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Chinese 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 be a digital leader. 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 development of digital infrastructure at home and abroad.

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

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

Huawei became one of the first full-fledged technology companies in Qatar in 2018, contributing to the development of 5G technology and providing better communication between people, vehicles and devices. In 2019, Huawei signed a partnership agreement with Saudi Arabia’s leading telecommunications provider, Zain, to launch the first 5G local network in the Middle East and North Africa. UAE telecommunications 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 research and development (R&D) in North Africa and has partnered with many universities in the region to train local students. In Tunisia and Algeria, China has used its BeiDou satellite navigation system in agriculture, telecommunications, maritime surveillance and disaster relief.

China is seeking greater technological presence through DSR in many regions, which makes 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, digital connectivity has become more important. As in 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 of internet access remains a major challenge in the region, especially in countries with weaker infrastructure capacities. The number of internet users in the region topped 300 million in 2021, with internet penetration expected to reach 50% 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 such as Vivo, Oppo, and Xiaomi are increasingly popular choices with consumers. The competition between Chinese phones and other brands is limited due to the 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 economies of countries, but also contribute to the improvement of education, health, transport, agriculture and services.

The adoption of Chinese technology will also have economic and political implications for the region. Economically, China is growing its technology companies, creating more opportunities for China to dominate the digital market in the region. This can affect the ability of local and western businesses to compete.

Politically, the Internet was an important tool used to fight autocratic regimes during the Arab Spring in 2011. As politicians in the region realized that the Internet posed a potential threat to their power, the level of censorship on the Internet has intensified.

DSR is an attractive idea for many countries looking to improve their economic growth and work towards digital transformation. But the security challenges of engaging with China in this sector remain a critical issue. Data security is a major concern for countries that use Chinese technology. Huawei has helped deploy 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 repression, these systems could be used to hamper political freedom.

Mamdouh Ridwan is a post-doctoral researcher at the Belt and Road & Global Governance Institute, Fudan University.