Regional updates: Middle East and North Africa

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

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April 2019

Curated by 

Noha Fathy

Reuters reports on a secret Emirati intelligence program that targets Arab and foreign media figures and activists

1 Apr 2019 | 

Cybersecurity, Privacy and data protection, Other human rights,

Reuters published a report revealing that the United Arab Emirates (UAE) hired American hackers – formerly employed by US intelligence agencies – to spy on politicians, media figures, activists, and journalists. According to the report, the targeting of media figures started at the outbreak of the crisis between Qatar and the UAE and its allies through Project Raven – a secret Emirati intelligence program that spies on dissidents, militants, and political opponents of the UAE monarchy. Among the targets were the chairman of Al Jazeera Hamad bin Thamer Al Thani, Al Jazeera host Faisal al-Qassem, BBC Arabic host Giselle Khoury, as well as a British activist and several unnamed US journalists. The program uses a cyber weapon called Karma that breaks into iPhones by uploading the target’s mobile number or email, without the target having to click on any links, and provides access to photos, emails, text messages, and location. Reuters asked the UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs and their embassy in Washington, the US National Security Agency, and iPhone for comments but they all declined.

Banned social messaging apps hinder emergency relief on Iran

5 Apr 2019 | 

Freedom of expression, Freedom of expression

Since March 2019, Iran has been witnessing heavy floods that have resulted in casualties in 31 provinces. The situation was aggravated by the state’s ban on social media applications which encumbered reporting on landslides and falling rocks as well as emergency relief and mobilisation by aid workers to reach affected areas. Citizens also reported that the virtual private networks (VPNs), which can be used to bypass the filters imposed by the authorities, are unstable because of the flooding. Iranians, including government officials, journalists, and citizens, have condemned such practices and called upon the government to lift the censorship on social media applications even if temporarily. ‘If filtering was not an obstacle, the rescue operations would have been more effective … Let’s learn from experiences,’ tweeted Secretary for the Government High Council for Dissemination of Information Alireza Moezi. On 27 March 2019, the state’s cyber-police force issued a statement warning against reporting on the flooding and sharing images and spreading rumours that 'disturb public opinion and disrupt the peace in society.’ Member of Parliament Mahmoud Sadeghi tweeted ‘I wish that the honorable Prosecutor [General Mohammad Jafar Montazeri] would at least temporarily lift the filter on Telegram so that the people could use it as a means of communication.’

‘Sea Turtle’ DNS hijack campaign affected 13 countries in MENA region

17 Apr 2019 | 


Cisco Talos published a report on a new malicious cyber campaign ‘Sea Turtle’ that affected 40 different organisations in the countries of the Middle East and North Africa region. Target entities included ministries of foreign affairs, military organisations, intelligence agencies, and major energy organisations. Research describes ‘Sea Turtle’ as a state-directed espionage campaign which has been active since early 2017 to obtain persistent access to sensitive networks and systems, though Cisco Talos did not attribute it to any state. The campaign used a sophisticated Domain Name System (DNS) manipulation, thus exploiting third-party entities to reach the targets: telecommunications organisations, ISPs, IT firms, registrars, and registries. Threat actors behind the campaign compromised entities by manipulating and falsifying DNS records at various levels in the domain name space. Researchers believed that their intentions were to steal credentials and gain access to networks and systems of interest. Cisco Talos considers the ‘Sea Turtle’ campaign worrisome in its realistic potential to undermine users’ trust in the Internet as such.

Three bloggers were arrested without charges in Saudi Arabia

18 Apr 2019 | 

Freedom of expression, Other human rights

In early April 2019, Al-Qst and the Gulf Center for Human Rights reported that Saudi Arabian authorities detained the blogger Naif al-Hindas, and bloggers and columnists Ali al-Saffar and Redha al-Boori. The Saudi authorities did not reveal the reasons behind these arrests. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, neither al-Saffar nor al-Boori have made any online posts over the past years and al-Hindas' blog has been inactive for some time. The last published works by al-Saffar and al-Boori were in 2015, while al-Hindas, who was writing about philosophy, film, feminism, and other cultural and political topics on several blogs, had not published anything since August 2018. ‘Saudi authorities seem intent on locking up any journalist who might potentially have something critical to say about the current leadership,’ said CPJ Middle East and North Africa Program Coordinator Sherif Mansour.

Dubai Future Council on AI meets for the first time

20 Apr 2019 | 

The Dubai Future Council on Artificial Intelligence held its first meeting in April 2019 and started discussions on how artificial intelligence (AI) can be used to 'enhance Dubai's status as a future global city'. Chaired by Minister of State for Artificial Intelligence Omar Sultan Al Olama, the council serves more than one purpose. On the one hand, it works on enhancing the awareness of the public and private sectors regarding the importance of applying AI technologies in education, healthcare, innovation, and other sectors of the economy and society. On the other hand, the council aims to support research focused on creating a legislative and regulatory environment that meets the needs of all stakeholders vis-à-vis the development and deployment of AI. Issues discussed at the council's first meeting included the challenges faced in the development of AI and the pertinent needs for enabling policies and regulations.


March 2019

Curated by 

Hanane Boujemi

Dubai is the world’s top city for foreign investments in AI and robotics

15 Mar 2019 | 

The United Arab Emirates have attracted over USD$ 21 billion in foreign capital in just three years of foreign direct investments in artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics, which is said to be the highest in the world. Most of the investments came from the European Union and the United States (US), accounting for USD$ 5.7 billion and USD$ 3.9 billion, respectively.


WSIS 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development

19 Mar 2019 | 

Development - other

The ESCWA organised the Second Arab High-level Forum (AHLF) on WSIS and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development in Beirut, from 19 to 21 March 2019, at the UN-House in Beirut, Lebanon. The meeting was organised in partnership with the ITU Arab Regional Office, Lebanese Government, OGERO Telecom-Lebanon, and the League of Arab States (LAS). 

The division of ICT Policies is leading the work and has included six tracks which highlight the priorities of the Arab region namely:

1) Digital Development in the Arab Region

2) ITU Regional Development Forum for Arab States

3) Thematic/Community Workshops

4) Meeting of the Programme Advisory Committee for ArabIGF

5) Meeting of Arab e-Government Directors

6) Inter-governmental Meeting on Technology for Development which was exclusive to government officials

The forum focused on discussing the linkages between the information society and sustainable development, Internet governance issues and priorities for the Arab region. It also covered how digital economies and smart societies can accelerate the implementation of WSIS action lines, themes and priority areas, and contribute to the achievement of the sustainable development goals (SDGs) in the Arab Region.

February 2019

Curated by 

Noha Fathy

Arab Horizon 2030: Digital Technologies for Development

1 Feb 2019 | 

Development - other

The UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asian (ESCWA) released a study on Arab Horizon 2030: Digital Technologies for Development. The study examines digital technologies for development in the Arab region within the framework of the UN Agenda for Sustainable Development. Through the study, ESCWA aims to promote radical policy changes in utilising digital technologies for sustainable development in the Arab region. To this aim, it identifies proposals and recommendations for harnessing these technologies in social, economic, and human development opportunities. The research tackles seven thematic policy areas relevant to digital technologies and their impact on development goals: digital strategies, ICT sector, ICT infrastructure, cybersecurity, digital divide, e-applications, and e-government. For each policy area, the study provides an in-depth analysis organised under four sections: a) contextualisation of the thematic issue with respect to its impact on the sustainable development goals (SDGs), b) analysis of local policies in Arab countries and the gap with developed countries, c) pinpointing the Horizon 2030 vision and policy change recommendations to fulfill SDGs, and d) outlining business-as-usual trajectory in line with the Horizon 2030 vision. At the end, the study provides a summary of the 2030 vision and the pertinent policy change recommendations for each of the seven areas.

Human rights activists investigated over peaceful online activities in Kuwait

11 Feb 2019 | 

Freedom of expression

Two Kuwaiti human rights defenders, Abdulhakim Al-Fadhli and Hamed Jameel, were investigated by the Electronic and Cyber Crime Combating Department (ECCCD) of Kuwait for their activities on Twitter. Al-Fadhli was interrogated for using his Twitter account to mobilise citizens to gather in front of the Central Apparatus for Illegal Residents’ Affairs. Jameel was questioned for purportedly setting a fake Twitter account to attack members of the Group of 80 that supports Saleh Al-Fadala, Head of Central Apparatus for Illegal Residents’ Affairs. After interrogation, they were both released for their cases to be pursued by lawyers. The Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) condemned the Kuwaiti authorities for cracking down on the freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of expression of both activists.

Saudi government’s eService app tracks and restricts women’s movement

17 Feb 2019 | 

Gender rights online, Privacy and data protection

Absher, the official app for eServices of the Saudi Ministry of Interior’s National Information Center in Saudi Arabia, allows men to track and restrict the movement of women. The application sends text messages to men when their wife or daughter tries to use their passport, and men can use it to alert airports in Saudi Arabia to catch a woman in case they are trying to travel without permission or flee Saudi Arabia. US Senator Ron Wyden sent an open letter to Apple and Google CEOs, Tim Cook and Sundar Pichai, urging them to ‘immediately remove from your app stores the Saudi government’s Absher app, which enables Saudi men to track and control the movements of Saudi women.’ Wyden asked them to prevent technical infrastructure, including app stores, from being used by the Saudi government to enable ‘abhorrent surveillance and control of women.’ Cook was not familiar with the case, but promised the company will look into it and consider next steps on Apple’s App Store. A spokesman for Google said the company has also started investigating the app hosted on Google Play Store in order to determine if it is in accordance with its policies.

EU proposed AI guidelines could threaten the documentation of war crime evidence in Syria

18 Feb 2019 | 

, Intermediaries

Since the beginning of the war in Syria, media outlets have been contributing to the documentation of the war and providing video evidence to the global community about the violence against Syrian civilians. However, media outlets like Orient News, BellingcatMiddle East Eye, and Syrian Archive had their videos suspended on YouTube. Despite providing context and captions to such videos, they were perceived as inappropriate to YouTube users and taken down by artificial intelligence (AI) technology for having ‘graphic or extremist content’ which are deployed to clamp down on ISIS and groups alike on social media channels. The latest video that was removed from YouTube was published by Orient News to show injured civilians in an explosion at a hospital. Now the situation of these media outlets could be aggravated by the EU proposed Artificial Intelligence Guidelines prepared by the European Commission’s High-Level Expert Group on Artificial Intelligence (AI HLEG) which was criticised for lacking adequate safeguards to fundamental human rights. As ARTICLE 19 noted, the guidelines refer to vaguely defined ethics, ‘goodwill’, and ‘trustworthy AI’ which provide nonspecific interpretations and could be used to stifle freedom of expression among other rights.

Lebanese telecom company may start deploying deep packet inspection

20 Feb 2019 | 

Cybersecurity, Privacy and data protection

According to reports, Lebanese mobile operator Touch is considering deploying deep packet inspection (DPI) from Nexius, a US-based communications and software company. The same technology was purchased a year ago by Alfa, another local mobile operator in Lebanon, for US$3 million but is not delivered or deployed yet. In their research, the Social Media Exchange (SMEX) found a closed call for applicants for a Beirut-based Nexius job vacancy for a DPI Expert. According to SMEX, ‘the telecom companies’ decision to integrate DPI has major implications on users’ privacy and could lead to an increase in targeted surveillance, both by state agencies and third parties’.

December 2018

Curated by 

Noha Fathy

DNSpionage malware targets websites in Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates

1 Dec 2018 | 

Cybersecurity, Cybercrime

Cisco’s Talos Intelligence Group unveiled a new espionage campaign targeting government and private domains in Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The malware, dubbed ‘DNSpionage’ by Cisco Talos, supports HTTP and DNS communication with the attackers. The targeted operation hinged on two different campaigns hosted on the same server: 1) Circulating fake job websites which run malicious code when downloaded, and 2) Redirecting .gov domains administered by the Lebanese Ministry of Finance, Middle Eastern Airlines, and the UAE’s Telecommunications Regulation Authority (TRA). According to Warren Mercer and Paul Rascagneres at Cisco Talos, the attackers targeted email and VPN traffic to collect email usernames, passwords, and VPN credentials. Additionally, both campaigns were run by the same actor, but the location and motivation of the actors were not identified.

Foreign investment gains can promote the Lebanese digital economy

5 Dec 2018 | 

Economic - other issues

The United Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) released a new Investment Policy Review (IPR) of Lebanon that denotes the country’s potential to promote employment and drive the development of information economy through foreign investment. The UNCTAD report acknowledges the Lebanese government’s endeavours in the adoption of e-government solutions. The report proposes a strategy to increase FDI attraction, especially in the information and communications technology (ICT) and ICT-enabled sectors. It further pinpoints several recommendations to help Lebanon improve the digital economy, which include advancing the investment climate and embracing a strategic approach to investment promotion. To position the country as a leading regional and global destination for investors in the information economy, the report also recommends several reforms to the structure and functions of the Investment Development Authority of Lebanon (IDAL).

Jordanian Cabinet endorses a new cybercrime law

11 Dec 2018 | 


A new cybercrime law was approved in Jordan with an addition of new amendments [in Arabic] to the old law. The new law redefines hate speech to include any writing, speech or action that is intended to incite sectarian or racial strife or to call for violence, or to provoke conflict between sects and various segments of society. Additionally, it criminalises rumours and false news with a penalty of three months to two years imprisonment. As for third-party content on social media and media outlets, the law provides that the liability of the comments is on the commentators. The law was condemned for not being opened for public comments or published after endorsement. It was further denounced for addressing crimes that are already tackled in other operative laws.

Policies of telecommunication companies in Egypt lack privacy and data protection measures

13 Dec 2018 | 

Privacy and data protection, Other human rights

The Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE) published a report that posits the question of whether telecommunication companies in Egypt protect the privacy of their customers. To address this question, four major operators on the Egyptian market: Vodafone, Orange, Etisalat, and Telecom Egypt were investigated. The key findings showed that the four telecommunication companies have not adopted mechanisms or obligations to protect the huge amount of personal data that they have, nor do they restrict their disclosure. Moreover, they retain this data indefinitely without informing their users about how their data is being used.  

Diagnosis of e-commerce readiness in the Republic of Iraq embarked

13 Dec 2018 | 

Economic - other issues, E-commerce

The International Islamic Trade Finance Corporation (ITFC) and the United Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) signed a partnership agreement to support an e-commerce readiness assessment of the Republic of Iraq, under the Aid for Trade Initiative for the Arab States programme. The first ‘enhanced’ eTrade Readiness Assessment ‘will follow the standard methodology used for the past ones but will include a deep-dive into one or two key sectors where digitalisation is particularly relevant in the context of the Iraqi economy’, noted Mukhisa Kituyi, UNCTAD Secretary-General. The assessment has three immediate objectives: 1) Enhance the understanding of Iraq’s overall readiness for e-commerce through stocktaking and surveys, 2) Increase national actions aimed at improving the adoption of e-commerce in Iraq, and 3) Developing access to technical co-operation available among e-Trade for all partners.

Joint Arab vision for the digital economy is the outcome of the first Arab Digital Economy Conference

16 Dec 2018 | 

Economic - other issues

The first Arab Digital Economy Conference was organised in Abu Dhabi on 16-17 December 2018 during which the Arab League launched the Joint Arab Vision for the Digital Economy. In addition to Arab institutions and organisations, the conference was attended by a number of international organisations including the United Nations, the World Bank, and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). ‘By 2030 the Arab countries adoption of the digital economy strategy could grow GDP from 2.6 trillion USD up to 4.15 trillion and the total digital growth effect at full maturity could reach up to 333 billion USD a year’, said Dr. Hesham O. Dinana, Head of Research for the Arab Digital Economy Strategy. The main recommendations of the conference focused on producing policies and laws to regulate the digital economy and support digital transformation, building the capacities of Arab citizens to deal with advanced digital technologies, and building partnerships with the private sector to invest in the sustainable development of the digital economy.

November 2018

Curated by 

Noha Fathy

Freedom on the Net 2018 report sheds light on the improvement and decline of Internet freedom in the MENA region

1 Nov 2018 | 

Freedom of expression, Other human rights

Freedom House released its annual publication, Freedom on the Net 2018: The Rise of Digital Authoritarianism. Out of the 65 countries assessed, 26 experienced a deterioration in Internet freedom, half of which was related to elections, and 19 demonstrated minor improvements. In the Middle East and North Africa, improvements were tracked in Bahrain, Jordan, Libya, and Syria, whereas declines were reported in Egypt, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and Sudan. The report also denotes that among the biggest offenders to Internet freedom in the Middle East and North Africa are Iran and Syria, followed by Saudi Arabia.

Libyan journalist Mukhtar al-Halak charged over a Facebook post

8 Nov 2018 | 

Freedom of expression, , Other human rights

The Libyan authorities have charged freelance journalist, Mukhtar al-Halak, with criminal defamation and publishing state security secrets. According to Al-Halak, he is accused of defamation for publishing an article on Facebook about the disappearance of vehicles received by security directorate in the western city of Ajilat from the Ministry of Interior, and of publishing state secrets by posting an image of a telegram between Libyan security forces who were anticipating an attack. He told the Committee to Protect Journalists that he was arrested at the security directorate’s office upon covering a meeting and was verbally abused during interrogations. In October 2018, Al-Halak was released on bail as reported by the Libyan Center for Freedom of the Press.

EU officials urged to bring up Turkey’s freedom of expression crisis during EU-Turkey high political dialogue

21 Nov 2018 | 

Freedom of expression, Other human rights

Nine international organisations sent an open letter to the European delegation engaged in a high-level political dialogue with Turkey, urging them to address the freedom of expression crisis in the country. The letter refers to the clampdown on journalists and media outlets through the introduction of new legislation, widespread closures of media outlets, prosecutions of journalists, and the dismissal of 10 000 media workers. The letter further criticises the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) for failing to recognise the impact of repression on Turkish journalists and civil society, saying that the ECtHR’s response has thus far been weak. Moreover when there were rulings on journalists, they were ignored by the Turkish authorities. In the same line, the Freedom on the Net 2018 report, published in early November 2018, showed that the Internet is not free in Turkey due mostly to violations of users’ rights and limitations on online content.

22 Nov 2018 | 

Gender rights online, Other human rights

The Arab Center for the Development of Social Media (7amleh) and the Swedish Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation released a study on gender-based violence on social networks and the Internet entitled: A Violent Network - Gender-Based Violence Against Palestinian: Women in Virtual Space. The research reveals that gender-based violence has augmented during the past few years in the form of hacking accounts, publishing personal details, extortion, receiving pictures with inappropriate content among other practices. As a result, one in four Palestinian women closed their social media accounts and withdrew from the Internet. The study recommends enhanced legislation to counter such phenomenon which the study participants attributed to male chauvinistic upbringing and lacking of supervision by the family.



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