Chinese tech a mixed blessing in the Middle East

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China’s growing influence in the global technological market reflects Beijing’s ambition to be a leading player in digital technology. Chinese President Xi Jinping has called for China to dominate advanced technology manufacturing by 2025.

The Digital Silk Road (DSR), launched in 2015 as part of the Belt and Road Initiative, reflects this goal of developing digital infrastructure at home and overseas.

The world has witnessed China’s digital transformation in telecommunications, artificial intelligence, satellite navigation systems, sea cables and surveillance systems. The Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated the DSR, increasing China’s digital projects and high-tech investment abroad.

Chinese technology firms have a significant presence in the Middle East and North Africa. Industry commentators have described Huawei as the world’s largest telecommunications supplier, second largest smartphone manufacturer and a global leader in fifth-generation (5G) telecommunication networks.

Since 2018, Chinese tech giants Alibaba and Baidu have invested heavily in regional commerce and telecommunications.

Huawei became one of the first fully-owned technology companies in Qatar in 2018, contributing to the development of 5G technology and providing better communication between individuals, vehicles and appliances.

In 2019, Huawei signed a partnership agreement with Saudi Arabia’s leading telecommunications provider Zain to launch the first 5G local area network in the Middle East and North Africa.

United Arab Emirates telecommunication companies Du and Etisalat have also signed deals with Huawei to provide 5G network services.

In 2017, Huawei launched the Cairo OpenLab to serve as a hub for conducting research and development (R&D) in North Africa and established partnerships with many universities in the region to train local students.

In Tunisia and Algeria, China has used its BeiDou Navigation Satellite System in agriculture, telecommunications, maritime monitoring and disaster relief.

China is seeking a greater technological presence through the DSR in many regions — making it difficult for Western companies to compete. In the post-pandemic era, the Middle East and North Africa will be more dependent on China, especially in the digital telecommunications industry.

Since the outbreak of Covid-19, connectivity has become more prominent. Similar to the rest of the world, the use of the internet for online education, shopping and health services has become essential for daily life in the region.

Inequality in internet access remains a critical challenge across the region, especially in countries with poorer infrastructure capabilities. The number of internet users in the region exceeded 300 million in 2021, with internet penetration due to reach 50% of the population by the end of 2022.

Affordability is one of the major factors behind the spread of Chinese smartphones in the region. Phone brands such as Vivo, Oppo and Xiaomi are increasingly popular choices for consumers. Competition between Chinese phones and other brands is limited due to the cheaper price and 5G technology offered by Chinese brands.

Implementing Chinese technology in the Middle East and North Africa will not only improve countries’ economies but will also contribute to improvements in education, health, transportation, agriculture and services.

The adoption of Chinese technology will also have economic and political implications for the region. On the economic front, China is expanding its technological firms, creating more opportunities for China to dominate the digital market in the region. That may affect the ability of local and Western companies to compete.

On the political front, the internet was an important tool used to fight autocratic regimes during the Arab Spring in 2011. As politicians in the region have become aware that the internet poses a potential threat to their power, the level of internet censorship has intensified.

The DSR is an attractive idea to many countries looking to improve their economic growth and work towards digital transformation. But the security challenges behind engaging with China in this sector remain a critical issue.

Data security is a key concern for countries that are using Chinese technology. Huawei has helped roll out surveillance systems across Africa and was accused of helping African governments spy on citizens for political reasons in 2019.

As China develops stronger political and economic ties with countries in the Middle East and North Africa, policymakers must consider the implications of adopting Chinese technological systems.

Given the region’s history of political suppression, these systems could be used to hinder political freedom.

Passant Mamdouh Ridwan is Post-Doctoral Researcher at the Belt and Road & Global Governance Institute, Fudan University.

This article was first published by East Asia Forum, which is based out of the Crawford School of Public Policy within the College of Asia and the Pacific at the Australian National University. It is republished under a Creative Commons license.

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