The Digital Middle East:Working Group II

On April 11-12, 2015, CIRS held its second working group on “The Digital Middle East” research initiative in Doha. Participants gathered to discuss their research papers and obtain feedback from their fellow working group members. The topics discussed during the two days covered a variety of issues relating to the digital world across the region. Discussants provided critical feedback on each of the papers, and found linkages between the different subjects that are being addressed through this book project.

Scholars debated labor and productivity within the digital realm, and how increasingly social media users and content developers actually “work for free.” Observations centered on the fact that users and developers often overlap in social media. Through this “community of practice” both sets of actors are united in their skills exhibiting traits of egalitarian behavior in the digital sphere. In the context of the Middle East, developers usually have a dual role, whereby they engage in remunerated work during the day and then assume activist roles during the night, when they work for free. By doing so, developers often hope to create digital companies that are lucrative enough to sell as a whole, as opposed to selling only the product of their paid labor. In this case, the value of the developers’ labor is being captured by aggregators such as Facebook and Google. Discussants also suggested the need for further research exploring the overall economic impact of ICT in the region, and whether the internet can actually be translated into productivity outcomes. Even though the internet is fast become a universalizing process, the specifics of its relevance to the Middle East is yet to be fully studied.

Another element of discussion at the working group was how multi-modality in the digital sphere has led to changing behavior patterns in relation to the development of friendships and personal relationships in the Middle East. The nature and function of friendships have significantly changed as a result of instantaneous connections made online. Discussants observed behaviorisms such as de-individuation, or the erosion of self-awareness within a group setting, was becoming more prevalent as a result of new technologies. The advancement of technology and media has also acted as a catalyst for women’s political development, not only post-Arab Spring but also after the 1979 revolution in Iran. Even though technology has often facilitated women in advancing their rights within society, paradoxes still exist in the history of the region. For example, in Iran, women played an integral and active role in the Islamic revolution, yet afterwards were relegated to the private sphere and in their homes. Participants around the table offered alternative examples of female mobility through digital media, such as the case of the driving campaign for Saudi women and Palestinian women’s role fighting the occupation through the electronic intifada.

Issues of freedom of the internet and online censorship were raised in relation to state power. States have often greatly benefited from the digital environment as a domain to exert their power. When thinking of civic engagement and digital media, both fields and spaces suffer from being agnostic towards structure. To get past this agnosticism, one must develop an observable appreciation for infrastructure but at the same time, cultivate an understanding of the underlying technocratic issues that exist in digital media. Societal practices, norms and attitudes as communities of practice all must be utilized as tools in the promotion of digital democracy. Discussants noted the problematic nature of framing the Arab Spring as the instigator of change in the region, arguing that political internet processes predate that, as can be viewed in the case of Iran.

Additional areas of research at the working group elaborated on ethnographies showcasing lived experiences of ordinary citizens during the Egyptian revolution and their daily interactions with technology. Participants pushed for a more nuanced definition of mediation arguing that its application to media environments in the Middle East needed further justification.

Videogame development and gaming in the Middle East have played a pivotal role in the digital world acting as cultural artifacts and alternative spaces for contestation. Discoveries made by some of the authors showcased games as domains for role-play within a predefined model world. The global flows of gaming remain underexplored generally whereby game studies have traditionally focused on consumption and popularity in regions such as the US, Europe, and Japan heavily neglecting the Middle East. As a result, discussants in their written work tried to lay a theoretical framework in a broad historical and cultural context by exploring videogames as places of hybridization. It is interesting to note that many developers in the region are driven to develop videogames by personal motivations and not by economic interest.

In the case of intellectual property laws in the Middle East, and the Gulf region in particular, states often struggle with developing a legal framework that deals with issues of copyright and piracy. Discussants observed that several GCC states have attempted to “domesticate” foreign intellectual property laws in an effort to protect traditional knowledge rights. Furthermore, GCC states have started to use intellectual property laws to their advantage by placing a heavy emphasis on digital archiving and protection of traditional knowledge and heritage.  

General observations were made as to how Middle Eastern governments and societies were moving towards online platforms. Current data on e-governance in the GCC was showcased in an effort to show the similarities and differences amongst the Gulf states in their progress towards online governance. Results remarkably showed that the smaller less affluent states of Bahrain and Oman had better e-governance portal sites offering a wide array of services for the general public. Data also showed that e-governance world rankings were difficult to maintain, as in the case of the UAE, without a proper all-encompassing digital structure. Additionally, citizens and recipients of e-governance services were often suspicious and untrusting of e-services arguing that cybercrime laws were not stringent enough to protect their information online. Similarly, the same was said for Gulf citizens’ experiences in e-commerce whereby many were reluctant when dealing with this new form of business dealings. Similarities and differences were drawn between the souk and e-commerce websites, however participants argued that the establishment of malls in the region should be considered as the intermediary between the two commercial examples.

 

Participants and Discussants:

  • Ilhem Allagui, Northwestern University in Qatar
  • Haya Al Noaimi, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Jon Anderson, Catholic University of America
  • Zahra Babar, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • John Downing, Northwestern University in Qatar
  • Muzammil M. Hussain, University of Michigan
  • Mehran Kamrava, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Joe Khalil, Northwestern University in Qatar
  • Gholam Khiabany, Goldsmiths University of London
  • Dionysis Markakis, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Suzi Mirgani, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Vit Šisler, Charles University in Prague
  • Annabelle Sreberny, SOAS, University of London
  • Norhayati Zakaria, Universiti Utara Malaysia
  • Mohamed Zayani, Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Valbona Zenku, Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar

 

Article by Haya Al-Noaimi, Research Analyst at CIRS