Computing in the Middle East & North Africa

Computing in the Middle East & North Africa

COMPUTING IN THE MIDDLE EAST ________________________________________________________________________ ________________________________________________________________________


COMPUTING IN THE MIDDLE EAST [in Comm. of the ACM, Vol. 35, No. 8, August 1992, pp. 21-25.]

S. E. Goodman J. D. Green

The role, status and future of the information technologies (IT) in the Middle East, with the partial exceptions of Israel and Turkey, have been largely ignored or misunderstood by most of the world. The economic, political and strategic significance of this region make technological lacuna about it inexcusable. Oil, a strategic locale, a complex range of economic and social problems, and conflict on many levels (e.g., Arabs- Israel, Iran-Iraq, Iraq-UN, Lebanon, Somalia) combine to make this an important, unstable, and rapidly changing part of the world.

Largely uninformed external coverage of the Middle East tends to project the image of peoples intent upon the eradication of modernization, the abolition of technologies synonymous with the West, and a generalized desire to revert to some earlier epoch in history. In our view, this impression of regional technophobia is oversimplified and exaggerated. As the following examples illustrate, there have been important applications of IT in the region, including some with unique indigenous characteristics. Yet, as we shall see, economic, political and cultural circumstances are such that the overall acceptability and value of these technologies remains ambiguous.



Egypt is the most populous country (about 55 million) in the region as well as one of the most cosmopolitan. It has the largest, most capable, and most internationally oriented computing community in the Arab world, and trained people are among its most important high-tech exports. Mohtassem Billah Kaddah exemplifies this sophistication as head of the Debt Management Project of the Information and Decision Support Center (IDSC), the lead IT-related organization under the Egyptian Cabinet. Because Egypt has one of the world's largest foreign debts, Kaddah and his staff have had to develop an information system for modeling different debt rescheduling schemes. The system is heavily used by senior officials, and is credited with playing a key role in producing a model that resulted in the negotiation of very favorable terms from foreign creditors. As a result, other developing countries with severe debt problems look to Egypt for technical assistance on debt rescheduling.

In a different realm, Fathy Saleh and his team at the Regional Information Technology and Software Engineering Center (RITSEC) in Cairo are working on cultural multi-media projects. Their goal is to capture some of the most valuable artistic and library treasures in computerized forms accessible to large numbers of people. A prototype system exists for storing and displaying ancient manuscripts in the National Library on CDROM, including one of the oldest known copies of the complete Quran.

Saleh, Robert Cribbs, and Mahmoud Effat did a Fourier analysis of the digitized sound recordings of two original and five exact replicas of ancient Egyptian flutes dating from the 18th Pharaonic Dynasty (around 1500 B.C.). They concluded that the Western musical scale was probably invented by the ancient Egyptians and not by Pythagoras as has been believed for centuries. A similar analysis suggests that the Arabian musical scale, credited to the Persians, may also have been invented by the ancient Egyptians.[9]


An interesting irony may be seen in the fact that a powerful synthesis of modern technologies and traditional ideas were instrumental in the overthrow of the Shah and the victory of Iran's Islamic Revolution of 1978-79. Without IT, this upheaval may not have occurred[8]. The Shah had invested heavily in these technologies as a means to secure his own position. Particular attention was paid to the development of a state- of-the-art TV and radio infrastructure which was used to further centralize his authority and cement his control. SAVAK, the Shah's secret police, was equipped with computers to keep track of Iran's large and growing community of political dissidents. Copy machines, short wave radio, and an improved telephone system all became key elements in state building. Yet just as the Shah had hoped to use these tools to support his control, his opponents turned them against him. Copy machines churned out anti-government material, while cassette recorders were used to play taped exhortations by Ayatollah Khomeini from his places of exile in Iraq and France. People listened to the BBC and the Voice of America, which broadcast the exiled Ayatollah's instructions to his followers in Iran. In less than a year, the region's strongest leader with its best-equipped military and secret police was chased out of the country by a movement headed by an elderly cleric who never had a bank account nor driven an automobile.


The Middle East is home to an unparalleled concentration of great archaeological sites. There is a growing threat of damage to many of these sites due to the rapid growth of population and the attendant need for housing, utilities, roads, telephone lines, and agricultural land. In recent years, government and international agencies concerned with the preservation of antiquities have started programs for establishing and maintaining computerized inventories of their archaeological heritages. One of these is the Jordan Antiquities Database and Information System (JADIS) project headed by Gaetano Palumo.

JADIS' goals include providing detailed information to government and private organizations undertaking construction near antiquity sites and helping archaeologists to more effectively plan their excavations and surveys. The hardware used for antiquities projects covers the full range of computer systems from mainframes to PCs. Many, including JADIS, are trying to combine databases and Geographical Information Systems (GIS) to provide a wide spectrum of useful outputs. Palumbo estimates that over 20,000 sites in Jordan will be recorded in JADIS and that there are hundreds of potential users.[6]


The most striking feature in Syria is the omnipresence of pictures of President Hafez al-Assad. Every building has at least one, and many government buildings have at least one on every piece of glass and wall. Even taxis (often pre-1970 American-made cars) have two or three photos. The ruling Baath Party and government generate new Assad posters frequently, and no one dares to remove old ones. Only 360 people from an electorate of 6.5 million voted against Assad in last December's one- candidate election[4] This ostentatious display of control is backed up by over a dozen enforcement and intelligence agencies.

Assad's control is different in some ways from that of other "socialist" leader-worshipping states like Iraq or Romania[1]. The merchant class -- including smugglers and entrepreneurs -- is largely left alone in return for various forms of support. Food is good and reasonably plentiful, and Damascus is a lively city, as the capitals of police states go. There is little control of domestic use of technology, and PCs, photocopy machines, and telephones are in common use, subject more to cost constraints than to the heavy government control that existed in places like pre-1986 Romania, East Germany, and the USSR. PCs must be registered with an office that is connected with the military, but no one seems to consider this threatening, and reregistration is not necessary if the machine changes hands.

Electronic communications with the outside world are a different matter. The government is acutely aware of the potential power of IT. Syria has no international e-mail links and limited international phone service. The importation of telefax machines is illegal. Some people do have fax machines -- often smuggled in from nearby Beirut -- but these are usually kept out of sight in desk drawers.

Foreign contact of another sort has given Syrian merchants a problem they deal with using an electro-optical technology not seen much elsewhere. They have electronic scanning devices for checking the authenticity of American currency. Apparently the former Soviet Union used to pay some of its local clients in counterfeit $100 bills supposedly printed under the auspices of the KGB.


There is no computer hardware manufacturing industry of great consequence in the Middle East. However, many of the countries in the region have good universities and send large numbers of people abroad for technical and business training. Many Middle Easterners live in or have good contacts within the industrialized countries. Taken together with existing or prospective domestic and regional markets for IT applications, these factors have stimulated several countries to try to build indigenous software engineering and marketing capabilities to serve a variety of national needs and to provide export opportunities. Software industries are being nurtured in Egypt, Jordan, Libya, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, and Tunisia, among others. So far, Egypt seems to have the most extensive and successful record, one which we hope to cover in more detail in a later column.

Tunisia's efforts are illustrative of activities in several countries. The Tunisian government has officially made informatics a "privileged sector." The National Informatics Plan is formulated by the Council for Computing and Telecommunications, which is chaired by the Prime Minister and whose membership consists of a small number of cabinet ministers and other "key players." The National Informatics Center in Tunis has been TunisiaUs lead IT organization since 1975. Its staff of 250 tries to do everything from overseeing the implementation of the Plan to playing a major role in the design and construction of a national data transmission network. The government recently cut tariffs on computer imports from 50% to 10%. These efforts are contributing to increases in the use of IT: computers are heavily used in banks and public utilities, and during 1987-91 Tunisia had a 31.5% average annual rate of increase in the value of its computer equipment stock, to a current value of over 200 million dinars (1 dinar = US$1.12 on Jan. 13, 1992).[5]

Even the Sudan, one of the poorest countries in the region (and still suffering from a prolonged civil war), is trying to develop a software industry. The Sudan was an early serious user of computing, with two mainframes in 1965, one for data processing and one for scientific computation at the University of Khartoum. But this start was not sustained, and computing in the Sudan has suffered from the migration of some of its best technical people to oil-rich neighbors. There has also been a lack of government priority since return on resources spent on computing was less tangible than in other areas.[7] Nevertheless, the computing community is growing and doing what it can to improve its software capabilities, including the 1992 introduction of a graduate program in software engineering at the Sudan University of Science and Technology.

A common concern, and the focus of much effort from Morocco to Saudi Arabia, has naturally been the Arabization of software. The large regional population, and the localized utility of Arabic, guarantee a substantial amount of work and market for Arabized software products. An Arabic computer standardized code (ASMO-449) was established in 1985 under the Arab Standards and Metrology Organization (ASMO) and the Arabization Coordination Bureau, specialized organizations under the Arab League. However, both died of political and budgetary problems and the codes have not been updated, resulting in a proliferation of many new codes and additions.[2] (Arabic letters take different written forms depending on their position in a word. So Arabic word processors have to be a little smarter than those for European languages because an already-typed character may have to change its shape, depending on what is typed after it.)

One of the serious barriers to building national and regional software industries is the widespread software piracy that exists in most of the Middle East. Frank and open discussions of this sensitive subject were recently held at a major regional software engineering conference hosted by RITSEC/IDSC, under the direction of Hisham El-Sherif, in Cairo in January, 1992. Although extreme positions were stated (ranging from "let's take what we can and let Bush worry about the New World Order" to "pirating countries should be ostracized from the world community"), most of the discussions centered on the need to respect intellectual property and to become legitimate members of the international software community. There was general agreement that piracy has done much to increase computer literacy in developing countries. But so has the availability of inexpensive microcomputers, and users in pirating countries always seem to find enough money to buy PCs from Taiwan or Korea, although they claim they are too poor to buy software. It is simply much easier to steal software than hardware, and little respect for intellectual property has evolved in most developing countries, at least partially because so little software is created there (see also the December, 1991 "International Perspectives" column). A concern of the Middle Eastern software engineering communities is that little commercial software will ever be created where piracy is so prevalent since the practice undermines their incentives. Compromises in pricing strategies were advocated as ways to balance the needs of foreign and domestic software producers and users in developing countries, e.g., poor country discounts similar to educational discounts used by book producers, or special site licenses.


In a part of the world where monarchies, dictatorships, and theocracies are dominant, and where traditional values are still important, the acceptability of IT is mixed. Controls and technological inhibitions remain prominent and widespread.

During this time of incredible global proliferation of computer networks, the Middle East is noteworthy for the near absence of this technology. Although plans for national or regional data networks have been raised in several countries, we know of no extensive implemented network in any. According to Larry Landweber's international connectivity table[3], there are no Bitnet, Internet, UUCP or Fidonet sites in Algeria, Bahrain, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, UAE, or Yemen. Egypt and Saudi Arabia have small numbers of domestic sites. Tunisia is the Arab country that is most extensively connected, with at least five Internet sites and fewer Bitnet and Fidonet sites. Of the three prominent non- Arab countries in the region, Iran is unconnected, but Israel and Turkey are.

Why is there so little network activity? We have no simple, credible explanation. Money is often cited as a reason, but unconvincingly. The cost of the technology is decreasing rapidly, there are inexpensive linkages available in significantly poorer parts of the world, and many Mideastern countries that can easily afford sites are among the most conspicuous non-users. Cultural factors may provide a partial explanation. In a part of the world in which distrust for government is high, Middle Easterners may be unwilling to send communications which can be easily collected and read. Islamic religious constraints have been cited by some as inhibiting the introduction of new technologies, but we have not found any generally accepted tenets to this effect. Indeed, some Muslims with whom we spoke believe that Islam encourages the progressive use of new techniques. A better explanation may be found in cultures where personal contact is preferred to colder and more abstract long-distance ties. Middle Easterners rely heavily on face-to- face communications; a handshake is often as good as a written contract. There is still a strong human element to a telephone conversation, but people may think computer networks deprive individuals of any personalized contact.

A significant part of the explanation is political. Regional politics have always been difficult and contentious, and are likely to have impeded the regionalization of IT. At least, some frustrated Jordanian computer scientists think so: "Plans to create a national network in Jordan ... operating within a Central Arab Network and linking it to other Arab national networks through Gulfnet and Maghrebnet, under the umbrella of Aris-Net, are still a glimmer in the eyes of infocrats because of regional political reasons."[2]

As the example of faxes in Syria illustrates, there are higher-level political controls in some places. One senior computer scientist blamed the region's IT troubles on the kinds of governments most of the countries have, where people with power think and have the authority to act as if power is in controlling and containing information (especially information that crosses borders) rather than in distributing it. But a few controls are loosening. During the Gulf War hundreds of Saudis purchased previously restricted satellite dishes to watch news of the conflict. After the war ended, certain government officials felt that the dishes should be registered, monitored, or dismantled. They were reportedly overruled by the King himself who recognized how disruptive such a policy might prove. Once people are exposed to a useful new technology, they cannot be forced to forget it.

Not all of the political controls on IT are of local origin. Some come from outside, e.g., the unilateral U.S. export controls on such items as personal computers. Imposed on Syria for its purported support for terrorist activities, controls on these particular products do little more than punish affiliates of American companies like IBM and NCR (the latter has been operating in Syria since 1952). Microcomputers based on 286, 386, and 486 microprocessors are imported from the Far East and Europe without impediments and in whatever numbers the market will bear.


We have tried to make the case that the heterogeneity and complexity of the use of IT in the Middle East is far greater than many Western observers may realize. What is particularly noteworthy is the openness of the computing professionals whom we encountered during our visit to the region in January 1992, when we gathered much of the information presented here. Although it might be trite to emphasize the degree to which commitment to technological development seems to transcend individual nationalisms, we were both struck by the degree to which our colleagues in the Middle East were eager to discuss with us the role of IT in their individual countries. It is this kind of openness that may ultimately undermine the opposition to further pursuit of the types of studies advocated in this column. We would be interested in hearing from colleagues sharing an interest both in IT and its applications throughout a highly variegated Middle East.


1. Goodman, Seymour E. Computing and the resuscitation of Romania. Comm. of the ACM 34, 9 (Sept. 1991), 19-22.

2. Kanaan, T., Alul S., Abdullah G. Jordan: country briefing note. Regional Seminar on Establishing Regional Software Centers, Cairo, January 14-16, 1992.

3. Landweber, L. International connectivity, Version 5, Apr. 10, 1992.

4. Miller, Judith. Syria's game: put on a Western face. The New York Times Magazine (Jan. 26, 1992), 12-21.

5. National Center for Informatics. Informatics in Tunisia. Regional Seminar on Establishing Regional Software Centers, Cairo, January 14- 16, 1992; and Center brochure, undated.

6. Palumbo, G. Jordan antiquities database and information system. Unpublished project description. Amman, Jordan, Jan. 15, 1992.

7. Status of software engineering and information technology in the Sudan. Regional Seminar on Establishing Regional Software Centers, Cairo, January 14-16, 1992.

8. Tehranian, M. Iran: communication, alienation, revolution. Intermedia (March, 1979), 6-12.

9. Wafai, C. Music's new Rosetta Stone. Alam Al-Computer (December 1991), 49-51.


Jerrold Green is Director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Arizona. He regularly visits the region and has lived for extended periods in Egypt, Israel, and Iran.

As we discussed in the April "International Perspectives," the economic crisis currently devastating Brazil has been particularly hard on the university computing communities there. Samuel Oliveira and others have organized an effort to send used hardware and software to Brazilian universities. Sam may be contacted at:

Samuel R. Oliveira Department of Physics - RLM 9.216 University of Texas at Austin Austin, TX 78712-1081 or (512) 471-4700 or 322-0369 or or BRAS-NET@CS.UCLA.EDU -- (Brazilian e-mail list) soc.culture.brazil -- (newsgroup on Brazil)

Readers are encouraged to send comments, suggestions, anecdotes, insightful speculation (especially on the issue of social-political controls or inhibitions on IT in the Middle East), raw data, and submissions for guest columns on subjects relating to international aspects of IT. All correspondence should be addressed to:

Sy Goodman MIS/BPA University of Arizona Tucson, AZ 85721 or or fax: (602) 621-2433

Editor: Ali B. Ali-Dinar
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