Ruling the Arab Internet: An Analysis of Internet Ownership Trends of Six Arab Countries

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1995 Bahrain, Lebanon, Morocco

1996 Yemen

1997 Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria


As Aladwani (2003) describes it, “the Arabian market…is equal in size to that of the U.S.A., and in purchasing power to that of China and many other middle–income countries” (p. 9). As the number of Internet consumers continues to grow each year, the potential that exists in the Arab World is astonishing. The number of Internet users in the Arab World rose from 15.8 million in


2004 (United Nations Development Programme, 2004) to 37.5 million in 2009.5 However, others contend that it is between 40 and 45 million users (Arab Advisors Group, 2009), while one report even purported that it is as high as 60 million (Arab Knowledge Report, 2009). With this continuously growing market, which includes many young Arabs, it is of no surprise that the number of individuals, corporations, and governments wanting to profit from and regulate Internet use is staggering.6 Analyzing ownership trends of the Internet service providers (ISPs) in Arab countries is paramount to understanding: who and what is investing in Internet technology and infrastructure, how much Internet freedom can exist within a particular network, what socio–cultural and political forces might be effecting that freedom, and what kind of regional or international connections are being made as more countries and companies extend their economic hegemony over the Internet.



The research questions that we explore are: who (or what) owns Arab Internet media—in particular identifying monopolies, oligarchies, and inter–Arab World and international connections—and what implications exist because of this ownership and these connections if they do indeed exist?


Our initial hypothesis was that Saudi Arabia was increasingly investing in the telecommunications industries of the region as it dominates the ownership of other Arab media such as television and printing (Hafez, 2009). However, shortly after we began working we incorporated the ideas that not only was Saudi Arabia trying to gain influence over regional Internet networks, but many other Arab entities are vying to do so as well. Regardless of the “who” in this sense, the “what” is clear: the more control an individual or entity has, the more power and revenue is available.


Although the secondary literature on this topic was very limited, our analysis of primary data proved to be sufficient in providing enough information for this exploratory empirical research. Before this is discussed in detail, however, it is crucial to define what an Internet service provider is, and highlight their powers and abilities.


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1 This study was originally completed as a research requirement for a graduate seminar (Mass Media in the Modern Arab World) at the American University of Beirut during the 2010 spring semester. The course was co–instructed by: Dr. Nabil Dajani, PhD., and Dr. Jad Melki, PhD. We are very grateful for their assistance, and their suggestions on how to improve this paper.

2 This study was presented at the Global Dilemmas of Security and Development in the Middle East international conference hosted by the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland on 10 November 2010.

3 Michael is a graduate student in the Department of Social and Behavior Sciences pursuing an MA in sociology and the primary correspondent: Box 2127, American University of Beirut, Bliss Street, Beirut, Lebanon. Telephone: +(961) 71–363574. E–mail:

4 Helen is a graduate student in the Institute for Middle East Studies pursuing an MA in Middle Eastern studies with a concentration in conflict resolution.

5 This statistic was retrieved from “Internet World Statistics: Internet Usage in the Middle East” at:

6 One only has to go so far as to observe the amount of Internet service providers (ISPs) each country has. But the amount of economic and developmental (e.g., infrastructural) potential is huge!

7 Evidence of this is seen in reports coming out of multiple countries—most notably the United States—as the United States Federal Communications Commission (FCC) continues to battle service providers over the issue of “net neutrality.” Part of this battle includes discussion over how much regulatory power ISPs can exert over their clientele base. For more information, see the following articles: Kang, C. (2010, May 7); Wyatt, E. (2010, May 6); Shields, T. (2010, May 6); and McCullagh, D. (2010, April 6).

8 The Internet Society (ISOC) is a Geneva–based, non–profit organization founded in 1992 whose mission is to provide leadership in Internet related standards, education, and policy. They seek to ensure the open development, evolution, and use of the Internet for the benefit of people throughout the world. For more information, see:

9 See: Bercovici, J. (2010, May 27), and–rules–america/.

10 He also includes expensive costs, poverty, illiteracy (digital illiteracy in particular), infrastructure, and language barriers (pp. 9–10). Furthermore, limited access, infrastructure limitations, few (if any) regulations or oversight (as well as watchdog groups such as those that exist in the U.S. and Europe) in existence governing company consolidation and mergers including the effect they have on the consumer, and much consumption, but little production (such as blogging) are also issues plaguing Arab Internet.

11 Bahrain and Kuwait were not included, but are still discussed later in this work because of their connection with other Arab countries.

12 The individual websites will be given with the results by country analysis.

13 In fact, many of these emails “bounced back” (having never even been received) even though the contact email address listed on the website was often the email correspondence link specifically for customer service and/or a company inquiry. An interesting occurrence that happened, however, was when we emailed one company whose email “bounced back” to us with a question about rates of service, they promptly sent us the information we requested.

14 Of that outside investment, the majority of it comes from France via France Telecom through Orange, its commercial arm.

15 The only company that had women on its management team was Batelco in Bahrain.

16 Although it is cited on the Internet World Stats website, their information is sourced from the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) (

17 Ibid.

18 Information retrieved from:

19 Information retrieved from:

20 Ibid.

22 Ibid.

23 Ibid.

24 Reuters (2009, March 23).

25 This is particularly interesting as well because according the Orascom Telecom website (About Us:, Mobinil was O.T.’s “first operation,” and is “one of Egypt’s five largest companies on Cairo & Alexandria Stock Exchange (“CASE”) in terms of market capitalization.”

29 VimpelCom “owns Russia’s second–largest mobile phone operator, as well as service providers in Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Georgia, Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, Vietnam, and Cambodia” (BBC, 2010).

30 Ibid.

31 For more information, see the official 2010 VimpelCom–Weather Press Release at:

33 Including operations throughout Egypt and Algeria (

36 Information retrieved from:

39 Information retrieved from:

40 Although it is cited on the Internet World Stats website, their information is sourced from the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) (

41 No information could be found on the Jordanian Ministry of Telecommunications website as to the official number of ISPs.

43 It is interesting to note, however, that in their Chief Executive Statement on the Batelco Bahrain website, they discuss competition: “In Bahrain, there are now over 75 operators holding 185 licenses. The intense competitive environment, combined with ongoing regulatory reform, is a great motivator to keep us innovating and improving for the benefit of our customers” (Ibid.).

44 Information retrieved from:

47 Ibid.

48 Ibid.

50 This has not been updated on TE–Data – Jordan’s website, however.

51 Information retrieved from:

53 Although it is cited on the Internet World Stats website, their information is sourced from the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) (

54 Information originally posted on the Ministry of Communication and Technology website,, but has since been removed or relocated.

55 See: OpenNet (2009), and in fact the Syrian Telecom website clearly states that: “…[Syrian Telecom] has the rights exclusively for telecommunications in all parts of the Syrian Arab Republic…” (Information retrieved from:

58 This is further reinforced by the banning of certain websites such as Facebook, YouTube, and online services such as Skype as well as many others claiming they are tools that can be used to communicate with Israel (this includes closely monitoring blog sites as well). Even though many of these bans and restrictions can easily by circumvented by proxies and other services, strong regulation of the Internet and what is posted online (as well as in print, broadcast, and other media) is the norm in the Syrian dictatorship state. For more information, see: Associated Press (2008, March 26); Ali, A. (2007, November 27); and the OpenNet Initiative (2009).

59 Information retrieved from:, but although it is cited on the Internet World Stats website, their information is sourced from the Telecommunications Research Associates (TRA) (

60 Information retrieved from:, but although it is cited on the Internet World Stats website, their information is sourced from the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) (

62 Yunis, E. M. (2003, February 19), accessed from: http://www.isp–

64 Information retrieved from:, but although it is cited on the Internet World Stats website, their information is sourced from the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) (

65 Information retrieved from:

66 See: Baradei, D. (2006, October).

67 Ibid.

69 Information retrieved from:

70 Ibid.

71 Information retrieved from:

72 Ibid.

73 Ibid.

74 Ibid.

75 Information retrieved from:

76 Ibid.

77 Information retrieved from:

78 Information retrieved from:

79 Although Qatar is not included in our analysis, Rinnawi (2011) additionally states that Qatar Telecom (the Q–Tel Company) has a monopoly over Qatari Internet (p. 130).

80 The Arabic term wasta refers to personal connections (and literally means “by means of”) that encompass all forms of political, economic, or social capital that an individual or group may access. This is a very important concept to achieving success in almost any endeavor or career in the Arab world as it alludes to nepotism and favoritism, and reflects widespread corruption.

81 This conclusion may have been particularly displeasing to the institution that commissioned and supported their research: The World Bank.

82 Indeed many of the mergers and acquisitions have only occurred recently since 2005. The study that Varoudakisa & Rossotto (2004) conducted was done almost a decade ago (submitted 1 February 2002 (p. 59), and merely published in 2004).