China’s technology is a mixed blessing for MENA states

Author: Passant Mamdouh Ridwan, Fudan University

China’s growing influence in the global tech market reflects Beijing’s ambition to become 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 infrastructures at home and abroad.

Display of a Huawei shop in the old town of Amman, Jordan, February 5, 2019. (PHOTO: Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Reuters Connect)

The world has witnessed China’s digital transformation in telecommunications, artificial intelligence, satellite navigation systems, submarine cables and surveillance systems. The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the DSR and increased China’s digital projects and high-tech investments abroad.

Chinese technology companies have a strong presence in the Middle East and North Africa. Industry commentators have dubbed Huawei the world’s largest telecoms provider, the second-largest smartphone maker, and a global leader in fifth-generation (5G) telecom networks. Since 2018, Chinese tech giants Alibaba and Baidu have invested heavily in regional trade and telecoms.

Huawei became one of the first wholly-owned technology companies in Qatar in 2018, contributing to the development of 5G technology, enabling better communications between people, vehicles and devices. In 2019, Huawei signed a partnership agreement with Saudi Arabia’s leading telecom operator Zain to launch the first local 5G network in the Middle East and North Africa. Telecom companies Du and Etisalat in the United Arab Emirates have also signed deals with Huawei to provide 5G network services.

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In 2017, Huawei launched the OpenLab in Cairo to serve as a hub for conducting research and development (R&D) in North Africa and formed partnerships with many universities in the region to train local students. In Tunisia and Algeria, China has deployed its BeiDou navigation satellite system in agriculture, telecommunications, maritime surveillance and disaster relief.

China is seeking a larger tech footprint through the DSR in many regions — making it harder 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 telecoms industry. Since the outbreak of COVID-19, digital connectivity has become more important. Similar to the rest of the world, using the internet for online education, shopping and healthcare services has become essential to daily life in the region.

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

Affordability is one of the main factors behind the spread of Chinese smartphones in the region. Phone brands like Vivo, Oppo and Xiaomi are gaining popularity among consumers. Competition between Chinese phones and other brands is limited due to cheaper price and 5G technology offered by Chinese brands.

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

The introduction of Chinese technology will also have economic and political implications for the region. On the economic front, China is expanding its tech companies, creating more opportunities for China to dominate the digital market in the region. This can affect the competitiveness of local and western companies.

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On the political front, during the 2011 Arab Spring, the internet was a key tool in combating autocratic regimes. As politicians in the region have recognized that the internet is a potential threat to their power, the level of internet censorship has increased.

The DSR is an attractive idea for many countries that want to improve their economic growth and work towards digital transformation. But the security challenges behind cooperation with China in this sector remain a critical issue. Data security is a key concern for countries using Chinese technology. Huawei has helped roll out surveillance systems across Africa and has been 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 repression, these systems could be used to impede political freedom.

Passant Mamdouh Ridwan is a postdoctoral researcher at the Belt and Road & Global Governance Institute at Fudan University.

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