Social and Political Economies of the Internet in the Middle East

A curious hiatus has run throughout discussions in the Middle East of new electronic media, of the information and communication technologies (ICTs) that support them, and of the Internet that conveys them. On the one hand, political analyses focus on issues around informational freedom, with new actors and activities opening the public sphere and enabling civil society; on the other hand are plans for leveraging ICTs for development, ranging from ICT training and ICT-trained cadres to “free zone” industrial parks for local entrepreneurs and international corporations to bring the post-industrial revolution centered around “knowledge work” into the region. From the initial establishment of Internet connections in the early 1990s, through extending those to more users and more uses around the turn of the millennium, to today’s proliferation of social media among youth, discussion has circled in political terms around informational freedom and eroding authoritarian regimes, and in economic terms around informational development laying the basis for development of “human capital” through information technology (IT). Each projection is cast as bringing larger and longer-term global shifts to the region and engaging the region with them, a knowledgeable polity on the one hand and a knowledge economy on the other. Each is also imagined as constrained by different local factors prioritized by their own points of view on catching up to global standards or in global frameworks.

This might seem a merely analytical hiatus of political and economic analysts not talking to, or taking account of, each other’s analyses; but even that would be consequential, for obscuring or dis-attending processes closer to the grounds specific to ICT development, particularly as met in the Internet. To begin with, both the informational freedom and informational development theses share a bias to the supply side. Arguably, this works for infrastructure development, such as roads that attract traffic, but it becomes problematic with IT development, which engages additional values and practices, even its own habitus. “Habitus” is a concept cast to capture a denser concept of practice than the value-action formulations in mid-twentieth-century social sciences—not only more specific values, but also “dispositions” tied both to structures and to specifically located values—that unify analytically distinguished ontologies of choices and habits.

To elicit this IT or “digital” habitus and how the Internet conveys it, particularly in the digital Middle East,  start with the case of social media, which political and media-minded analyses focusing largely on impacts have left problematic, and then back up to values and practices that social media share with Internet habitus more generally, before proceeding to how that is manifest in the Arab Middle East. This is partly a multidimensional project of restoration: first, restoration of other values and practices elided by supply-side biases in projecting macro-theories down to micro-levels as assumptions of pre-existing “demand;” second, restoration of actual features of “communicative capitalism” in thinking about compulsions of the Internet; and finally, restoration of dense and evolving relations between users and developers in the IT realm. All of which throw up the conundrum that working on, with, and through the Internet often entails working not just “for freedom” but also “for free.” I explore first how it is a problem, before comparing some key sites where these dynamics arise.

Comparisons help to identify ways in which developers from the original Internet’s engineers, through programmers generally, and social media developers who emerged from the phase of Web development, all form a multilayered epistemic community, or overlapping communities of practice, and share a habitus rooted in and transmitted through the Internet that links them. A (reflexive) “culture of the net” is present in the Arab Middle East—and to its locus in the medium that spreads it—a medium at once social and technical, each conveying the experience and habitus of the other around connectivity, making connections, imagining and being (through its habitus) connected. Further along this spectrum are incubators and accelerators that widen the types of relations engaged around startups, and begin to formalize them. Still further along this chain, tech and media “free zones” belong more to the relatively institutionalized international circulation of value through outsourcing. What may appear as a diffusion of innovations is a much more complex reality of nearly instantaneous spread, accelerated through the medium of the Internet and its constant morphing. In economic and political terms, this imagination may be thought of as the Internet Premium behind the various strands of the habitus that registers as “working for free.”

Working for free is foundational to the Internet and its early development in the public sector, from the assiduous efforts of its creators to spread the ethos and practices of their work, to preserving those as alternatives against others that would modify the Internet. Locally, it is also reflected in common complaints in sub-communities of developers, from e-commerce Web portals in the late 1990s, to social media in the first decade of the twenty-first century. One has to do with piracy, or the experience of early developers of Arabic language software, who—no matter how widely their work might be used—manage to “sell only one copy” in explaining why they turned to producing “middleware” components for international corporations.

A second way in which IT development is enmeshed in a habitus of working for free is more strictly financial than commercial. Developers, especially would-be commercial developers, from e-commerce portals to social media platforms, have consistently attributed difficulties in financing their projects to biases in Arab banking that favor trade finance, where premiums go to brokering over investment finance, which registers as speculation.

That being their experience and its register in the system, some turn to personal or family sources, including spinoffs from family businesses; this is an economy of subsidizing otherwise unremunerated work partly for returns in reputation, like the engineers before them, partly for interest in the activity, partly for other pay-offs, from connection to similar others, to participation in a shared culture and extending its values and practices.



It’s only been 25 years since Tim Berners-Lee made the ‘World Wide Web’ available to the public, but in that time, the internet has already become an integral part of everyday life for most of the world’s population.

It’s not just the internet that’s growing rapidly, either; we’ve identified a wealth of other important milestones as part of this year’s Global Digital report, including:

  • More than half the world now uses a smartphone;
  • Almost two-thirds of the world’s population now has a mobile phone;
  • More than half of the world’s web traffic now comes from mobile phones;
  • More than half of all mobile connections around the world are now ‘broadband’;
  • More than one in five of the world’s population shopped online in the past 30 days.
  • Digital in 2017: our main report, with more than 750 slides of valuable stats and trends;
    2017 Digital Yearbook: headline stats and key data for more than 230 countries around the world;
  • Digital in Africa 2017: regional and national data for every country in the region;
  • Digital in The Americas 2017: regional and national data for every country in North, Central and South America;
  • Digital in Asia-Pacific 2017: regional and national data for every country across Asia, Oceania, The Pacific and West Asia;
  • Digital in Europe 2017: regional and national data for every country in the Wester, Central and Eastern Europe, as well as Russia and Turkey;
  • Digital in The Middle East 2017: regional and national data for every country in the region. – LinkedIn



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