In the aftermath of the ‘Arab Spring’, as counter-revolution casts its repressive shadow across the Middle East and North Africa, the tools that a short while ago enabled revolutionary organisation on a mass scale have subsequently changed hands.
Once celebrated, and in some quarters credited, as playing the defining role in the Arab uprisings of 2011, social media and the internet more broadly have now been transformed into a central component of authoritarian control, as the balance of power has shifted firmly away from the masses in the region.
This is evident in the United Arab Emirates where government critics, bloggers and human rights defenders have been disappearing at an alarming rate as a result of their social media activity, while dozens of online news publications from the Huffington Post to Al Jazeera have been blocked by the authorities for publicly expressing views counter to that of the state.
Since 2011, Gulf rulers have passed legislation that effectively criminalises criticism of their regimes. In a bid to quell the harbingers of revolt, authorities have tightened their control over information and communication technologies.
In the UAE this control came in the form of the cybercrime law, approved in November 2012 by Emirati president Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed. Its vaguely worded provisions effectively outlawed the use of information technology as means to argue for political reform, criticise senior officials or organise unsolicited demonstrations, enabling Emirati authorities to clamp down more efficiently on dissenting voices within their borders.
This cyber crackdown materialised in response to the faint rumblings of discontent which began to manifest themselves in the Emirates. As revolutions engulfed the Arab world in 2011, Emirati lawyers, academics and human rights activists took to blogs and social media sites to call for relatively modest democratic reforms and, for a brief moment, the internet provided a space within Emirati society where debate, criticism and ideas thrived. A political opposition had begun to emerge in the 'sleepy Emirates', which was previously dubbed the 'Switzerland of the Middle East' for its relative internal stability and seemingly mediatory foreign policy agenda.
These developments seemed to confirm the long-held view by certain sections of the academic community that predicted that as the Gulf monarchies sought to diversify their economies away from reliance on oil revenues, the development of technology and communication infrastructure, alongside inward capital flows from western tech companies, would result in the emergence of a civil society that would eventually democratise the political apparatus of the state.
This modernisation drive has been no more evident than in the UAE, wherein the last decade a burgeoning tech start-up scene has developed, to the extent that Apple and Google have opened headquarters in Dubai. The Emirate has consciously marketed itself as the ‘Silicon Valley of the Middle East’, even setting up ‘the Dubai Silicon Oasis Authorities’ that the Prime Minister of Dubai, Sheikh Rashid al-Maktoum promises will make Dubai the “world’s leading centre of advanced electronic innovation, design and development.” Crucially, this sort of discourse enables the Emirati authorities to project an image of the UAE as a beacon of openness, tolerance and modernity to the outside world.
The impact of this new digital economy has resulted in a 91% internet penetration in 2016, with social media activity at one of the highest rates in the Middle East. Yet, as technological advancement has increased, so too has the repressive arm of the state, as the Emirati authorities have sought to utilise these developments to curtail freedom of speech and suppress dissenting voices. Through the cybercrime law they have all but crushed the emergent movement that began to develop inside the country.
Since the Arab uprisings of 2011, the UAE's Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA) have worked closely with cyber-crime units attached to the security apparatus to implement a suffocating internet censorship and surveillance system. A cyber-police force, officially termed the department of Anti-Electronic Crimes, constitutes a special unit within the Dubai police force which works around the clock to monitor the internet, disproportionately targeting political dissenters and human rights activists.
The vague provision of what constitutes a cyber-crime has meant that in particular, journalists, bloggers, human rights defenders and government critics find themselves tracked by the authorities. In recent years, they have been arbitrarily detained, forcefully disappeared and in some cases tortured because of their social media activities. According to the Emirates Media and Studies Centre, in 2016 alone around 300 people were detained for comments on social media sites that allegedly criticised the ruling regime. Furthermore, in March of this year, Jordanian journalist Tayseer al-Najjar and prominent Emirati academic Dr. Nasser Bin Ghaith received jail sentences of three to ten years respectively due to Facebook and Twitter comments that the authorities deemed to be critical of the state.
It is important to note that this tightly controlled police state has, in the UAE, been facilitated by a new network of global ‘cyber-arms dealers’ that have been only too happy to cater to a burgeoning gap in the market, created by oil-rich Gulf monarchies with an eye to quell any form of dissent. Earlier this year, a BBC investigation revealed that British based arms manufacturer BAE systems had been exporting cyber-surveillance software to the UAE, and other Middle Eastern states, which has subsequently been used by the Emirati authorities to spy on their citizens. Furthermore, in 2016, QinetiQ, a UK company formerly part of the Ministry of Defence that specialises in cybersecurity ‘providing comprehensive monitoring and alerting software’ opened an office in Abu Dhabi to provide ‘technical advice and support to security clients primarily within the UAE’.
In a story that garnered international attention last year, the prominent Emirati human rights defender Ahmed Mansoor was dubbed ‘the million-dollar dissenter’ by media outlets after it was discovered that his iPhone had been hacked by the UAE authorities with software supplied by the Israeli security company NOS Group. The Emirati government reportedly paid the Israeli firm $1 million dollars for the software. Mansoor received a text message promising him information on political prisoners in the UAE if he clicked on a link in the message. Suspicious and alert to such threats, he passed the phone on to Toronto based Citizen Lab, who specialise in communications technologies and human rights. They discovered that the hacking software would have enabled authorities to track Mansoor’s every movement and conversation, essentially turning his phone into a mobile surveillance device. Commonly referred to as the last man speaking out about human rights in the UAE, Mansoor was arrested for his social media activity and disappeared in March this year. He remains in an unknown location without access to a lawyer.
The case of the United Arab Emirates sheds light on the fact that these technologies when in the hands of repressive authoritarian regimes, can be used to eliminate any kind of democratisation of social media, or the internet more broadly. Cyber technology cannot be viewed out of the context of the material conditions in which they are embedded. Instead, they should be seen as enabling and enhancing a state’s control over its citizens. As the balance of power has shifted away from the masses so too has social media, which is now situated within the confines of authoritarian rule. For a flicker of a moment it provided an alternative space in which political dissent thrived and organised, but now with the assistance of an international network of 'cybersecurity dealers' this space, for now, has well and truly closed.