NMIT Working Papers

Working Papers on New Media & Information Technology in the Middle East

Cyberspace and the United Arab Emirates: Searching for Tunes in the Air

Posted by meaningfulconnections on September 6, 2008

Timothy N. Walters (Zayed University, Dubai, UAE) and Lynne Masel Walters (Texas A&M University)
Paper delivered at the Communication Technology and Policy Division, AEJM, August 2002

ABSTRACT: The United Arab Emirates is attempting to carve a piece of the future out its desert by erecting Internet City on the main road connecting the Emirates of Dubai and Abu Dhabi. This effort is fraught with contradictions. Emiratis are eager for the businesses and jobs that they expect to pull out of cyberspace. Yet, they are reluctant to make social and cultural changes. Policy makers are finding it difficult to deal with the competing demands of traditional religion, culture, and society on the one hand and modern freedom, information interchange and globalization on the other. How they resolve the conflict will determine whether the UAE and its sister countries on the Arabian Peninsula will join the new world or be buried in the old.


H.H. Sheikh Mohammed Rashid Bin Al Maktoum manned a booth at Comdex 2000 in Las Vegas. The display was designed to attract techies and their businesses to Dubai Internet City. Watching His Highness promote his sand- dune-to-city marvel, one glib observer noted that the royal was trying to “pull a [Las Vegas mobster and founding father] Bugsy Siegel in the middle of the Dubai desert” by building a community based on technology, instead of one based on gambling (Gartner, 2000).

The stakes might be higher for the United Arab Emirates as it looks to the economic future, than they were for Bugsy. The UAE is small country of approximately 2.9 million, resting at the toe of the Arabian Peninsula, touched by Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Sultanate of Oman. Roughly the size of Maine, the UAE has undergone a profound transformation from an impoverished region of small desert principalities to a modern state with a high standard of living. The transition has occurred in a little more than 30 years.

The UAE has an oil-and-gas driven economy with an estimated 2000 GDP per capita of approximately $22,800 (in purchasing power parity)1 and a rank in the top portion of the Human Development Index (CIA, 2001; United Arab Emirates Yearbook; Human Development Indicators, 2001, p. 141). These figures compare favorably to neighboring countries: Bahrain, $15,900; Egypt, $3,600; India, $2,200; Iraq, $2,500; Kuwait, $15,000; Oman, $7,700; Pakistan, $2,000; Qatar, $20,300; Saudi Arabia, $10,500; Syria, $3,100 (CIA, 2001).

In the United Arab Emirates, seven rulers exercise political power over a federation established in 1971. None of the emirates has any democratically elected institutions and their rule has been both tradition bound and patriarchal (U.S. Department of State, 2001). Because political parties and elections are prohibited, the citizens of the UAE cannot change their government democratically. Citizens may express concerns directly to their rulers by traditional means including the majlis, a sort of political open house2 (International Press Institute, 2000; see also U.S. Department of State, 2001).

The seven emirate rulers constitute the Federal Supreme Council, the highest legislative and executive body. The council selects a president and a vice president from its membership and the president appoints the prime minister and cabinet. The Cabinet manages the Federation on a day-to-day basis. A consultative body, the Federal National Council, comprising advisors appointed by the emirate rulers, has no legislative authority, but questions government ministers in open sessions and makes policy recommendations to the Cabinet (U..S. Department of State, 2001).

Each emirate retains control over its own oil and mineral wealth, some parts of internal security, and some regulation of internal and external commerce. The federal government has primacy in matters of defense and foreign policy, some aspects of internal security, and, increasingly, in the supply of government services (U.S. Department of State, 2001).

The judiciary generally is independent, but political leadership can review its decisions. The legal system of the UAE is based on a constitution approved by the Federal National Council in 1996, replacing the provisional documents that had been renewed every five years since the country’s creation in 1971 (www.infoprod.co.il/uae2a.htm). Springing from tradition, the constitution, and legislation, the UAE legal system has been influenced by Islamic, Roman, and French law (www.law.emory.edu/IFL /legal/UAE.htm; see also, http://www.uottawa.ca. world-legal-systems/eng-common.htm). Common law principles have become important in commercial contracts, and Federal Law No. 40 modernized intellectual property law in 1992 (Dubaiinc, 2001; IPR, 2001; Abu Ghazaleh, 2002).

Today, as oil and gas revenues flow from the well head, life is lived large with the Emirati equivalent of two cars in every garage. The State supports the trappings of an easy life with low-cost education and medicine, high paying jobs, short working hours, and low-cost housing loans for nationals. Inspired by the benevolent leadership of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahayan, who has led the country for more than 30 years, the United Arab Emirates has blossomed in the desert.

The Sheikh has taken steps to move away from its oil dependence. The federal government has invested heavily in tourism, aviation, re-export commerce, and, recently, telecommunications. In doing so, leadership has recognized that the country must make more of its human resources. Devoid of most natural resources except for petrocarbons, the UAE, particularly the Emirate of Dubai, has invested billions of Dirhams in high technology equipment and training. The great dream is that, with this investment, the desert and its people will bloom. They can create income-yielding activities and serve as pillars of the future (Walters, 2001, p. 82).

Yet even as it offers promise, IT provides significant challenges as well. The same science and technology that will propel the economy into desired realms may propel the culture onto dangerous turf. The empowerment of individuals that is a by-product of technological advancement will run up againsttraditional notions of society in the UAE and across sister Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia.

Sheikh Ali Korani, director of the Ayatollah Gulpaybahane Computer Center in Qom spoke of this contradiction. He said, “Take a knife, for example. You can use it in the kitchen or you can use it to commit crimes Many things have a double nature and the {technology} is one of them,” he explained. “You can use it in different ways. The main thing is to use it for the good” (CNN Interactive, 1997). Searching for that good has led many governments to go slow, perhaps because they have understood that creating computer networks can facilitate the means for individuals who act to build a community of rights (Walters, 2001, p. 247).

The ability to develop policies that take the greatest advantage of cyberspace and do the least amount of damage to culture will determine if the desert will bloom or wither (Aizu, 1997; see also Price and Krug, 2000).

Civic society

The law does not determine by itself how free, pluralistic, or independent the media (including the internet) will be. The interaction between legal and social-cultural institutions define this relationship (Price and Krug, 2000, pps. 8-10). Laws, of course, help, but even authoritarian societies have mastered the vocabulary of free expression, or statement (and access to that statement), and have written it into their constitutions. (See International Constitutional Law, http://www.uni-wuerzburg.de/law/home.html).

The will of the people and the development of civic society have great impact on how the laws will be implemented (O’Donnell and Schmitter, 1986; Geremek, 1992; Diamond, 1994; Bryant, 1995). In civic society complex networks of economic, social, and cultural practices based on friendship, family, the market, and voluntary association influence daily life (Wapner, 1995) Such civic forces are in play in varying degrees in the UAE and sister GCC countries, where kinship and marriage count, and extended family networks wield enormous power in all aspects of life. Thus, any policy of freedom of statement becomes intertwined with family, tradition, and heritage. (See for example, Essoulami, 2001; Za’Za’, 8 January 2002)

GCC countries share many things: geography, history, culture, language, and religion – and (mostly) absolute monarchies. In these Arab/Islamic societies people serve families and families serve society; so the individual finishes last (Patai, 1983; Nawar, 2000). For most, the rule of the family is the norm. There are no political parties, and no freedoms, other than those that the ruler offers his “family,” or those that the head of the household offers his wife and children.

Across the GCC and in the UAE, families also share many common characteristics, the first of which is an abiding dedication to Islam. Muslims have experienced no need for the development of secularism, as has the West. Indeed, Islam is not a “matter of religion as Westerners understand it, “ said Mary-Jane Deeb, adjunct professor at American University. “Conservative Muslims see the West imposing an entire system of economic, political, and social values that strike at the heart of Islamic way of life. Westerners would consider most of these values secular, but to conservative Muslims almost nothing is secular. The Koran governs everything…” (Taken from Ringle, 2001). Thus in the UAE, as inother GCC states, Islam is normative. It is the sustaining force; it permeates the entire society (Patai, 1983; Lewis, 1990).

Besides Islam, other strands of a long, proud history are woven into the cloth of society. The Arabic language is one strand. It carries with it emotions, feelings, and thoughts, creating an artistic statement of sound and rhythm that Naguib Mahfouz describes as “searching for tunes in the air” (Mahfouz, 1986, p. 33). Loyalty and an emphasis on honor, both drawn from a simpler past, are other valued traits (Patai, 1983).

Legal Norms

As do many other countries, the UAE guarantees freedom of statement in its written constitution. Article 30 protects “freedom of opinion and expressing it verbally, in writing or by other means of statement shall be guaranteed within the limits of the law” (Human Rights Watch, June 1999, at http://www.hrw.org/ advocacy /internet/mena/uae.htm). Article 31 guarantees “freedom of communication by post, telegraph, or other means of communication and (that) the secrecy thereof shall be guaranteed in accordance with the law” (Human Rights Watch, June 1999, http://www.hrw.org/advocacy/internet/mena/uae.htm).

But it is Article 7 of the Constitution that gives an idea of how “accordance with the law” is defined in the UAE; this article declares Islam the official state religion and that Islamic shari’a shall be a principal source of legislation (Legal Profiles, Islamic Family Law http://www.law. emory.edu/?IF L/legal/UAE.htm). Shari’a is derived from principles of the Koran, explicated by Ijma, or rules that develop through debate and the resultant consensus of religious leaders (Kabbani, nd).

While controls exist, the media in the United Arab Emirates are relatively free, particularly when compared with other GCC states (U.S. Department of State, 2001). Federal Law 15 of 1988 requires that all publications be licensed with the ministry of education and delineates acceptable subjects of reporting. Journalists censor themselves on sensitive subjects such as the ruling family, Islam, and national security, government policy, religion, and relations with neighboring states. The information minister, a son of Sheikh Zayed, has been quoted as telling the media to “criticize freely,” though there is no evidence that journalists have complied, particularly with respect to Emirati rulers and their extended families (Al Bakry, 2001; Human Rights Watch, June 1999; Owais and Matthew, 2000).

Reporters have established boundaries themselves, practicing self censorship akin to prior restraint. “Freedom without responsibility may invite chaos,” Ayesha Ibrahim Sultan, head of the UAE journalist’s union has said. “Freedom and responsibility have to go hand in hand. If we separate them and allow total freedom, it will lead to chaos…” (Rahman, 2001). Freedom, then, is not absolute, it is limited because certain social aspects, including the morals and values guiding a society, must be considered (Rahman, 2001).

In establishing boundaries to communication, the UAE is no different than other societies. Under international law, governments can restrict information to protect certain interests such as national security, public order or health or morals in what amounts to prior restraint (Human Rights Watch, 1999).

The differences about what constitutes a threat to national security, public order or health or morals rests, as late Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court Potter Stewart might have said, in the eyes of the beholder. Up and down the GCC, stakeholders are considering what limits should be. In a 1998 editorial, Abu Dhabi-based Al Ittihad urged people to adopt a modern cultural concept of freedom while practicing responsible decisions in real life. The paper called for the formulation of an Arab concept of freedom (UAE Editorials, 1998.)

As it relates to cyberspace, that formulation is the subject of vigorous debate. Some social forces have voiced hostility to the Internet or to its availability to the public at large. Legislators in Kuwait and elsewhere have denounced the Internet as a threat to local culture, morals, or religious sensibilities (Human Rights Watch, 1999). Other GCC governments and their supporters have sounded these same themes to justify a go-slow, paternalistic approach to allowing public access to the Internet.

That viewpoint includes the Saudis. Saleh Abdulrahman al-‘Adhel, the head of the King Abdul-Aziz City for Science and Technology, reportedly stated that the Internet presents “an important service in relaying and distributing information but also has a negative side that conflicts with our faith and our Arab Muslim traditions” (Associated Press, 12 May 1997). Worries about material considered offensive delayed Internet access in Saudi Arabia, where foreign publications are strictly controlled and censored. State telecom monopolies capable of blocking Net access to politically, socially, or culturally sensitive information help to keep a lid on the problem (Reuters, 1998; see also, Lee 2001; Associated Press, 12 May 1997; Trabelsi, 1998).

The UAE, sensing an economic opportunity, has been more liberal than GCC sister states Saudi Arabia or Kuwait (Wheeler, 2000; see also Dubai Press Club, 2000). On 10 May 2001, General Sheikh Mohammed, Crown Prince of Dubai and UAE Minister of Defense speaking in rather de Tocquevillean terms at the launch of Dubai Media City said that:

I guarantee freedom of statement to all of you…. Let us do so responsibly, objectively and with accountability and in the spirit of the social and cultural context in which we live.

This freedom will allow and encourage the Arab media to return home, to broadcast and publish once again from Arab land, and contribute to this new regional media industry.

Always remember, the human mind, once stretched by a new idea, never returns to its original size. It only grows larger. Media has the power to effect change and evolve (Gulf News, 11 May 2001; for more information also see, Wheeler, 21 January 2001).

The Federal National Council has echoed this sentiment, has offered its support and has stressed the need to support efforts to develop policies and statement as provided by the constitution (Dawood, 11 January 2001).

Regulatory Policies

Despite the advent of globalization, a uniform regulatory standard may be impossible with respect to cyberspace because, like the UAE, each country has specific cultural and legal imperatives driving the regulatory process (Ang, 1997). (Whittle, 16 May 1996; see also, Sussmann, 2000).

“Every culture has the right to express itself, said Milagros De Corral, UNESCO’s deputy assistant director speaking in Abu Dhabi on 23 April 2001 before the second International Summit on Internet and Multimedia (Wired, 2001). But when it comes to cultural content, the problem is that the moment you change a character … you can erode something” (Wired, 2001).

Like the Roman god Janus, the debate over eroding values has twin faces. Decentralization of information is one. Deployment of information and communications technology facilitates decentralization of power, creating distributed information potentially available to all, including women who live a cloistered existence in many GCC states. (Women account for 36 percent of Internet subscribers, 2001; Sussmann, 2000). The second of the twins, globalization, raises the specter of homogenized values. Because of these concerns, GCC governments, feeling threatened by the democratization of access to information, have cautiously approached the spread of the technology (Dahan, nd).

Many policy makers around the world argue that curbs on freedom of statement on the internet are needed to protect children from harmful content, preserve religious values, safeguard local cultures, protect national security, thwart terrorists, and silence racists (Balmer, 2002). GCC States agree. They generally believe that community standards inherent in Islam, and the society into which Islam is inexorably woven, must be protected. Thus they look toward a paternalistic system, passionately arguing against access to certain classes of information.

In the GCC, few officials will admit that blocking unwelcome political information is among their objectives in imposing controls on the Internet. In the Gulf countries. As scholars Grey E. Burkhart and Seymour E. Goodman have noted, pornography is “almost always first mentioned” when it comes to what the Internet “may do to national, cultural and religious values.” Among other issues of concern were proselytizing by other religions, the portrayal of un-Islamic information (such as the use of alcohol and drugs), and western norms (particularly as they relate to the role of women) and culture (Burkhart and Goodman, 1998 taken from Kettmann, 24 April 2001).

Among GCC States, Saudi Arabia has gone furthest in defining the scope of the material it wishes to keep off the Internet. Its Council of Ministers decreed that service providers to refrain from “carrying out any activities violating the social, cultural, political, media, economic, and religious values of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia” (Burkhart and Goodman, 1998).

Officials of other countries and corporate representatives of ISPs in the region have also addressed the question of protecting cultural values. A representative of Teleyemen, Yemen’s monopoly ISP, told Human Rights Watch that the Teleyemen was under “a general requirement” to “limit access to information which is considered to be undesirable in terms of causing offence against social, religious, or cultural standards.” Like Saudi Arabia, Yemen filters what users can access through the use of a proxy server and “censorware” (Human Rights Watch, June 1999; Goodman and Burkhart, 1998; Nawar, 2000). And, the Qatar ambassador to the United Nations has written in 1984-esque language that “the high-level moralities in preventing the indecent and corrupt material will undoubtedly nourish morality at the human level. Prohibition, in this respect, therefore, is not deprivation but enrichment; not suppression but discipline, and not limitation but expansion” (Quoted in Sussmann, 2000).

The United Arab Emirates is among those who so protect its citizenry. The UAE filters and blocks based on content and also has the capacity for electronic eavesdropping (Human Rights Watch, June 1999; see also, Bell, 2001). UAE dial-up users who employ the local telephone service do not access the Internet directly. They dial in to a proxy server of Etisalat, the government telephone monopoly and single ISP in the country. The proxy denies access to web sites if the URL requested is on a list of banned sites, or if a content check of the site by the proxy server turns up objectionable material 4 (See Human Rights Watch, June 1999; see also 2000 World Press Freedom Review). Terms and conditions of usage permit Etisalat to terminate services if a consumer uses the service for a “criminal activity or unlawful purpose such as but not limited to vice, gambling or obscenity or for carrying out any activity which is contrary to the social, cultural, political, economical or religious values of the UAE” (Etisalat, 2002).

If you go somewhere Etisalat believes you should not venture, the following message pops up.

Emirates Internet denies access to this site.

For more information on Emirates Internet services click here

When you click here, the message takes you to the “Emirates Internet & Multimedia” homepage. It does not explain why the site was blocked.

UAE Government officials say the sole purpose of its blocking policy is to eliminate pornographic sites. A senior official in the Ministry of Information and Culture told Human Rights Watch in a telephone interview on June 10, 1998:

There is no restriction on the political, social, economic side. Politically, in the U.A.E., we do not hold value for censorship, especially political or censorship of ideas: we don’t believe in that. You can access on the Internet any material, from Israel or anywhere. The whole idea [of the proxy system] was to block X-rated materials. You can see the first pages [of sexually explicit sites], but not whatever is after that. (Human Rights Watch, 1999).

The Etisalat staff reviews web sites, sometimes responding to complaints or tips from users, using broad guidelines focusing on the “sexually explicit” to root out objectionable sites. Apparently the system was set up to response to concerns fears of abuse by young people. A committee at Etisalat examines the site, verifies the pornographic content, and then blocks it (Human Rights Watch, June 1999).

The official added that, although Etisalat attempts to block sites, the proxy filtering system was not foolproof. “You can get to porno,” he said, “because you can always just dial a foreign server. We try our best to limit x-rated material, but you can never really build a wall” (Human Rights Watch, June 1999).

This official was correct. For those with the technical means and money (many of them the young people Etisalat sought to protect), blocking is ineffective. The Web-savvy can circumvent it; the petro rich can dial around it, reaching an ISP outside the country (Campagna, 2000). For those who can afford the best, Star Duo offers a fast satellite Internet service (“several hundred times faster” than the typical local ISP) for the Middle East with a footprint including most of the Arabian Peninsula. Such service is pricey. The hardware including dish and receiver and sundries retails at $2,635; 2Gb of download costs $254 per month (see Star Duo, www.star-duo).

UAE authorities maintain that they do not track individual users’ online activities. Nonetheless, they retain the technical capability to do so if they choose, an ability facilitated because all dial-in users are channeled through a proxy server operated by this public utility (Human Rights Watch, June 1999). When a Gulf News staffer complained to Etisalat that some of his e-mail was not getting through the proxy system, he was told that yes, indeed, the message had left at a specific time to a specific individual. And Lloyd’s Bank-Dubai refuses to create on-line banking for its customers because of Etisalat-related security issues.

If pornography is an Internet-related direct threat that some GCC believe might diminish Islamic society, another more insidious threat is the ascendancy of English on that media. Viewed through the lens of Islam, this dominance could be interpreted as a sign of Western imperialism (Patai, 1983). This fear is not without some validity. Noting the potential for damage, UNESCO issued a warning in 2000 regarding the possible disappearance of half of 6,000 existing world languages 5 (Human Rights Watch, 1999). GCC Arabic speakers do not intend that the language of the prophet will be one of them. At the January 19, 2002, meeting of the Session of the Islamic Commission for Economic, Cultural and Social Affairs in Jeddah The Secretary General of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) Dr. Abdelouahed Belkeziz called for rectifying the “cultural warfare” being practiced against Islam. (See http://www.oic-oci.org/.)

Internet and the news

Because total censorship is virtually impossible once citizens have the means, skill, and opportunity to go on line, the Internet will be a catalyst for change for those so empowered. That is because the Internet evaporates distance while combining text, speech, and pictures in a compelling convergence of communication that potentiates real-time, far flung, unfiltered information gathering (Pool, 1990, p. 8). Such a threat will necessarily compel introspection on how the Arab world can resist the perceived “evils” of globalization on the one hand while modernizing on the other (Kettmann, 2001).

Government intervention and press restrictions had led some Arab news organizations to move their headquarters from states on the Arabia Peninsula to other, more media friendly countries. But even as this Diaspora developed, many who could afford it (and were so inclined) in the UAE and sister GCC states cast their eyes skywards, relying on satellite television containing foreign channels for alternative information. The increasing number of Internet users has complicated the task of control as a new generation explores the world at large.

Control is difficult in these circumstances. A Reuters report on 20 September 2000, quoted Mohammed Al-Abbar, director general of Dubai’s Economic Department, as saying that the increase of satellite access and Internet usage makes censorship more difficult to achieve in the country.

“In today’s world censorship doesn’t exist,” he said. “We can pick up hundreds of channels here plus the internet. The world is changing. We are already a global city, traveling the world, and we know exactly what is happening around the world and we cannot hope to stop, nor would we want to stop, whatever is happening. So censorship is no longer an issue {for the media}. We want the same freedom to operate as if a channel was in London, Atlanta or wherever” (Reuters, 20 November 2000).

Fear that democratizing Internet access can undermine the state chokehold on information has been a significant factor in slowing Internet growth (Dahan, nd; see also Committee To Protect Journalists http://www.cpj.org/countrystatus; Reporters sans Frontières, http://www.rsf.fr; Human Rights Watch, http://www.hrw.org; and the U.S. State Department’s Country Reports on Human Rights Practices; http://www.state.gov///www/global/ human_rights/hrp_ reports_mainhp.html). Despite this purposive foot dragging, the Internet has begun spreading. Pro-Internet forces in government and in the business, academic, and research communities, wishing to keep current and globally competitive, have pushed for easier access to online data and communications (Human Rights Watch, 1999; Human Rights Watch, June 1999; Dahan, 2001; United Nations, 2001).

Country Number of subscribers Estimated Number of users per account Number of internet users Population




















Saudi Arabia





United Arab Emirates





sources: DIT Group, http://www.ditnet.co.ae; Dahan, nd; World Development Indicators, 2001; http://www.nua.ie/ surveys/how_ many_online/m_east.html. * December 2000. All other internet user figures March 2001.

Today, every GCC country has some form of international connectivity. Citizens of many member countries reach the Internet via a national monopoly Internet Service Providers (ISP). About 1,664,000 persons are “online” in a combined population of about 31,735,754 in Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Cybercafés, which are particularly prevalent in the UAE, afford the Emirati public Internet access for an hourly fee starting from about $1.75 to $1.90 an hour in Dubai.6

Most GCC countries allowing Internet access have tolerated freer statement online than is permitted in the local news media. Kuwait has permitted relatively unfettered online speech for the thousands of users in each country, even as they enforce press laws against print periodicals that publish “objectionable” material (Human Rights Watch, 1999; Human Rights Watch, June 1999; see also, Anderson and Eickelman, 1999). The Digital Freedom Network has made censored materials available online (Human Rights Watch, June 1999; see also (http://www.dfn. org/). The World Wide Web, with its online newspapers and radio and TV webcasting, has enhanced the potential diversity of news available to people with the means, inclination, and the training (Human Rights Watch, 1999).

Conferences on the information revolution top the list of events covered in the region as the Arab press seeks to fulfill its craving for Internet news. (See for example, A Comprehensive Guide to Middle East Web Sites, http://MiddleEast Directory.com.) In January 2002, newspapers in Egypt tub thumped for an exposition in Cairo described as the “Middle East’s biggest telecom” show; others of these exhibitions from the same tradeshow company were scheduled to follow quickly in Morocco and Iran (CommsMEA, 2002, or see the web site at http://www.itp.net/corporate/current/97478918465888.htm).

GCC governments have attempted to shape the Internet to spread positive news through public information as well as prevent the spread of negative information through regulatory policies. Every GCC government has launched at least one web site to get its voice heard amidst the clutter of alternative information sources in cyberspace. (See http://www.ain-al-yaqeen.com/issues/20011026/ feat9en.htm.) Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates web cast state radio and/or television.

Transition through self-censorship

Access to information also has been limited by indirect phenomena. These have included the affordability of computer equipment and of Internet and phone connections; the condition of telecommunications infrastructure, including the number of telephone lines per capital and available bandwidth; and educational attainment including computer literacy7 (See for example, World Bank, 2002 or United Nations, 2001). In many countries, like the UAE, with rapid internet growth, the government has encouraged advancement by building “backbone” telecommunications networks, providing initial funding; creating regulations and technical standards; and encouraging private investment through enterprise zones and tax incentives.

There are many implications of affirmative policies for the political economy. These include weighing competing demands for scarce state resources, fear of losing control over information, and a desire to protect monopoly profits of state telecommunications companies (Human Rights Watch, June 1999). The local prices of computer equipment or services also deter Internet use in some countries of the region. Those prices may reflect government attitudes toward popularizing Internet use, insofar as the government sets, taxes or subsidizes those prices. Free market advocates believe that internet and telephone costs are probably more expensive than they might be if there were more competition in the region (Human Rights Watch, June 1999; Cost of technology harms business, 2002).


Estimated Costs

for 30 hours monthly

Internet speed

and access rating













Saudi Arabia



United Arab Emirates



Dial-up service at maximum modem speed. Costs equal telephone tariff plus cost for 30 hours of monthly usage from ISP. This excludes initial ISP hookup charge (see http://www.middleeastdirectory.com/me-isps.htm). Data Development Group, World Bank. Internet speed and access measures the lease-line or dial-up access to the Internet. A rating of 1 means that speed is slow and access expensive; a rating of 7 means speed is fast and access as inexpensive in the world. See individual country tables developed by The World Bank Group, http://www.worldbank.org/data/ countrydata/ictglance.htm.

Network bottlenecks have also played a role. One inconsistency of the global economy is the skewed distribution of information technology. But the disparity may be most striking when it comes to communications bandwidth. the basic information carrying capacity of a network to transmit phone calls and bits of data (Anderson, 1997; Romero, 2001; see also Dodge and Kitchin, 2001). Generally speaking, the Middle East and the GCC are bandwidth impaired. This impairment means that multimedia is slow, if not impossible, to download (For example, see Dodge and Kitchin, pps. 23-24, 27, 32). (Star duo, a satellite Internet-based service, estimates the average download speed of a typical Middle Eastern ISP at an 8Kbps average). The emergence of information haves and have-nots is a pressing concern for all governments. Government could help diffuse information if public policy levels the playing field (Walters, 2001).

Another factor inhibiting Internet growth in the region is the continuing dominance of English-language materials. Part of the problem is that there is friction is caused by frayed ego connected with use of indigenous language. But the largest impediment is not knowing a second language. While the volume of material in Arabic is growing and the Arabic software available for browsing the Web is improving, the many users who do not read English remain at a distinct disadvantage in their ability to access online resources (Human Rights Watch, 1999; see also, Trabelsi, 2001).

The UAE, particularly the Emirate of Dubai, has attempted to draw technologically based business to its dunes, creating enterprise zones built on the duty-free model. Media City and Internet City, built from scratch in the urban sprawl north of the Dubai on the road to Abu Dhabi, have had some success drawing media businesses and internet related business to their gleaming glass buildings. In late January 2002, Dubai Media City listed 58 partners in 7 different business categories (Broadcasting, Communication, Music, New Media, Publishing, Production, and Post Production) on its campus, including well-know concerns such as Aranet. Asianet, e-Promoseven, the largest communications company in the Arab world; Lowe Lintas Partners Middle East North Africa; Reuters; Saudi Research and Publishing Company; and Sony Broadcast & Professional. In late January 2002, Dubai Internet City had about 255 members including industry giants such as Oracle, Microsoft, and VeriSign.

Technology and the drive to a new economy

Attracting business with incentives to Dubai’s sand dunes of dreams is only one part of the puzzle. Another is creating business models that work for far-flung enterprises, such as e-business, traditional media, and trade free distribution centers. It is especially difficult to fit the puzzle pieces together within regulatory frameworks and the context of Islamic society.

One up-and-running business model with some chance of success, at least among the computer literati, is the government-to-consumer service space. At the beginning of 2001 Dubai launched http://www.dubai.ae, a cyber gateway providing access to data and services for business and consumers alike. Sites developed by the Dubai Police, Dubai Municipality, the Department of Economic Development, and the Department of Health and Medical Services are among the government services now on line. A customer can pay water and electricity bills on line, check on (and pay) traffic fines, and arrange visas (Janardhan, 22 January 2002; see also, Introducing cyber lifestyle, 27 October 2001).

Although e-government sites provide efficient, less expensive customer service, these sites are not the economic engines that will create high-paying white color jobs necessary for Emirati citizens. Creation of these knowledge-based career paths will be an entirely different matter.

The Arab Advisors Group (www.arabadvisors.com), a new economy research and consulting company, concluded that the potential for Internet ventures existed in GCC countries. It also cautioned against over optimism (DITnet, 24 January 2001). The group suggested that not all technology models would succeed in the Arab world and that online ventures should concentrate on aggregating groups across the region, rather than concentrating upon individual countries (DITnet, 24 January 2001).

If aggregating is to occur and technology is to be the driving force, conflicts between the new economy and its values, and Islamic society and its values, must be resolved, So, too, must intellectual property issues (patents, trademarks, copyright, and employee agreements) be addressed (Arab Legal Systems in Transition, 6 April 2001). Because information is a primary ingredient of the thoughts, ideas, and opinions driving technologically inclined economies, the tension between the private sector need for profit and public social responsibility in an Islamic society must be resolved (Nawar, 2000).

Internet companies face obstacles that other businesses have not had to face. Nations might subject international Internet content to national laws. However, doing this could stifle e-business development, particularly if fines, asset seizures, imprisonment, and even death, are possible penalties (Hughes, 2001, p. 35). Because of the multiplicity of laws in the region, materials on the Internet, while perfectly legal in the country of origin, could innocently violate civil and criminal laws in one of the countries (Hughes, 2001, p. 37). Faced with such “chilling” choices, many businesses would withdraw from the playing field.

Country Internet effects on business Highly skilled IT job market Government online services Laws relating to ICT use
Bahrain 3.6 4.8 3.6 3.8
Kuwait 4.1 6.1 5.1 5.3
Oman 3.6 4.8 3.6 3.8
Qatar 4.1 6.1 5.1 5.3
Saudi Arabia 3.6 4.8 3.6 3.8
United Arab Emirates 4.1 6.1 5.1 5.3
United States 4.1 6.1 5.1 5.3

Internet effects on business measures the extent that the Internet has improved firms abilities to coordinate with customers and suppliers to reduce inventory costs. Highly skilled IT job market means the availability of highly skills technology workers in industry. Government online services measures the availability of on-line government services. Laws relating to ICT use measures the efficacy of laws relating to electronic commerce, digital signatures, and consumer protection. The scores range from 1 (the worst) to 7 (the best). See individual country tables developed by The World Bank Group, http://www.worldbank.org/data countrydata/ictglance.htm.

Not even the wariest GCC government today wishes to be seen as anti-Internet. Thus many countries up and down (and around) the Peninsula are working on their own IT initiatives. Bahrain is, Egypt is, Jordan is, and so too is Kuwait (Kuwait plans a Technology Village, 2002; Liberalization much be country-specific, 2002; Bahrain studying telecom deregulation, 2002). But even the most liberal along the Arabian penninsula are concerned about technology’s effects.

At home in the UAE, Internet growth is mostly connected to commercial activity rather than to political or educational institutions because community leaders believe that the internet and the businesses that it spawns roll on the wave of the future (Anderson and Eickelman, 1999). Yet, Arabs must take “a technological leap” if they are to catch up with the IT advances of industrial nations, noted Raafat Rawdan, chair of the Egyptian Council of Ministers’ Information and Decision Support Center. “There’s no time to lose. E-commerce in the Arab world amounts to around $40 million – that is just 0.01 percent of the world total,” concluded Khaled Abu Ismail, head of the General Union of Arab Chambers of Commerce, Industry and Agriculture (Middle East News Online, 18 December 2001) Ihsan Bu-Hulaiga, a member of Saudi Arabia’s Shura (Consultative) Council, said Arab nations should “take a strategic view of IT” (Middle East News Online, 18 December 2001). Elias Ghantous, secretary general of the General Union of Arab Chambers of Commerce, noted however that the Arab world “would not be starting from scratch. Most Arab countries have become aware of the importance of a digital economy” (Middle East News Online, 18 December 2001).

The direction that the UAE will take for this new economy lands on a different point on the compass. By purchasing the latest technology, the UAE and sister GCC states have leapfrogged the relatively long periods of incubation experienced elsewhere. Nonetheless, purchase of foreign equipment and expertise is one thing. Development of local equipment and expertise is quite another. It will require a close look at raft of issues, not the least of which is Intellectual Property (copyright, patents, and trademarks), the grist of the knowledge-based economy mill.

Some observers believe that GCC countries must adapt their public policies if they are to fully benefit from the knowledge economy. If human capital is the key to the future, protecting that future requires protecting that knowledge (Smith, 2001). Much must be done. Up and down and across Peninsula, all nations, except for Kuwait, have a copyright law. While these laws define protected classes of works, separable bundles of rights and privileges of authors, moral rights, fair use, registration procedures, and punishment for infringing the law, many legal specifics vary from country to country. Terms of copyright differ, as do registration processes and punishment. In some countries, punishment includes criminal penalties.

Trademark law, too, is in a state of flux and needs updating and uniformity along with copyright and trademark regulations if the GCC countries want to aggregate into a uniform marketplace (Hassan, 2001). Countries like Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia have restrictions preventing registration of pork and alcoholic products. Kuwait, Oman, and the UAE are signatories to WTO standards. Qatar is not. GCC countries have different registration processes that differ in several key areas, including the process of publication and time limits to oppose registration. In Saudi Arabia people who have their pictures taken retain some rights over use of their images.

The Internet and the products that fuel its growth are viewed as the wave of the future (Anderson, 1997). Some believe that the Internet offers opportunity in which people in this area can be competitive on price, quality, and access (Anderson, 1997). Indeed, the UAE is among the world’s 20 most connected countries and is also a leader in the Arab world in information technology investment (Gulf News, 9 May 2001; see also World Bank, 2001; United Nations, 2001 World Development Indicators). Internet & Multimedia, the Internet arm of Etisalat, touts an exhilarating growth rate since the service began in 1995 (http://www. emirates.net.ae). 8 Besides home hookups, the country has numerous Cybercafés, government ministries maintain web sites, local governments have begun an online drive to make services more efficient, and the Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research has identified the communication revolution as a principal target area for research. (See http://www.ecssr.ac.ae; see also, Human Rights Watch, 1999; see also, various issues of the Gulf News.)

To attract media enterprises, the UAE has begun minimizing media restrictions. In November of 2001, H.H. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Crown Prince of Dubai and United Arab Emirates Defense Minister, announced that the UAE wanted to guarantee international news organizations the freedom needed to conduct their work without restrictions and limitations (Reuters, 2001). He also said that Arab media organizations, that left the country because of governmental restrictions, would be able to “return home, to broadcast and publish once again from Arab land….” Al Maktoum, however, also emphasized that in having this freedom, media organizations would be held accountable for their reporting (Reuters, 7 November 2000; see also, Trabelsi, 2001). Apparently his words have worked. MBC has scheduled a move from London to Dubai in June of 2002.

Sheikh Mohammed had made his remarks at a conference marking the creation of the new Dubai Media City (DMC), which began with an initial funding of $817 million. Currently being completed on the outskirts of Dubai, the DMC has been described as “a media hub for the region” and a global communications link (Kettmann, 2001). In addition to the initial round, the emirate of Dubai has invested additional funds, amounting to billions of dollars in the Dubai Internet City and Dubai Media City, a free zone for media and IT concerns. Arab banks, with assets exceeding $552 billion, are expected to pump even more money into closing the “digital divide” (Trabelsi, 2001).

According to the master plan, DMC was designed to benefit news and media organizations functioning from the site. DMC and news organizations on its grounds were not subject to many government restrictions or intervention. As a sop to potentially squeamish foreign investors, the DMC has its own printing, publishing and licensing rules and can allow complete foreign ownership so that organizations can be self-reliant and independent of political pressure. Both domestic and international media organizations located in the DMC were to have a 50 year-tax exemption and access to equipment and other facilities available at DMC. The great hope was that others would join Microsoft and Oracle and MasterCard on site (Reuters, 20 September 2000).

Next to the DMC are two other projects in the free zone area: the Dubai Internet City (DIC) and the Dubai Idea Oasis (DIO).9 The DIC was the region’s first information technology zone and has been viewed by Sheikh Mohammed as a project that would benefit Dubai’s economy. In September 2001, an estimated 95 per cent of the DIC area had already taken. According to chief executive, Ahmed bin Bayat around 500 companies would be relocating to DIC by 2002, many of which will be moving from Europe to Dubai (2000 World Press Freedom Review, 2001).

Idea Oasis was designed to work with private sector companies to create an environment in which start-ups could access the necessary advisory services and venture capital that have been crucial to the success of start-ups in the Silicon Valley. No private company would be permitted to own more than a 7 percent stake in Idea Oasis. Although the government of Dubai has taken the initiative in creating Idea Oasis, preliminary plans called for privatized in approximately two years with an ambitious public offering presumably on the Dubai Financial Market (Issa, 2001).

The main aim of DMC, DIC, and DIO is to create a clustered economy comprising educators, incubator companies, logistic companies, multimedia businesses, telecommunication companies, remote service providers, software developers, and venture capitalists, in one place. The hope is to create a critical mass for the new economy (Arabiata, 2002). Arab officials and experts recognize the urgency of narrowing the digital gap between Arab nations and their industrialized counterparts. The digital gap that separates many GCC countries from industrial nations is huge and could widen if governments do not take proper steps.

Governments in the area should be talking about market-building. Markets are the tools to enfranchise people. Previously governments employed people themselves in essentially make work jobs, but these economies are outdated. Area governments must create a framework to help out while making more productive use of available resources (Holloway and Dolan, 2002). (See http://www. arabadvisors. com/pressquotation.htm.) GCC countries are full of the “young and the potentially restless” with many people looking for work in economies that, on the whole, are at a standstill. The pressure of demographics suggest that something must be done quickly because the region’s labor force is growing by 3 to 4 percent yearly, the fastest growth rate in the world. In some places, living conditions have stagnated giving rise to potential political problems (Holloway and Dolan, 2002).

Thus the private sector must move quickly to combine responsiveness to old values with the need for intelligent growth. Where that growth might come from is a potentially vexing and explosive problem. Good jobs that pay well are an imperative because all the UAE children of this generation have known is the good life; many are unprepared to enter the job market; and some would seriously object to entering the workforce at the low end of the pay scale. Employing Nationals is a stated government goal in the UAE. While this necessitates the entry of women into the labor pool, women are also imbued with the “duty” of having children to provide the army of workers to replace the foreign workers forced from their jobs. The delicate balance of these dual policies will create stresses for a whole generation of young women as they struggle to combine motherhood with career.

These are among the many contradictions that must be resolved by policy-makers in the United Arab Emirates and the other modern Islamic states as they search for tunes in the air. The tunes they find must be neither the traditional Arabic melodies, nor the electronic hum of computers, but rather a hybrid composition weaving together the two strands of traditional culture and modern technology. If they fail to find this compromise, Sheikh Mohammed Rashid Bin Al Maktoum and his descendents may witness the sand reclaim their technological cities and the dessert reclaim their people


1 Purchasing power parity allows for comparison of economic data without using exchange rates. PPP are estimates derived from the relative price in different countries and reflect the rate at which currencies can be converted to purchase equivalent goods and services. Michelle A. Vachris and James Thomas, International price comparisons based on purchasing power party, Monthly Labor Review, October, 122(10):3-12.

2 The Indian Ocean Rim Network describes the history and the role of the majlis in Emriati society thusly

The ruler of an emirate, the sheikh, was the leader of the most powerful, though not necessarily the most populous, tribe, while each individual tribe, and often its various sub-sections, also generally had a chief or sheikh. Such rulers and chiefs maintained their authority only insofar as they were able to retain the loyalty and support of their people, in essence a form of direct democracy, though without the paraphernalia of western forms of suffrage. Part of that democracy was the unwritten but strong principle that the people should have free access to their sheikh, and that he should hold a frequent and open majlis, or council, in which his fellow tribesmen could voice their opinions

…, a fascinating aspect of life in the UAE today, and one that is essential to an understanding of its political system, is the way in which the institutions of the majlis has continued to maintain its relevance. In large emirates, not only the ruler, but also a number of other senior members of his family, continue to hold open majlises (or majalis), in which participants may raise for a son or daughter to go abroad, to more weighty subjects such as the impact of large-scale foreign immigration upon society or complaints about perceived flaws in the practices of various ministries and departments.

In smaller emirates, the majlis of the ruler himself, or of the crown prince or deputy ruler, remain the main focus. The Ruler of Fujairah, for example, holds an open majlis at least once a week (daily during the Muslim holy fasting month of Ramadan), which may be attended by both citizens and expatriates. To these majlises come traditionally minded tribesmen who may have waited several months for the opportunity to discuss with their ruler directly, rather than choose to pursue their requests or complaints through a modern government structure.

In modern society, of course, as President Sheikh Zayed himself has commented, it is naturally easier for a ruler to go to meet his people than for them to come to meet him. Sheikh Zayed frequently travels within the UAE, providing opportunities for him to meet with citizens away from the formal surroundings of an office or palace. During his regular inspection tours of projects, he also takes pains to ensure that citizens living nearby are guaranteed easy access to him.

Just as the modern institutions have developed in response to public need and demand, however, so the traditional forms of tribal administration have adapted. With many relatively routine matters now being dealt with by the modern institutions, so the traditional ones, like the majlis, have been able to focus on more complex issues rather than on the routine matters with which they were once heavily involved.

In the majlises, for example, it is possible to hear detailed, and often heated, discussions between sheikhs and other citizens on questions such as the policy that should be adopted towards the evolution of the machinery of government, or the nature or relations with neighbouring countries. On matters more directly affecting the individual, such as the highly relevant topic of unemployment among young UAE graduates, debates often tend to begin in the majlises, where discussion can be fast and furious, before a consensus approach evolves that is subsequently reflected in changes in government policy (taken from http://www.iornet.org/newiornet/uae2.htm).

3 Platform for Internet Content Selection. See http://www.w3.org/pub/WWW/PICS.

4 Etislat, the state ISP monopoly, says this about their system. “A proxy server is basically a server with huge amount of disk space for web-caching. The concept is simple-when a web page is requested, it is saved to the disk of the Proxy Sever. If the same web page is requested again, the disk copy is used. In a proxy server set up, users request pages from a local server instead of direct from the source. The local server gets the page, saves it on the disk and forwards it to the user. Subsequent requests from other users of the cache get the saved copy, which is much faster and does not consume Internet bandwidth. It is used to filter sites which are not allowed to view according to UAE rules and regulations” (http://cc.emirates.net.ae/).

5 One 1997 survey of languages on the Web indicate that materials in English account for more than 80 percent of content. See, for example, “Web Languages Hit Parade,” June 1997 (http://babel.alis.com:8080/ palmares.en.html), compiled by the Babel Team, a joint initiative of Alis Technologies and the Internet Society. Arabic material accounts for only a tiny fraction of the remainder. See “Expert Calls for Promotion of Arabic on Internet,” Xinhua news agency, December 30, 1998. Taken from Human Rights Watch, 1999.

6 See for example, Backpackers Café, http://www.backpackerscafe.com/midleeast.html; CyberCafe’s, http://www.indranet.com/potpourri/links/cybercafe.html; World of Internetcafes.de, http://www.worldofinternetcafes.de/index.html. The latter lists Kuwait with 4, Oman with 2, Qatar, with 2, Saudi Arabia, 4; the UAE, with 5; and Yemen, with 3.

7 Bandwidth is the amount of data that can flow over a network in a fixed amount of time. Low bandwidth creates a bottleneck in data flow. The more graphics, animation, and sound, the greater the bandwidth demands. See Anderson, 1997.)

8 Etisalat has an Internet timeline available at http://www.emirates.net.ae.

9 Establishing these is LAW NO. (1) OF 2000 OF DUBAI TECHNOLOGY, ELECTRONIC COMMERCE & MEDIA FREE ZONE. See http://www.dubaiinternetcity.com /pages/diclaw/ diclaw.asp?mcode=239&level=1.


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The authors may be contacted via email to tnwalters@yahoo.com and lynne-walters@tamu.edu

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


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