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For the autocratic monarchies of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)—Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE)—technology has served for many years as an enabler of digital oppression. Their go-to digital oppression toolbox includes internet filtering and censorship software, surveillance spyware, and bots disseminating state propaganda and disinformation. Beyond using technology as a tool to control dissent and maintain power, the GCC countries are also betting on the technology sector to help drive economic development as they embark on ambitious plans to diversify their hydrocarbon-dependent economies.

The UAE and Saudi Arabia in particular have emerged as key players driving investments in the tech sector, including in international tech companies. But, given their abysmal human rights records, their growing influence over the international tech industry is bad news for human rights and democracy in the Middle East and North Africa. Both countries have a record of deploying tech to wage disinformation campaigns and surveillance operations to bolster autocratic regimes and their allies across the region. Saudi Arabia is notorious for abusing technology to repress its population, crack down on dissent, and serve its interests across the region. Its intelligence services have allegedly infiltrated Twitter using spies and gained access to the personal information of dissidents. They used spyware from Israeli firm NSO Group to surveil the communications of journalist Jamal Khashoggi before he was assassinated and dismembered by agents acting upon orders from Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the country’s de facto ruler.

Afef Abrougui
Afef Abrougui leads research at the Social Media Exchange, a digital rights NGO in the Arab region.

The UAE also has a poor track record. In 2019, for example, together with Egypt, it waged a social-media disinformation and propaganda campaign in support of Sudan’s military and its leaders. This occurred just days after a crackdown that killed at least one hundred protesters taking part in a pro-democracy sit-in demanding an end to military rule.

The GCC countries have also demonstrated willingness to use their collective power to suppress human rights and freedom of expression toward geopolitical ends. This was manifest during the Gulf diplomatic crisis, in which Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt cut diplomatic ties with Qatar and imposed an embargo on the country for its support to the Muslim Brotherhood and its ties with Iran. The digital research laboratory Citizen Lab found that Saudi Arabian and Emirati operators hacked the iPhones of thirty-six journalists working at Qatari-funded Al Jazeera using spyware from NSO Group (Al Jazeera’s reporting has long been an irritant to governments in the region). This digital assault, occurring in the midst of the crisis, sent a pointed and intimidating message to journalists operating in Qatar. These actions could be a harbinger for further human rights abuses if Saudi Arabia and the UAE cement their status as lead sponsors of technological development in the region.

Poor human rights records have not deterred international tech companies from doing business with Gulf states and other actors in the region. This is largely because, in addition to their high internet penetration rates and large investments in information and communication technology infrastructure, the GCC states are home to sovereign wealth funds, high-net-worth investors, and national companies looking to invest in the technology sector. For example, in 2020, Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund invested $3.5 billion in Uber, and the UAE’s Mubadala invested $75 million in Telegram this year.

Most recently, Google announced an agreement with Saudi Arabia’s oil giant Aramco to establish a Google Cloud regional platform in the country. Human rights groups have denounced the plan over concerns that establishing “one of the largest data storage and cloud computing services in the world” brings significant human rights risks, in light of Saudi Arabia’s documented censorship and surveillance interests.

As GCC countries become more interested in the opportunities technology offers for economic diversification and development, their influence in the tech industry will continue to increase. This is particularly true for the UAE and Saudi Arabia, which have emerged as leaders in the GCC for investing money in international technology companies and incentivizing them to launch operations in the region. Given their records of exploiting technology to control dissent and advance their geopolitical interests, such investments have serious implications for human rights and pro-democracy movements not only in the Gulf but also across the Middle East and North Africa.