Surveillance trends within the MENA region: Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman and Jordan
Surveillance trends within the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region are very diverse as not all countries are equally equipped to employ the technologies. Over the course of the last two decades, the Gulf States have increasingly invested in surveillance technology and spearheaded citizen surveillance. In the early 2010s, governments of Gulf countries dedicated their resources to digital transformation and infrastructure to support their ambitions as global leaders in digital finance as well as to manage the ever-growing use of social media and smartphones. While other countries suffered to fully digitize their services, Gulf countries had a swift digital transition during the pandemic. Bahrain, for example, recorded a 20-fold surge in government mobile application usage in five months in 2020 compared to the same time window in 2019.
Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries are engaged in ambitious national transformation plans such as Saudi Vision 2030 and Abu Dhabi Economic Vision 2030. To ensure these visions the GCC countries are investing more resources in digitization and adopting measures under the guise of COVID-19, with the demand for more surveillance technology increasing in pace and urgency.
Many civil society organizations have been urging governments to ensure universal human rights standards when deploying digital technologies to track and monitor individuals and populationsIn a collective statement, more than 100 organizations warned of an increase in state digital surveillance powers, such as obtaining access to mobile phone location data, which would threaten citizens’ privacy, freedom of expression and association, and violating rights. Caution was advised against these measures as they may pose a risk of discrimination and disproportionately harming marginalized communities.
Considering governments’ notorious use of cyber-security technologies to track the location of their citizens, governments have had the capacity for surveillance increase with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. The use of these technologies has been normalized under the moral guise of limiting the spread of the coronavirus among the population and which may have masqueraded alternative uses of personal data for non-health related purposes. Despite the existence of data protection laws in some of the Gulf constitutions, their implementation has been fickle. Thus, the entanglement between internal oppressive politics and unavailability or unjust reinforcement of laws is the subject of our current study, commissioned by the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR). This report will shed light on the preliminary highlights pertaining to the technologies used for COVID-19 tracking and some of the contextual laws in place.
Gulf States have continuously acquired global surveillance technologies and weaponized them against their citizens. The integral problem with digital surveillance, in particular, is that there is very little room for citizens to evade or protect themselves from it, assuming that they were aware of its existence in the first place. The lack of transparency pertaining to the use of these technologies renders monitoring of the long-term impact, prevention of abuse, as well as accountability of the authorities responsible for the violations, nearly impossible.