Regional updates: Middle East and North Africa

What were the main digital policy regional updates in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region? This space brings you the main updates month by month, summarised by the observatory's curators.

Follow the GIP's June 2020 briefing on Internet governance, which will include updates from the MENA region during June 2020. Register to attend.

May 2020

Curated by Hanane Boujemi

Impact of COVID-19 on the tech entrepreneurship ecosystem in MENA

18 May 2020 |  E-commerce and trade, Digital business models

As the COVID-19 outbreak continues to impact the way we live, work, and operate, very few start-ups across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region have managed to escape the repercussions of this pandemic. Some sectors have witnessed a surge in demand, while others seem to be struggling.

A report developed by Wamda and Arabnet identifies how COVID-19 impacts the region’s entrepreneurship sector and the measures that can be taken to alleviate the financial stress on start-ups.

Start-ups based in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) represent the largest contingent of the survey, with close to a quarter (24.7%) of respondents based in the Emirates, followed by Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt. Software as a Service (SaaS), e-commerce, and financial technology (fintech) are the most represented sectors. E-grocery or foodtech, education technology (edtech), health technology (healthtech), and on-demand services are also well represented – a reflection of a diversified ecosystem.

Cash use to go below 5% of total spending in Middle East

5 May 2020 |  E-commerce and trade

Banks in the Middle East are the most ardent proponents of a cashless society, with the use of cash is expected to reduce dramatically over the next few years. Lockdowns across the world, in reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic, are expected to reinforce this trend. According to a study carried out in 2019 by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), 60% of banks in the region expect cash to account for less than 5% of total spending within five years. This compares to 48% of banks globally expecting this to be the case.

A total of 43% of Middle East banking executives said new technologies such artificial intelligence (AI) will have the biggest impact on the region’s banking sector by 2025.

Uber Eats exits Saudi Arabia and Egypt, transfers business to Careem Now in UAE

4 May 2020 |  E-commerce and trade

Uber Eats, the food delivery arm of Uber is exiting Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and five other markets. The company has also decided to transfer its business operations in the United Arab Emirates to Careem which operates its own food delivery service Careem Now in the country.

The exit from the Middle East comes almost four years after it expanded to the region with its Dubai launch in 2016. Uber plans to lay off 31% of its workforce in the Middle East to ‘reduce its operating expenses in response to the economic challenges and uncertainty resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on its business’.

April 2020

Curated by Noha Fathy

Huawei launches AirEngine Wi-Fi 6 and CloudCampus solutions in the Middle East

21 Apr 2020 |  Emerging technologies, Cloud computing

During the Huawei Middle East Digital Transformation Webinar 2020, Huawei kicked off the new series AirEngine Wi-Fi 6 and the Huawei CloudCampus solution in the Middle East, aiming at transforming enterprise campus networks. ‘Digital technologies are reshaping the world around us and it is more important than ever before to implement the latest solutions to ensure continued and reliable connectivity. Campuses are the cornerstone of a digital world, where most of the innovation takes place. With the new products and solutions launched today, Huawei aims to satisfy customer needs for high-speed, fully wireless, and intelligent networks that will accelerate the digital transformation of enterprise campuses,’ noted Alaa ElShimy from MD & SVP, Enterprise Business Group, Huawei Middle East.

Huawei CloudCampus solution builds next-generation campus networks:

  • Huawei introduces 5G RF technologies, 5G algorithms such as multi-system co-scheduling, Smart Antenna, and software-defined radio access networks, and 5G networking concepts into the IP field;
  • the Campus OptiX network solution enables fully optical campus network connections through an IP plus POL architecture; and
  • the Huawei Horizon Digital Platform upgrades campus services from traditional single-scenario intelligence to overall campus intelligence.

E-learning initiatives during COVID-19 crisis in MENA countries

20 Apr 2020 |  Capacity development, Sustainable development

Amid the COVID-19 lock-down of schools and universities, a number of governments in the MENA region kicked off online platforms to continue providing education services. In the United Arab Emirates, Abu Dhabi University recently invested 55 million UAE dirhams on tools, i.e. Microsoft Teams and Workspace, to secure a large bandwidth and huge cloud storage, fend off potential hackers, and ensure students and educators have seamless interaction during periods of school closure. Moreover, Etisalat UAE helped more than one million students in the country to continue their education through its e-learning initiatives and online platforms. It further allowed over 10 million mobile subscribers to enjoy free browsing of over 800 websites related to education, health, and safety.

In Tunisia, the Ministry of Education announced an e-learning platform that is being developed locally by Tunisian engineers, teachers, and educational inspectors which will offer thousands of interactive activities, audio-visual resources, and textbooks for academic support.

In Jordan, while schools resorted to WhatsApp to send, receive, correct, and mark homework, some private colleges turned to the app Google Classroom. INJAZ Jordan has further launched a free e-learning platform for university students which provides instructional videos and interactive sessions between students. In the West Bank, teachers in government schools are using the Zoom app to teach up to 100 students at once. Egypt, Morocco, and Qatar are operating online platforms for education.

Yet, since computer and Internet access remain a problem in some countries in the region, some countries rely on TV programmes to reach students in remote areas and households who cannot afford computers, i.e. Egypt and Morocco. ‘There is no doubt that current challenges have highlighted just how important it is for schools to digitally transform, as recent changes will inexorably redefine the way these organisations operate in the future. This will drive a new wave of IT spending by schools and I believe we can expect this to occur as early as the start of the new school year, this September,’ said Riverbed’s Senior Director for Middle East and North Africa, Mena Migally.

Increase in usage of telecom services during March and April in Egypt

20 Apr 2020 |  Access

The Egyptian National Telecom Regulatory Authority (NTRA) published a comparison between telecom service indicators in the second week of April and the second week of March 2020. The published figures demonstrated that the telecommunications services usage and Internet consumption have remarkably increased, showing high traffic in March and April. This is due to the measures taken by many Egyptians to combat the Coronavirus, by self quarantining at home. According to the report, international voice calls increased by 15% and local voice calls by 3%; home Internet usage increased by 87% and mobile Internet usage by 18 %. While web browsing went up by 131%, browsing the websites of the ministries of education, technical education, and higher education and scientific research saw a surge of 376.4%. The usage of video, social media, and game applications also showed a remarkable increase.

Digital media battle flares up between Saudi Arabia and Turkey

19 Apr 2020 |  Freedom of expression, Freedom of the Press

In response to Turkey's state broadcaster and news agency websites that were blocked in Saudi Arabia, Turkey blocked a number of Saudi and Emirates news websites. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has targeted the Turkish media after 20 Saudi Arabian citizens were accused by Turkish prosecutors of the murder of the journalist Jamal Kashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, in October 2018. Access to the websites of Saudi news agency SPA, the UAE’s WAM news agency, alongside more than a dozen other websites were blocked in Turkey, reportedly under a law governing Internet publications in Turkey. On the other hand, the Turkish website of the UK-based Independent newspaper, as well as several Turkish media websites – including state broadcaster TRT and the state-owned Anadolu agency – were blocked in Saudi Arabia. Editor Nevzat Cicek said that ‘we believe the tensions between Saudi Arabia and Turkey reflected on us. [The prosecutor’s decision appeared to be] retaliation against Saudi Arabia.’

E-commerce sector is thriving post COVID-19 outbreak in the Middle East

8 Apr 2020 |  E-commerce and trade

The total lock-down of many businesses improves the growth opportunities for the e-commerce sector in the Middle East as people turn to shopping online because of the absence of other options. The rise in electronic shopping during the past two months could also be attributed to the fact that these services help reduce time and effort, as well as help to avoid crowds in shopping centres. ‘Several factors play an important role in the prosperity of this electronic commerce sector, including the infrastructure in the field of technology, the quality of internet connection and the rate of internet penetration in society. These are factors governing the Gulf in general, particularly the United Arab Emirates (UAE), in which this sector is expected to achieve a constant growth rate of 23% on an annual basis until 2022,’ explained Co-Founder and CEO of ArabClicks Mauro Romano. During the first few months of 2020, continuous growth was reported in the UAEs’ e-commerce market, exceeding 5% of sales. It is expected that the retail sector in the Gulf will jump to around US$ 308 billion by 2023, compared to US$ 253 billion achieved in 2018. Moreover, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are said to account for 77% of the increase, making the UAE rank fifth among the 10 most prosperous countries in the retail sector worldwide.

Global civil society urges Gulf countries to unblock VoIP services

7 Apr 2020 |  Freedom of expression, Freedom of the Press, Privacy and data protection

A joint statement was signed by 29 organisations to call upon the governments of the Gulf countries to permanently lift the ban on all Voice Over IP (VoIP) platforms used for voice and video Internet calls. The banned VoIP services, which have been blocked since 2017, have an adverse impact on the fundamental rights of freedom of expression, privacy, and access to information. ‘One of the weapons people have against COVID-19 is information. Gulf governments, especially during this public health crisis, should not be in the business of restricting the free flow of information. Rather, they should facilitate unfettered access to a reliable, open, and secure internet, including communication apps,’ highlighted Access Now’s Global Internet Shutdowns Lead Berhan Tay. Amid the COVID-19 crisis, some Gulf countries have relaxed restrictions on some of the VoIP apps and platforms. For example, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Oman have unblocked, on an ‘exceptional’ and temporary basis, apps that allow for distance learning such as Microsoft Teams, Skype for Business, Google Hangouts, and Zoom. Qatar has further allowed Microsoft Teams and Zoom services.

Abu Dhabi Digital Authority launches the ‘Abu Dhabi Connect’ Project

6 Apr 2020 |  Digital business models

‘Abu Dhabi Connect’ is a new initiative that was kicked off by the Abu Dhabi Digital Authority (ADDA) under the auspices of the Abu Dhabi Government Services ecosystem (TAMM). The initiative, which is in line with Abu Dhabi Plan and Saudi Vision 2030, aims at supporting the government’s endeavours to secure distinguished services and experiences to enhance customers’ experiences by improving and facilitating services and procedures. This would be done through establishing a comprehensive system to enable governmental entities in Abu Dhabi to digitally exchange government documents of individuals and companies. To this aim, safe and secure channels were established to transform these paper documents into digital data, making it the first-of-its-kind project in the region.

March 2020

Curated by Hanane Boujemi

COVID-19 accelerates shift to online services in MENA region

24 Mar 2020 |  E-commerce and trade

The COVID-19 pandemic has triggered a significant shift in how business is done in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Grocery start-ups all across MENA are thriving.

For example, Nana, a Saudi grocery delivery start-up has been witnessing up to triple the number of orders; Nana’s Chief Growth Officer Karim Ebeid told MENAbytes, ‘We expect demand to increase even further when people get their salaries towards the end of the month’.

GetBaqala, a Bahrain-based grocery delivery start-up has also seen a major increase in business as more people self-isolate and practice social distancing.

GoodsMart, one of the leading grocery start-ups of Egypt is witnessing a big increase in both new clients and number of orders from existing customers. ‘The increase has been drastic lately, it almost tripled in terms of the order as everyone is currently looking for the contactless experience,’ Amr Fawzi, founder and CEO of GoodsMart told MENAbytes.

Finally in Oman, MarkeetEx, a marketplace and grocery delivery start-up, that recently announced the closing of its USD1 million seed round, has seen its orders increase over 350% on a weekly basis lately.

Google helps Arab educators keep students connected

26 Mar 2020 |  Online education

Google has rolled out free access to advanced Hangouts Meet videoconferencing capabilities to all G Suite and G Suite for Education customers globally and in the Middle East and North Africa, including Egypt, KSA, and the UAE, from 26 March to 1 July 2020.

Teach From Home is a central hub of information, tips, training, and tools across Google for Education to help teachers teach remotely. The hub provides an overview of how to get started with remote learning—for example how to teach online, make lessons accessible to students, engage with students, and collaborate with other educators. Teach from Home is now available in Arabic, with downloadable toolkits available in other languages.

Teach from Home was built with the support and co-operation of the UNESCO Institute for Information Technologies in Education, who is also working with other education partners to respond to this emergency. This resource will continue to evolve and improve as it receives feedback from teachers and partners on what’s most helpful.

The YouTube Learning destination is a new hub on YouTube designed to help students with high-quality Arabic learning content. The destination features content ranging from grade 7 mathematics to grade 12 chemistry and shares tips for learners about how to study at home. The playlists on the hub will cover multiple subjects with more to be included in the coming days such as Arabic, English, Mathematics, Physics, Biology, and Chemistry.

February 2020

Curated by Noha Fathy

4IR is key to opportunities for women in MENA, McKinsey reports

19 Feb 2020 |  Sustainable development, Gender rights online, Access, Inclusive finance

During the Global Women’s Forum on 16-17 February 2020 in Dubai, McKinsey unveiled the findings of its recent publication Middle East Women at Work which underscored the role of gender parity in the fourth industrial revolution (4IR). According to the report, enterprises owned or partially owned by women generate 2.5 times the return of others. Women representation in professional and technical jobs are mostly driven by education, digital inclusion, financial inclusion, and legal protection. ‘We must create more role models for young girls by choosing study fields that offer more digital skills. Also, 69 million women in MENA are still not using the internet, and many women in the region remain unbanked, often as a result of not having identification documents,’ noted McKinsey & Company partner Chiara Marcati.

Digital space in MENA region is stifled, reports Amnesty International

18 Feb 2020 |  Freedom of expression, Freedom of the Press

Amnesty International published a Human rights in the Middle East and North Africa: Review of 2019 which covers the offline and online violations of human rights in the region. According to the report, during 2019, the MENA region witnessed a crackdown of online dissent voices where 136 individuals were arrested for peacefully expressing their opinions online and 12 countries were reported to be prisoners of conscience. Online censorship and surveillance techniques have also been deployed by some governments. ‘The fact that governments across MENA have a zero-tolerance approach to peaceful online expression shows how they fear the power of ideas that challenge official narratives. Authorities must release all prisoners of conscience immediately and unconditionally and stop harassing peaceful critics and human rights defenders,’ said Amnesty International Director for the Middle East and North Africa Philip Luther.

Saudi Arabia promotes digital cash through new digital initiatives

18 Feb 2020 |  E-commerce and trade, Inclusive finance

Saudi Payments, a state-owned payment infrastructure provider, and Saudi Telecom Company’s STC Pay, an integrated payment application, kicked off a partnership to develop its mobile wallet and collaborate on digital projects. STC highlighted that the collaboration would allow them to work with financial and technology driven enterprises to reduce dependence on cash in the country. ‘Through this agreement, we aspire to raise the diversity level in services and solutions for all service providers and beneficiaries in order to achieve the maximum benefit from the unified infrastructure services provided by Saudi Payments,’ noted Saudi Payments CEO Ziad Al Yousef.

MENA governments to direct their ICT spending to digital transformation says IDC

17 Feb 2020 |  Sustainable development

According to the International Data Corporation (IDC) latest report, governments in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) spent US$12.8 billion on information and communications technologies (ICTs) in 2019. Experts at IDC expect this figure to go up during the coming years at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 4.8%, crossing the US$15 billion mark by 2023. ‘Governments across the region are under mounting pressure to become both more efficient and more effective. However, this is proving to be a troublesome task as many government organisations are simply not prepared for digital redesign. Whether it’s finding ways to integrate 5G, AI and Blockchain or protect against intrusions on digital trust, government agencies have a whole new set of IT skills to learn,’ noted IDC’s Group Vice President and Regional Managing Director for the Middle East, Turkey, and Africa Jyoti Lalchandani.

World Bank Group launches initiatives supporting women entrepreneurs in the Middle East

16 Feb 2020 |  Gender rights online

Aiming at promoting start-up financing and e-commerce markets for women entrepreneurs, the World Bank Group launched new initiatives during the Women Entrepreneurs Finance Initiative (We-Fi) on 16-17 February in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. The first is the ScaleX programme by the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation (IFC) which aims at addressing the gender financial gap through providing incentives for venture capital funds to women entrepreneurs in emerging markets. The second is a partnership between the World Bank and UPS to help women entrepreneurs in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region grow their businesses by assisting them in successfully leveraging e-commerce platforms. ‘By making e-commerce platforms more accessible, this partnership addresses a key constraint faced by women business leaders in reaching new markets. E-commerce platforms create opportunities, and we must ensure these opportunities are open to women-owned businesses across the region,’ noted World Bank MENA Vice President Ferid Belhaj.

Social media companies encroach Palestinian’s media freedom

11 Feb 2020 |  Freedom of expression

During a press conference convened by Watan TV, the Palestinian Center for Development and Media Freedoms (MADA) issued its annual report on media freedoms in Palestine in 2019. The report sheds light on the different Israeli and Palestinian violations of media freedoms in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. On top of these violations were social media companies, particularly Facebook. According to the report, 181 violations were conducted by social media companies and networks, out of which 180 were reported to Facebook and WhatsApp. The target of these violations were journalists as well as Palestinian citizens which included the closing down by Facebook of news pages (belonging to various media outlets), and others belonging to Palestinian journalists, blocking them for specific periods, deleting content published on them, or preventing the administrators of these pages to post on Facebook.





Human rights organisations denounce the clampdown on social media in Morocco

5 Feb 2020 |  Freedom of expression

The Moroccan Association for Human Rights and Human Rights Watch published a case listing Moroccan citizens who were imprisoned or indicted recently in violation of their right to express themselves peacefully online. According to the organisations, the Moroccan authorities have been stifling the digital space since September 2019 and have arrested and prosecuted at least ten activists, artists, or other citizens for peacefully expressing critical opinions via Facebook posts, YouTube videos, or rap songs. The organisations called upon the Moroccan government to release the detainees and drop the charges that vary between ‘lack of due respect for the king,’ ‘defaming state institutions,’ and ‘offending public officials’. ‘An increasing number of Moroccans are taking to social media to express bold political opinions, including about the king, as is their right. As self-censorship erodes, the authorities have stepped in to frantically try to reinstate the red lines,’ said Human Rights Watch Middle East and North Africa communications director Ahmed Benchemsi.

Three editors convicted for defamation and spreading false news by the Iranian court

3 Feb 2020 |  Freedom of expression, Freedom of the Press

The Tehran’s Media Court condemned three local editors from three different news websites for allegedly ‘spreading false news and defamation’. The editors whose names were not revealed work for the Iranian Students’ News Agency (ISNA), the Bultannews news website, and the energy news website NeftEMA. As ISNA reported, the case was made when the National Iranian Gas Transmission Company filed a complaint against NeftEMA for ‘spreading misinformation, defamation, and insult’. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) denounced these charges and requested they be dropped immediately. ‘If the Iranian government has a credible case against the editors of ISNA, NeftEMA, and Bultannews, they should try them openly and publicly. Closed door trials of journalists cannot be considered fair or impartial and the Iranian judiciary has a history of holding opaque judicial proceedings that lack credibility,’ said CPJ’s Middle East and North Africa programme coordinator Sherif Mansour.

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