying degrees of attempted control) because they see the technology as enhancing capacity. Elements within the ruling elites – and they are usually the young – recognize that the capacities needed for jump-starting sluggish development must involve technologies that entail open communications and encourage networking. Thus, capacity becomes an intervening variable between the Internet and democratization unrecognized in initial enthusiasm (and subsequent disappointments) for the Internet and still not registering among analysts.

The point should not be overstated. We see a similar technological effect of opening the political field to a new class of participants such as the Dean presidential campaign in the US.  But not only is the Internet thinly present, the political arena is far narrower and access to it more controlled. Nonetheless, even in Saudi Arabia the Internet is prompting debate and even facilitating opposition in an unprecedented way; in Syria the dissonance between an increasingly opened society and an anachronistically closed regime is striking; and in all countries the Internet is a channel for growing middle classes.

Our second qualitative axis of investigation focused on how Internet communities are formed. Our hypothesis about horizontal connections among public sector technocrats was borne out in personal histories and  replicated in contemporary networking among private sector businesspeople. Each forms an international network: the public sector Internet innovators often met under UN or similar inter-governmental auspices, or on loan as international experts, while the private-sector players more commonly met through networking efforts of US universities, of which many are alumni, or under auspices of USAID or Euro-Med development programs. In these Internet and more broadly ICT-focused communities, we observed that democracy is ‘catching on’ among the rising middle classes, both in spreading practices and in values, but indirectly. Internet innovators’ attitudes emphasized professional values and ‘quality of life’ interests rather than a confrontational position on authoritarian national (and national-security, mukhabarat) issues that had defined the ‘independence generation’ of the 1950s and 1960s. Clearly, a generational transition could, theoretically, have taken a different ideological profile (and in come quarters does) and continues to bear watching.

What are the Social Dynamics of the Internet?

The Internet may be imagined as a series of circles, extending from technical to political, that engage the real social dynamics of the Internet, starting with its birth in the community of engineering and applied science, whose values on openness, dispersed decision-making, flat hierarchies, and general-purpose tools were the ones initially built into the technology. From this narrow base, the Internet spread to adjacent scientific communities and eventually, under government sponsorship, throughout higher education and to the professionals it trained. Core features of the Internet were forged in these contexts before it became a public phenomenon that spread to the general population through commercial exploitation fostered by deregulation and divestment of public-sector assets. So, too, in the Middle East, the first users were scientists and engineers who participated in world-wide communities of research and development, then the academic institutions that trained them. In the Middle East, these institutions were more narrowly based telemedicine or in government research-and-development operations than the broad university bases in the US and from which researching scientists are relatively more divorced in Middle East countries, where universities are primarily training institutions and house far less research in comparison both to leading western universities and to national centers for research in these countries. Here, the key actors were public sector technocrats with up-to-date and often cutting-edge training, laboring in privileged isolation, often focused on administrative reform, to which they brought models and machinery forged in the international IT sector and in which some of them were significant players.

Essentially, national research centers did not prove to be channels to the wider societies. Public sector technocrats with expensive foreign educations and skills that could be applied anywhere were dedicated to national development, housed in national centers for research and development, from which they operatinalised national development as providing tools for administrative modernization – in effect, the ‘soft’ counterpart of the hard infrastructure of roads, electrification, factories, irrigation. In this context, the Internet was not a thing but a bundle of the technologies already known and in use, but behind the scenes.

In this context, the Internet has a ‘second genesis’ in the form of later-coming entrepreneurs, often with the same training as public sector technocrats but more focused on creating businesses and, necessarily, on making room to create businesses. Like the public sector technocrats, they were close to the rulers, but as a group they represent a pressure outside the ruling institutions and often were inspired by the models and visions increasingly bruited about in the press and in business publications and training. What they drew on is the Internet model and vision of its public interpreters and promoters in and to the private sector. In this, they were abetted by shifts in the international political economy of aid from earlier emphasis on modernization as infrastructure development and exemplified in big projects to the paradigm of globalization that promotes market-driven business development of the private sector with a sort of ‘trickle up’ faith. Making the world, or in this case a corner of the world, safe for international standard business as denominated in WTO and WIPO terms also makes the world safe for the Internet, and vice versa. In this context, IT provides a lever and the new international political economy provides the context. So, by the late-1990s Internet and telecommunications boom, the accent shifted from public sector technocrats laboring behind the scenes to private sector entrepreneurs pressing demands and visions into the public realm as a sort of companion or partner of the state in a new scheme of development beyond strictly public-sector models associated in the past with ‘modernization’.

Although drawing on common mid-1990s Internet visions, this picture differs in some significant respects from their overwhelming emphasis on enhanced agency accruing to the end-user of the technology.[7] That vision invigorated local and regional developments, both commercial in the private sector and focused on education in the public sector; but the real sociology and outcome is more structural. What Internet visions spawn is creative institution-building, alliance-seeking, and coalition-making involving widening circles of actors that produce a more plural social scene with more dispersed decision-making that is more visible and open, not for itself (as in popular Internetology) but for the additional cultural and social capital it foregrounds along with global trends. In other words, the Internet breaks down boundaries not by enhancing individual agency but by not fitting existing institutions and so leading to building alliances and coalitions. Paradoxically, a key element in each case is commitments of the highest political authorities to the concept of IT generally and the Internet specifically as a key development sector and engine of development in the economy and in education. Even more paradoxically, in view of much publicized speculation and widespread stories about religious resistance, an important dimension of practical support for actual development comes from the religious sector, both for investment and as clients of on-the-ground Internet businesses who are often more reliable and long-term than commercial ones.

This is not to say simply that popular Internetology is false, or that the Middle East is an another exception, but that understandings of IT were based on narrow experiences and absent a context are in fact indeterminate, as the swing from optimistic views of Digital Democracy to more pessimistic ones about Digital Divide exemplifies. Democratic values are essentially randomly distributed with respect to Internet enthusiasms, knowledge, experience, and intentions at the actor level. At the institutional level they have social and political impact through familiar processes of forming alliances and coalition-building. What emerges is a pattern of inter-institutional competition followed by creation of new institutions for new technologies, exemplified in Egypt and Jordan where PTT ministries were dismembered and succeeded by new ministries for communications and information technology that gave an institutional prominence and base to the latter that it earlier lacked. Spreading the Internet is not a matter of accumulating users. It is a matter of institutional colonization that provides a social, political, and economic base for the transnational culture of ICT and institutional entrenchment linking those bases to real interests and cultural values. The political key to the process is sponsorship at the highest political levels that flow first to public sector technocrats and then, more problematically, into private sector development, and is linked to generational transitions not only in technologies but also in the advent of a new generation of political leaders, which itself is variable across our sample countries. Almost everything else predicted by popular Internetology bandied about in think tanks is upended upon empirical examination largely due to missing the contexts in which these processes play out.

Country Comparisons

The pattern and gross features of these processes emerge in a variety of data we assembled in this project. They include repeated interviews with the principals, in histories and recreation of institutions in both public and private sectors, in timelines of decisions in each country that trace specific Internet profiles in each. Certain features that recur in each include initial Internet installations in engineering and applied science corners of universities and national research institutes modeled on and connecting them with counterparts in other nations. Quickly these are overtaken, displaced, or coopted by locally better-connected institutional players in the public sector, typically devoted to telemedicine and other data resources, that intersect the international public sector of UNO and related international agencies. Credit accumulated through successful demonstration projects is converted into social capital through high-level patronage, and Internet champions emerge as spokespersons for new opportunities.


Jordan fairly burst upon the international Internet scene in a 1996 Business Week article that breathlessly recounted the establishment in Amman of an electronic bulletin board featuring open discussion of political and social issues and an “Ask the Government” chatroom where then-Minister of Information Marwan Muasher fielded emailed questions from subscribers. Previously Jordan’s ambassador to Israel, subsequently ambassador to the US, and currently Minister of Foreign Affairs, Dr. Muasher, whose PhD is in computer engineering from Purdue, announced a no-censorship policy for electronic communication, including for international Internet connections, that is still unique in the region. Since then, this ISP and its local service has been held up as a model and as a response to attempts to regulate what passes over the Internet in and into Jordan. The company that ran it was a spinoff of a computer equipment supply firm, initially a fax service and part of one of Jordan’s major transport companies; one of the partners is the current Jordanian ambassador to the US, where he also studied computer science and business administration.

Jordan’s other ISP at the time was a venture of Global One, an international partnership of US Sprint, Deutsche Telekom, and France Telecom, into which it has subsequently been reabsorbed after France Telecom purchased a minority share in the privatized Jordanian state telephone company. Global One actually provided the first public Internet service in Jordan, following a successful demonstration at the MENA summit conference in Amman in 1995, when it linked through the satellite telemedicine facilities of the King Hussein Hospital. GO-Jordan’s founder trained in computer and telecoms engineering in Silicon Valley and began the service as a store-and-forward email alternative to faxes. Jordan subsequently linked to FLAG, the Fiber Optic Link Around the Globe, expanded satellite connections, licensed over a dozen additional Internet Service Providers (ISPs). It was also home to the first transnational Arab website, Arabia OnLine, now Arabia.Com, founded by a graduate of Jordan University’s medical school and former computer games journalist for Byte-Middle-East, which has since ceased publishing.

So the founding moments of Jordan’s Internet presence, which as Business Week noted in 1996 was far in advance of any other Arab country’s public presence on the Internet, featured a confluence of rising young elites, foreign training in state-of-the-art professions, a drive to find and found businesses based on IT and particularly around technologies supporting the Internet. It included carving out new telecoms services just beyond what the conventional PTTs provided and new forms of journalism just beyond the borders of the print trade, but building on those paradigms in both cases while campaigning for space to create new institutions in a suddenly expanding communications ecology, to whose expansion they contributed. Both were also followed up by intense lobbying to secure those spaces and rights to them, including laws protecting them from censorship and from the state telecos, and surrounded by similar efforts to create alternative telecoms and on-line media services. And each has subsequently been acquired: Arabia.Com by the Kingdom Holding Company of Saudi Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal that also holds interests in mobile telephones and Arabic satellite television, GO-Jordan by France Telecom, which bought a minority share of the privatized Jordanian state teleco and became its operator, and NETS, the object of the Business Week article, by the privatized former state telephone company of Bahrain, which has acquired other ISPs in Jordan and elsewhere in anticipation of further opening of monopolized teleco markets.

It also included significant shifts of patronage, The prehistory of Jordan’s Internet goes back 15 or more years to an earlier generation who received foreign training, then in Britain, in state-of-the-art computer engineering coming out of the advent of mini-computing, early networking and multi-media, and dominated by the then-new applied science of Management Information Systems (MIS). This generation found employment in the public sector, eventually in the state research and development center of the Royal Scientific Society, where they worked under the patronage of then Crown Prince Hassan bin Talal on projects variously to modernize administration by automating it according to MIS principles and practices. Their efforts laid the basis for the 1995 public debut of the Internet at an international conference in Amman and imported the component technologies and model of the Internet subsequently taken into the private sector by another generation that enjoyed a shift in royal patronage under the new King Abdullah II. That accompanied a shift in US foreign aid from the military and financing Jordan’s deficit to promoting market development led by investment in and training for ICT.

In this process, the state PTT was first outflanked through access to state-owned alternative technology financed initially for telemedicine and for the military (which owned a nationwide fiber optic network), then politically through partial opening of the telecoms sector to ‘alternative’ services (fax, email), then sold to a foreign operator, finally losing its political base in a reorganization that folded the former communications ministry into a new Ministry of Communications and Information Technology, headed by a businessman trained in computer-engineering and charged with fostering the new IT sector, not with protecting telephone company turf. It has a private sector counterpart in a professional association of ICT businesses, INT@J, assisted by US aid-finance and consultants to promote ICT to the public and to lobby the government for international standard laws and regulations.

Viewed in the context of its institutional structures, the Internet in Jordan has very little to do with its end users there. Although described by many as “the only free place in Jordan,” it does not exist apart from that society. It is embedded in related businesses, such as transport, in the opening of telecommunications, in publishing, in long-standing ties to the west, and in shifts in those ties from Britain to the US that shape cohort formation and seeking education abroad. At the macro-level, it is embedded also in international regimes promoted by aid policies. Changes in industrial policy and royal patronage are the most immediate variables shaping Internet implementation and its resulting leverage. It has always been developed to leverage some other objective, from administrative modernization to business development, always included leveraging public sector assets, and always against other parts of the public sector whether other state agencies or the state teleco. It is thoroughly transnational, from initial inspirations to later acquisitions, as are many other Jordanian institutions. While none is a decisive factor, their sum points to patterns of inter-institutional competitions, resolved in creating new institutions for new technologies, and redrawing boundaries largely in institutional terms and to increasingly international standards. None of these features is unique to Jordan.


Much as Jordan exemplifies Internet openness, Saudi Arabia has served as the paragon of closure in global comparisons.[8] It has been the last in the region, save for Iraq, to sanction public Internet service, and then with the most systematic censorship regime (although also the most public) that, combined with religious conservatism and high prices, are commonly interpreted as restricting access. At the same time, it has been expected to be the country potentially most exposed to Internet effects, both political and commercial. Within the region, Saudi Arabia’s combination of wealth and population is seen as the largest potential market for Internet service and the Internet as a lever that could open that market. All of this may be true but bears little relation to the realities either of the Internet or of its installation in Saudi Arabia.

The first Saudi institution to connect to the Internet was the College of Computer Science & Engineering at King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals in 1993,[9] the same year and the same capacity that Egyptian universities got their first Internet connection. Another was established at King Faisal Specialist Hospital in Riyadh in 1994, and both were switched in 1995 to the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology (KACST), the national research center. KACST was charged with developing and maintaining a national data network based on Internet technology and with devising and implementing a plan to extend the service from universities, hospitals, and research institutes to the public that was approved by the Council of Ministers in 1997 and implemented in early 1999. The gaps were widely interpreted as political foot-dragging – or to cultural policy – but this overlooks two other internal contexts to which Internet development was tied.

Contrary to the image of being last on-line, Saudi Arabia was one of the first in the Arab world. Its Internet prehistory began in the 1980s when the Kingdom was linked to BITNET, a university-based precursor to the Internet and subsequently consolidated into it; and it sponsored the creation in 1985 of GULFNET, based at KACST. A Saudi counterpart to the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health in the US, KACST both houses research projects and sponsors others. The principal purpose of GULFNET, which initially connected ten Saudi and three Kuwait institutes, was to provide access to online databases maintained at KACST or accessed through KACST’s international connection to the NIH and a consortium of US universities that was opened in 1987.[10] This corresponds to the period in the US when early experiments in inter-networking were consolidated by the NSF into a national data network (NSFNET) connecting universities and research labs that came to be called the Internet.

Three other technological installations shaped the context of Internet development in Saudi Arabia. A national data network primarily for financial communications and based on another pre-Internet technology was commissioned by the state PTT in 1989.[11] Second, a multi-billion dollar upgrade of the national telephone system with capability for dial-up networking was installed in two stages beginning in the mid-1990s. Third, and most important, local area networks (LANs) installed at universities and research institutes began migrating to the Internet protocol, known as TCP/IP, on which KACST’s national backbone ran and to which GULFNET was converted.

It is worth considering what this means. In the year that the Egyptian University Network was created for reasons similar to GULFNET a decade before, a year before Jordan was first connected to NSFNET and another year before that connection was upgraded to an Internet link, two years before Syria’s first connection by the state telephone monopoly and three years before it provided Internet to government ministries and university computing centers, Saudi Arabia had an Internet infrastructure with international connections comparable to what the NSF developed in the US between 1985 and 1995. It was technically on a par with and structurally modeled on the NSF’s by agencies also patterned on US counterparts, where Saudi personnel had trained. That is, a research-serving network based in public institutions and with public sector funding, providing access to databases and information services – in the Saudi case, as initially in Jordan, primarily for telemedicine – but already spreading to additional research and training centers, including a national library network. In other words, it was conceived, developed, and installed as an information system with international standards and connections of its US counterparts. This included turning over infrastructure development to the telephone company, which had started in the US and became policy after 1995 in anticipation of coming public access and growing commercial use, but on a base laid in the scientific research and engineering communities that operationalized their already international connections and outlook.

This ‘installed base’ has continued to be important in extending the Internet to the Saudi public and shaped that process. The Council of Ministers assigned an advisory role to KACST in 1997, when the state telecom (STC) was also privatized and ISPs were licensed. A sort of ‘gold rush’ ensued: some 170 companies applied to provide Internet service in high expectations for e-commerce (at that point speculative) and to capture the potential new source of rents. A period of public discussion, parts of which emerged in the Saudi press and some of which was noticed in the international press, ensued along with intense competition over the resources then shared between KACST and the STC. While issues of cultural appropriateness and national development were the coin of these discussions, the appropriateness context involved a licensing system that effectively restricted business to ‘qualified’ firms. The development context was a earlier ruling by King Fahd that members of the extended Saudi royal family, then numbering in the thousands, should become self-supporting in business and, reportedly, attempts by younger members of the families of the Defense and Internal Security ministers to grab this one. In effect, competition emerged over new, potential sources of rent and disposition of resources where the state sector met the private sector, much as followed telecoms deregulation in the mid-1990s in the US.

This, and not censorship, which was treated as a technical matter of system design (using proxy servers and a single national gateway to the international Internet), delayed introduction of public service through commercial and government ISPs until early 1999. A decision locally attributed to Crown Prince Abdallah affirmed the primacy of KACST by vesting licensing authority in it and set wholesale rates to service providers and the rates that they could charge retail customers so that Internet service would not be profitable by itself but only in combination with other ‘value-added’ services. This quickly reduced the companies bidding to establish ISPs to those already in related businesses from network design and installation to electronic publishing, software development, systems integration, web-design and hosting that could leverage Internet service to develop their other businesses. That is, the issue was resolved at the level of industrial policy to aggressively leverage technology to diversify the economy by developing a tech sector while returning rent to the telephone company; unsurprisingly, the more speculative bids to provide retail-level Internet service melted away.[12]

Whether such a structure will work is problematic, but how it works is not. KACST is charged to implement Internet service that fosters technological development in the public sector and development of a private technological sector through a combination of design and financial regulation it administers but does not set. That, and cultural regulation, are under continuous discussion, feedback from users, and adjustment,[13] but within the context of an industrial policy that, on the one hand, diverts rents to state agencies (STC, primarily, and primarily from access charges) and, on the other hand, fosters development of a technological sector.[14] With rent-seeking by speculators constrained institutionally, Saudi policy since 1997 has directed coordination between STC and KACST, charging STC with ‘hard’ infrastructure development while giving the lead in ‘soft’ infrastructure to KACST. At one level, for physical connectivity, KACST is as dependent as the ISPs on STC; but telecoms has a new player in Saudi Arabia with a new institution (KACST’s Internet Services Unit) that takes the lead for designing and implementing the new (Internet) technology.


Structurally, Egypt falls between the Jordanian and Saudi approaches and policies. It has a vibrant private sector, but with a large dose of top-down direction, a history of government-directed incentives, of founding new institutions for resolving impasses of inter-institutional competitions, and of institutions that took over initial efforts in the research sector by more capable, also public-sector, institutions. From mid- to late-1990s, virtually every provider was connected to the Internet through the Information and Decision Support Center (IDSC) of the Egyptian Cabinet Office that aggressively promoted Internet for development through its Regional Information Technology and Software Engineering Center (RITSEC) and for a period provided connections to select businesses and state agencies for free to promote Internet use.[15]

Egypt’s first Internet connection was established (to France) by the Egyptian Universities Network in 1993 to connect a user community of researchers to international databases over a link (9.6 Kbs) equivalent to the fastest home dialup connection then available in the US.[16] This initial BITNET connection was upgraded to Internet Protocol and connected to NSFNET later that year. In the following year, .gov and .com domains were given to the IDSC, which increased bandwidth to 64 Kbps and added equipment that allowed for more users in cooperation with the state-owned Egypt Telecom (ET, privatized in 1998 but not yet sold). Essentially, through RITSEC, IDSC took over Internet development in Egypt and guided it into a new Ministry of Information and Communication Technology, whose first head was a former IDCS director. In between, IDSC actively promoted Internet development in Egypt by technical upgrades, offering free service to select companies and government agencies, actively pursuing international aid for its projects, building a national data network backbone, offering free service to select companies and government agencies, and sponsoring an association of Internet professionals and businesses modeled on the Internet Society in the US to recruit users as allies: As Tarek Kamel, then-technical director of RITSEC put it, “Internet users in Egypt are considered as a major component of the Internet universe.”[17]

IDSC was a less far-reaching institution than KACST and structurally more comparable to Jordan’s Royal Scientific Society. It was built around foreign-trained local experts, powerfully positioned as a branch of the Egyptian cabinet office, where it was housed, unlike KACST or the RSS. IDSC experts, trained in economics and administration including the computer-science-based field of MIS, to which several made internationally significant contributions, established their professional capital by consolidating Egypt’s scattered public-sector international debt, and then aggressively seeking development assistance for soft infrastructure projects of administrative rationalization that propagated their models of information and decision support throughout government agencies. Internet was part of this effort, and the IDSC essentially pre-empted the university sector’s initial steps by developing and giving away access to promote the Internet as a development tool, and then spinning off projects into private sector enterprises.

One distinctive feature of this project-based process has been that Egypt, by comparison with the other countries in this study, has had multiple international gateways that are only partially provided by the state telephone monopoly, and relegation of the state teleco to a supporting role. As in Jordan and Saudi Arabia, the Internet was pressed as a new technology, but with greater institutional success, resulting in an Internet backbone that is separate from the telephone system, which does not maintain its infrastructure, while the two are integrated at the user end under an arrangement that makes Internet service available to end users through Egypt Telecom remitting a potion of subscriber connection charges to their ISPs. In effect, ET pays ISPs for bringing it business. This arrangement was made institutionally possible by dissolving the PTT Ministry, divesting the telephone company, and creating a new Ministry of Information and Communication Technology that oversees both Egypt Telecom and Internet services provided by the private sector, essentially nationalizing their bill-collection and through that regulating their rates.

The IDSC’s role in this process has been that of an alternative institution and home to technical experts, who leverage their professional capital to create other new institutions that circumvent inter-institutional competition and its inertias. It has created several of enterprises with public-sector and international development funding and spun them off as private-sector businesses, including the company that builds the Internet backbone, subsequently headed by another former IDSC director and Egypt’s most prominent Internet guru and promoter. Its more active role, and greater success in promoting its own models, than KACST or the RSS derive from leveraging its technical expertise and patronage in a context of state direction of private sector development that shifted from central planning to projects. In addition, the same IDSC and RITSEC personnel have promoted ICT regionally through UNO, Arab League, and other forums and networks with counterparts in other countries in the region.


The Syrian case is particularly interesting combination of a strong desire for Internet development at the highest levels of the regime and in key parts of civil society, mainly the business community, with contradictions throughout. The ideology of Ba’athist Arab nationalism, with its strong emphasis on socioeconomic development and national ‘liberation’ has an ingrained aversion to an information-rich societal environment. A quintessential ‘mukhabarat’ (national security) state, its managers fear too much and too unrestricted access to information on the part of a society helps elements working to overthrow the regime; on the other hand they espouse developmental goals, especially in the areas of education, manpower training, and technology essential to jump-starting Syria’s sluggish development.

Contrary to expectations, however, the main axis of tension surrounding Internet implantation is not so much ideological as bureaucratic. In our interviews we detected relatively little opposition to Internet development on nationalist grounds. On the contrary, the officials we interviewed expressed an emphatic concern to harness the Internet for the ‘education’ of key sectors of society. They were well aware that the Internet could enhance Syria’s developmental capacity. To be sure, some members of the old guard (one a former Information Minister) bluntly stated that their mission was to ‘protect’ the Syrian public from subversive information, especially coming from Israel. These voices, however, appeared to us to be marginalized by others (younger people) in the power circles who see the Internet as a powerful tool for national liberation in the social development sense. There was a constant emphasis among some of the technocrats in the government on utilizing the Internet to raise literacy levels and to create a manpower base that would help Syria compete in the global economy. Unlike Saddam Hussein’s Iraq—where the former dictator was quoted as equating the Internet with the devil—Dr. Bashar al-Asad’s regime in Syria welcomed the Internet as an asset in national development.

The other ideological obstacle we anticipated—conservative Islam—was also relatively mute. That may be due in part to the government’s suppression of Islamist movements since the Islamists challenged the regime in the late 1970s and early 1980s. To be sure, the main focus of attempted censorship of the World Wide Web by the Syrian authorities is on what are seen as immoral pornographic sites—one respondent estimated that 85 percent of the blocked sites were of this type. But we detected no concerted religious pressures against Internet introduction; and, in fact, Syria’s Grand Mufti and most popular television shaykh, Mohammed al-Buti, had a website of his sermons, religious opinions, and books and articles.

But Internet development in Syria has been halting and slower than in the other three countries we studied. The obstacles appear to be mainly bureaucratic. During the period of our field research (1999-2001), a main problem was competition between the Syrian Telecommunications Establishment (STE), the state monopolizer of communications infrastructure, and ‘young Turks’ who counted as their leaders none other than the sons of the late dictator, President Hafez al-Asad. The president’s eldest son Basil, an engineer by training, became first president of the Syrian Computer Society (SCS), founded in 1988. Following his unexpected death in an automobile accident in 1994, the younger son Bashar took up the ‘computer portfolio’ and became the patron of the SCS and helped it become the cutting edge of Internet development in Syria in the late 1990s. The SCS came to provide the organizational expression of scientists’, engineers’, and business interests and to serve as an institutional point of pressure against the entrenched interests embedded in the state. If the STE was the main obstacle within the government apparatus, which was rooted in a strong ideological commitment to a planned economy dominated by large public sector establishments, there was also opposition from the two other bureaucratic pillars of the Syrian state: the Ba’ath Party and the security services. When we inquired whether the Ba’ath Party, as the self-proclaimed vanguard of Syria’s development, was playing a strong role in Internet development, we were met with amused smiles in the private sector and reformist circles of the government itself. One individual remarked that most Ba’athist apparachiks were probably completely unfamiliar with computers, let alone the Internet. While the Syrian state-security organizations are, no doubt, very familiar with IT and its benefits for surveillance, they are also, apparently, the most reluctant to endorse the SCS reformists’ goals of providing cheap Internet service throughout the country. One SCS official sketched the contradiction in an imaginary scenario of an illiterate mother in the remote town of Abu Kamal (on the Iraqi border) seizing the opportunity to use the Internet to communicate with her son working in Saudi Arabia.

The underlying problem for Syria is mobilizing the resources and political will to spread the Internet geographically and socially. An initial plan was to propagate it from government ministries to their supplier and client agencies, and from those to the public; but there are formidable obstacles, most seriously created by bureaucratic rivalries. The SCS proposed a series of plans for Internet development that it would implement and the STE rejected, eventually settling for becoming the second Internet Service Provider (after the STE), but only for its members and, in time, extended constituency. Two years into the regime of the young president and Internet enthusiast, Dr. Bashar al-Asad, these logjams persist. There are other obstacles, too. A very serious one is the economic sanctions imposed by the U.S. government on Syria, which it has designated as a “terrorist state.” A diplomat at the U.S. embassy in Damascus concerned with economic affairs confirmed what several Syrian businessmen in the private-sector IT business told us: American sanctions make it extremely difficult to acquire legally the software necessary to deepen Internet exposure in the country. Unlike Jordan and Egypt, which have been strongly supported by the U.S. in their IT development, Syria has found the U.S. to be a major obstacle in its quest for IT growth. And so, Internet expansion in Syria is hobbled by failures to overcome political institutional obstacles that have slowed its economic development in general, and by its pariah status in an American-dominated global economy that it embraces perhaps least of the countries in our study. Whether the tacit coalition of younger-generation reformers within the regime and a growing IT private-sector business community (we were given a list of over 60 private IT firms) can overcome these obstacles remains to be seen.

Analysis and Prognosis: Sociological Patterns

Our analysis can be roughly divided between the “sociological” and “political” dimensions of Internet implantation in the four countries under study. On the sociological side, we offer the following findings:

  • Institution-building, not enhancement of individual agency, is the real story of the Internet in Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Syria.
  • New IT cohorts form around foreign-training, which introduces practices and standards of that training, ties generational succession to shifts of patronage and resources and to alumni networks.
  • New generations with the new cultural capital of the Internet in seeking to connect to existing resources and find new ones struggle to overcome existing bureaucratic obstacles and ideological dogmatism.
  • Educational institutions in these countries do not have substantial resources, but they do have technological expertise and command of international standards; and they are where the political capital of old school ties is forged that may link them with power centers.
  • Propensity and talent for alliance-building among the Internet innovators in civil society, including a capacity for securing high-level patronage, fosters a ‘second genesis’ for Internet development under globalization introduced by new external patrons and resources.
  • The Internet has been implanted and implemented by recruiting users, forming weak coalitions, and exploiting common practical interests to a greater extent than abstract ideological goals.
  • A distinction between soft infrastructure of attitudes and practices and the hard infrastructure of material resources may parallel the relation of trading companies to the political economy of oil-rentier states.
  • There is a distinction between industrial policy and cultural policy in each case, with industrial policy the stronger determinant. Cultural policy frames discussion until institutional issues are resolved; then it disappears. Culture managers are as interested in using the Internet as business people and educators.
  • Government policies aim to enhance access, not restrict access; they seek to break down the barriers of price and regulation while aiming to prevent ISPs from becoming source of rent, in order to turn IT into a development tool and foster an IT development sector.
  • Reformists within the regimes and liberal businesspeople in civil society share desires to get on the globalization bandwagon and form coalitions around doing so, some of which take the form of formal organizations (often under foreign donor sponsorship).

Political patterns

Our investigations have led us to a series of conclusions about the political implications of Internet implantation in the four countries under study. To be sure, these propositions need further investigation in other countries in the region, which we hope to undertake in the future.

  • The process of Internet implantation was essentially ‘top-down’. In Jordan and Syria, young heads of state themselves have driven the process. In Egypt, the Internet pioneers’ success derived from bureaucratic entrepreneurship in mobilizing the state’s resources to promote Egypt as a regional Internet leader. Saudi Arabia’s royal leadership lodged the Kingdom’s Internet development in a ‘neutral’ governmental institution, the King Abdel Aziz City for Science and Technology.
  • Internet implantation is also heavily influenced by exogenous sources. The US government, driven by current neo-liberal developmental ideology, has vigorously assisted Egypt and Jordan, as have international financial institutions and NGOs. The global IT business community, driven by the desire for markets, has worked actively in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, while Jordanian and Egyptian leaders have enthusiastically wooed the global IT giants. Only Syria thus far neither finds nor vigorously seeks much international support for Internet development, but this situation may be changing.
  • One of two main axes of contestation in the politics of Internet implantation is a struggle that occurs within the government between the entrenched bureaucracy of state telecommunications monopolies and the Internet innovators who typically enjoy special support from the head of state or other high officials. In Egypt, Jordan, and Syria this struggle pits interests that wish to monopolize and direct the diffusion of IT against those who view it as a developmental technology that should be made available broadly at affordable prices. These battles are generally being won by the Internet reformers, often piecemeal, while public telecoms are being privatized, with private (and foreign) capital participation, and old PTT ministries are being transformed into ministries of information technology and communications. New ministers in Jordan and Egypt have a liberal mandate to “bring their countries into the information age.”
  • The other main axis of contestation is between the state and the private sector. While Internet diffusion is essentially state-driven, the private sector argues that it should eventually have the responsibility (and the opportunity) for development of the Internet sector, competitively, as is the practice in most Western countries as well as in Lebanon and Dubai. Some businessmen point to Dubai model, in which the state provides real estate and tax incentives to attract global IT firms, as the best model; while more state-oriented officials in Egypt and Syria insist that the state must ensure that scarce IT resources be directed for public developmental purposes, not just private profit.
  • In practice, however, there is growing collaboration between state officials and private business. Even in Syria, with its Ba’athist ideological tradition of state socialism, the Internet sector uneasily straddles the state-private sector divide, with the Syrian Computer Society as an ostensibly “outsider” catalyst for cooperation between the regime and a nascent but growing private IT sector. The result, in political terms, is a gradualist approach that precludes any genuinely independent IT private sector for the foreseeable future and maintains substantially more government control over technology than in Jordan or Egypt.
  • Conspicuously absent in making Internet policy is involvement by political parties, the media, autonomous think-tanks or university experts. These elements from what would constitute “civil society” in the West appear to be completely (in the case of parties) or largely (in the case of university experts) outside the decision-making process. Ironically, it is the State which is promoting a technology that among other things is supposed to invigorate civil society.
  • The ‘Internet elite’ consists of young (men and some women in their 20’s and 30’s), technically trained (engineers, business school grads), middle-class entrepreneurs and government officials. Its members appear to have constructed a certain communal identity based not only on their technical expertise and occupations but also on networks of old-school ties and family connections. In Jordan, at least, young members from families well-connected to the socio-political establishment help drive the Internet private sector.
  • Internet entrepreneurs from the private sector for the most part do not appear committed to political ideologies or parties. They do not indicate a strong desire for democracy. They criticize governmental inefficiency and stasis but seem content to work within the system. Most place doing business, practicing their professions, and making money as their highest priorities. Many also believe in societal development, and feel that the Internet so far is underused as a resource for education and knowledge.
  • Government officials involved with Internet and IT generally express a stronger and more overt commitment to “the public good” than do private sector entrepreneurs. Older officials in Jordan, for example, who were associated with the national project for information development, still believe in the virtues of a centralized information program as opposed to relatively undirected private sector-led development.
  • One of the most significant dimensions of the Internet in the Arab political context is its effects on the opposition. The rise of networked opposition movements, notably of an Islamist character, appears to be enhanced by the instrumental capacity for networking that the Internet and other ICTs from cell phones to videos provide. Inasmuch as some of these opposition movements are extremist in their aims to bring down whole regimes rather than just contesting within narrow regime-established limits, we see a radical counterpoint to the main proposition that we have been investigating in this study, namely that the Internet promotes liberal and possibly even democratic contestation in authoritarian political settings. This ‘oppositional effect’ seems to work in the following ways:

1. IT, and the Internet especially, allow for easy establishment and proliferation of electronic ‘newspapers’ that may perform many of the traditional political functions of newspapers in the past. In this region, many political parties were essentially built around newspapers.

2. IT also permits ‘other voices’ to influence the ruling circles by diffusing their messages into global circuits. An NGO with an Internet site or access to satellite broadcasters gains attention, and influence, in power centers by channeling its content through centers of global power and legitimation. The leverage of a human rights group is the ‘value added’ that its message picks up from being bounced off Washington or Geneva.

3. Putting this in American political science terms, we might say that the press as a potential ‘fourth estate’ in Arab political systems gains new dimensions and dynamism through Internet and satellite TV.

4. Finally, among the various currents in the region, Islamists, and their surrounding ambit of Muslims whose activism is not directed politically, seem to have been far ahead of others in exploiting the possibilities of IT. Why? Outreach is their business practice: their websites and broadcasts can speak to a well-defined and motivated community of believers, while more abstract ideological projects (secular socialism and liberalism) make demands on their potential audience that they cannot likewise match in action.

Social scientists with a liberal imagination and considerable (perhaps undue?) respect for the liberating powers of the Internet hope that the Internet is a force for some kinds of democratization even in generally authoritarian Arab political systems. But it is a mediating variable. When this new technology, with masters and disciples, is situated in the context of the (somewhat) retreating Arab mukhabarat state and a society that is at once economically underdeveloped and polarized between passivity and paralysis on the one hand, and violent volatility on the other, so it may have other political effects as well that are far from liberal or democratic. As an intermediate variable, the Internet builds capacity that actors, who have motivation, use; like other technologies, it has the potential to enhance the authoritarian capacities of the Arab state and also may serve as a resource for militant and brutal opposition movements.

Our tentative conclusion, based preliminary analysis of our interview data, is that while there may be linkages between the Internet and incipient liberalization or democratization (the dependent variable) in these Arab countries, the linkages are far from direct and not very strong in the short run. The long run, as we noted above, may be quite another matter, and we do see the Internet shaping the region’s futures. At the present juncture, however, the causality actually seems to be reversed: the more ‘open’ of the four systems we have studied (Jordan, especially, and Egypt) are the countries in which we have seen the most robust overt Internet development, and it seems plausible that this openness has actually stimulated a strong and enterprising Internet private sector, with quite supportive regime assistance. In the comparatively more ‘closed’ political systems of Syria and Saudi Arabia, development has been much slower. These regimes are more directive, with Internet policies more explicitly tied to existing security and business models. Here, the vision is of automation, although Saudi Arabia, with its wealth advantage, is moving ahead with a system which would harness the Internet to developing IT businesses, while reflecting regime interests in monopolizing public morality and state security.

On closer inspection, however, the political scene has more dimensions than such categorical characterizations would have us believe, and it is also fluid. It is important then to try and understand processes and not just snapshot end-states. An Internet community in each of these countries has associated itself strategically with the state, and especially with the IT-savvy ‘new generation’ leaders, whose fundamental objective is to disseminate the technology and thus a richer and less censored flow of information—first to a relatively privileged stratum of the politically mobilized opinion-makers with informal or social access to the higher reaches of power, and eventually to a larger public, if they can help push back the digital divide. Interestingly these Internet communities are actually transnational as well—and indeed global—a fact which has interesting implications for future regional integration. In each of the four cases the regime—indeed, the head of state himself or an heir apparent—has actively sought to introduce and support Internet development in his country. Their motivations for doing so, we suggest, are rooted in a longer-term shift from security to socioeconomic development as national priorities, but also in order to preempt control and management of these technologies for internal security reasons. Similarly, as far as we can tell from our interviews, Internet innovators are not Jeffersonian (let alone Jacksonian) democrats here any more than in the US: they want to make money, and they want the state’s help (or to avoid the state’s obstructiveness) in doing so. Beyond that, they want better societies; but motivations are less important than the consequences of alliances between Internet entrepreneurs and regime leadership that cross the state-society boundary. State patronage fuels Internet development in society, with all the possibilities that new flow of information and communication raises for enhancing civil society. The masters of the state gain from the Internet’s supposed developmental and national security benefits and from the support of the new Internet elite. The Internet innovators benefit financially and also politically: their valued expertise has opened doors to political influence, and this access provides them with opportunities to share IT-expanded worldviews with those at the top. While this may not promote ‘democracy without democrats’ it probably is promoting an ethos of liberalism.[18]

Some Overall Conclusions

It has been an article of faith that the Internet’s open access to global information and communication, and particularly the speed that has developed and continues to grow, cannot but be a positive force for change, and particularly for democratization. Certainly, growth in both content and access has been fast, and this has been the experience of new users in the 1990s. But this faith is based on experience of those users. What more systematic research shows is that the Internet spread in the Middle East much as it developed and spread in the US, which is to say in two phases. The first is within the scientific and research community, often back-stage, in the public sector, and within a modernization paradigm of development focused particularly on infrastructure. The second phase occurs when the Internet goes public, where policy issues (of propriety and property) arise around the core issues of access, who gets it, for what, and at what cost. These issues recede once the political economy is settled. By comparison with the US, the first phase has been compressed, but likewise overwhelmed by the second for two structural reasons: one is the arrival of business interests, and the other is the shift of development paradigms to globalization that favor business development over central planning and its focus on infrastructure.

  • What emerges in each phase is institutional competition over design, implementation, ownership, and control of the Internet. Part of the reason is that the technology falls between stools; so different institutional sectors can lay claim to it, implement it, imagine uses for it (always starting with their own model practices). This competition turns into alliance- and coalition-building, particularly as technological adepts seek customers and, in some cases, to create demand that will sustain technological development that benefits them, or that they can leverage.
  • Very quickly, it becomes apparent that the Internet is not another source of rent to capture, and activity focuses on building institutions to contain the new technology, in which negotiation and coalition-building is most intense, but the outcome – in successful cases – is the creation of new institutions for the new technology.
  • There is a compelling analogy here to oil, both as a precedent that leads some actors to view the Internet as a new source of rent and also in more subtle ways. While oil proved to be an enormous source of rent and to give new life to comprador regimes, what oil really provided was vast sums for investment in public infrastructure. And, where there was not oil, foreign development assistance has stepped in, albeit on a lesser scale. The hard infrastructure of roads, ports, airports, electrification and other public utilities installed in the last century supported a ‘softer’ infrastructure of transport companies, banking and insurance businesses, and in turn a consumer society, urbanization, relative disinvestment in agriculture. The Internet may be likewise conceived in terms of a hard infrastructure, which is the focus of the first phase, and a ‘softer’ infrastructure of businesses and services that exploit and use it and that dominate the second phase.
  • So, the Internet does call forth new people, but on the basis of new capacities and to build new institutions of the soft infrastructure of the Internet that runs from regulation and finance to retail businesses, through the arts to religion and culture.
  • The democratizing affects of the Internet are not, or not yet, in its spread but in its institutional development, in fostering new patterns of inter-sectoral negotiation, alliance-making and coalition-building, in raising the overall volume of those, and in admitting new actors trained in science and engineering to the process. It is these institutions, and their practices, that tend structurally to converge on international standards and practices that redraw boundaries of politics and who gets to play it.
  • The first two Arab Human Development Reports only emphatically highlight what enlightened elements of the political elite in our four countries already understand: the indispensability of the Internet and other forms of IT for developing a ‘knowledge society’. The thin but well-connected social networks of Internet advocates and their institutions in each country are pushing (with varying degrees of effectiveness) the development of ICT as educational tools essential for building developmental capacity. Will that capacity carry with it the benign—if unintended—side effect of promoting liberal democracy? In the immediate future the connection is not obvious. Yet we should not be too quick to dismiss the modest openings occurring in all four countries in varying degree. Insofar as the Internet is helping to build more informed, knowledgeable, and connected societies in Jordan, Egypt, Syria, and Saudi Arabia it may in the medium to long term be a facilitator of democracy.


This study focused on developers over end users of the Internet, contravening an article of Internet faith that it is users who build it. Less well recognized in 1990s enthusiasms for the Internet is that its first users are developers. They always build their values into the Internet, and there are always more of each. This study intersects the process in the Middle East at the stage when the Internet was “going public,” a phase of implantation and implementation by the region’s Internet pioneers that belies simple diffusion models. It also intersected the international collapse of the investment boom.  This picture drawn here will change with expansion of the user community, or communities, and new developers extend what software engineers conceive of as the fundamental structure of the Internet as a “stack” of protocols and applications. What we offer here is a picture of a slice of time and closer analysis of that process.


[1] “The Real New World Order,” Foreign Affairs 76(5): 183-97, September/October 1997.

[2] This was an issue raised in the first Arab Human Development Report, Creating Opportunities for Future Generations (UNDP, 2002) and a central theme of the second, Building a Knowledge Society (UNDP 2003).

[3] For example: Howard Rheingold. The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier. New York: Harper Collins, 1993; Lawrence Grossman. The Electronic Republic: Reshaping Democracy in the Information Age. New York: Viking Penguin, 1995. Popular works such as these did not so much extend as recycle and restate in fuller forms the visions in which engineers sought support, and particularly government funding, for the Internet, or what engineers call “social engineering.”

[4] For example: Nicholas Negroponte. Being Digital. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995.

[5] Funded by a NMERTA Senior Research Fellowship to ACOR.

[6] See: Shanthi Kalathil & Taylor C. Boas. Open Networks Closed Regimes: The Impact of the Internet on Authoritarian Rule. Washington: Carnegie Endowment, 2003. esp, Ch. 5.

[7] Celebrated in works such as Bill Gates’ The Road Ahead. New York: Penguin, 1996.

[8] For example, in the Kalathil & Boas study, or in Harvard Law School’s global censorship study directed by Jonathan Zittrain & Benjamin Edelman <;.

[9] Khalid Al-Tawil. “The Internet in Saudi Arabia,” Telecommunications Policy 25.8/9 ( eptember/October 2001): 625-633.

[10] Grey Burkhart. National Security and the Internet in the Persian Gulf region. Global Diffusion of the Internet Project, The Mosaic Group, March 1998.

[11] The x.25 protocol, a TCP/IP precursor that the first Internet connections in Saudi Arabia at KFUPM and KFSH used before switching to KACST and TCI/IP.

[12] Thirty-nine ISPs were licensed, and about half actually offered service to the public.

[13] Al-Sharq al-Awsat, May 2000,

[14] Taimur Ahmad. “Riyality check,” Project Finance 219: 55-56, July 2001.

[15] Joseph Braude. “Egypt: Free Internet to Provide a Boost to ISPs and Telecom Egypt.” Pyramid Perspective. March 1, 2002.

[16] Tarek Kamel. “Internet Commercialization in Egypt: A Country Study,” Proceedings of the Internet Society, June 1997; S. Mintz. The Internet as a tool for Egypt’s economic growth. An International Development Professionals Inc. Report. October, 1998.

[17] Kamel (1997).

[18] The phrase is from Ghassan Salame’s Democracy without Democrats? The Renewal of Politics in the Middle East. London: I.B. Tauris, 1994.


All Rights Reserved. May not be reprinted in any format without permission of the Authors.


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Information Technology and the Arab World (April 2001)

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