A region in which many global powers’ core interests converge, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) has been an epicenter of global and regional power struggles. Over the past decade, the accumulated impacts of Russia’s return to the region, China’s Belt and Road Initiative, the prospect of U.S. retrenchment, and intensified regional competition after the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings have led to a sharp increase in the scope and speed of these dynamics, forming a complex web of competitive multipolarity.1 The wars in Libya, Syria, and Yemen; Israel’s repositioning via the 2020 Abraham Accords, which normalized Tel Aviv’s relations with Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE); continued tensions with Iran over nuclear proliferation and regional expansionism; and Turkey’s and the Gulf states’ geopolitical forays into the Levant and Africa are but a few of the elements stirring controversy.
MENA civil society has been caught up in these developments as geopolitics heightens state-driven power politics. Online activism has become the front line of a new digital geopolitics; external powers have sought to leverage civil society to their geopolitical advantage; and right-oriented civil society actors are having to push back against new kinds of geopolitical interventions.
States Using Civil Society for Geopolitical Ends
The MENA region has harbored some of the most notable examples of governments employing nonstate actors to advance their geopolitical objectives. Most markedly, since the 1979 Iranian Revolution, regional powers’ use of proxy fighters has become deeply entrenched in Middle Eastern conflicts. Through long-standing alliances between states and armed nonstate proxies, such as Iran and Hezbollah, or ad hoc partnerships, such as Russia’s alliance with Kurdish fighters in Syria, armed nonstate actors have become decisive players in shaping the geopolitical struggles among major states.
The geopolitical influence of nonsecurity civic actors is harder to pin down. Religious institutions bear a regional influence and soft power that governments have used for transnational geopolitical purposes. The multilayered connection between the Muslim Brotherhood and its state sponsors in Qatar and Turkey stands out as a notable instance of a state-nonstate alliance with geopolitical dividends for both sides. From its Egyptian mother ship, the Muslim Brotherhood forged its messaging and used its international network and privileged state connections in geopolitical ways long before the Arab Spring and the return of great-power politics gave faith-based diplomacy a further boost.
MENA governments have gained leverage by rebranding themselves as champions of climate adaptation, promoters of regional stability, migration gatekeepers, or civil war power brokers. They have used civil society organizations (CSOs) as vehicles for these rebranding efforts. Despite MENA countries being disproportionately affected by climate change, there is a breadth of examples that show how MENA governments have used climate action and energy transitions, as well as CSOs active in these fields, to improve their international image and standing. Morocco has used climate policy to advance its claims on Western Sahara and migration to push for a Spanish policy U-turn toward backing Morocco’s proposal for the future of the territory. International human rights watchdogs have deplored the way in which the Egyptian government has been employing the November 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP27) in Sharm el Sheikh as a rebranding exercise to deflect attention from Egypt’s internal human rights crisis.2
Of all the geopolitical developments in recent years, the transnational spread of digital authoritarianism is likely the one with the most far-reaching consequences for MENA civil society. Digital authoritarianism is relevant to civil society geopolitics because it uses nonstate actors for strategic, power politics aims across borders. Regimes have adapted to digital activism in a variety of forms. Online surveillance by means of big data analysis, spyware, and tracking apps; the creation of false narratives via inauthentic online activity and influence operations; and censorship are among the most notable ways in which regimes have been turning digital technologies from a threat into an opportunity for authoritarian rule. Monitoring critical voices’ activity through digital surveillance and controlling narratives through online disinformation, delegitimization, and censorship are two complementary, increasingly transnational elements in this approach.
The trend toward digital surveillance received a boost during the coronavirus pandemic, as it sanctioned and promoted the widespread use of individual tracking apps, while citizens volunteered sensitive personal data on a massive scale. The introduction of biometrics helped the spread of facial-recognition technologies powered by artificial intelligence (AI), enabling both mass and targeted surveillance. The model of the Chinese surveillance state has been the blueprint for MENA governments, especially in the Gulf states, whose financial means and tech base have enabled the systematic purchase and implementation of Chinese surveillance technology over the past few years. The normalization of relations between Israel and the UAE through the Abraham Accords has further accelerated the spread of Israeli surveillance tech in the Gulf. Prominent targets of the Pegasus spyware, produced by the Israeli tech firm NSO Group, in MENA, Europe, and beyond illustrate one way in which targeted surveillance technologies have turned into a transnational threat.
While digital surveillance has enabled MENA governments to monitor and control civic actors’ identities and movements, disinformation campaigns on digital channels have helped polarize public opinion and disperse narratives critical of a government before they can swell and turn into broader movements and public unrest. Saudi Arabia and the UAE, in particular, have systematically sought to dominate the Arabic-language public media space via infiltration, disinformation, propaganda, and censorship, amounting to what political scientist Marc Owen Jones has called “the Gulf’s post-truth moment.”3 The case of a Twitter headquarters employee reportedly groomed as a Saudi mole illustrates the importance the kingdom bestows on steering online narratives.4
State-sanctioned troll armies have increasingly become a central tool to manipulate and direct narratives on social media. Troll farms around Riyadh have been accused of the systematic online harassment of Saudi dissidents; the trolling by Saudi bot armies of murdered dissident and journalist Jamal Khashoggi has merely been one high-profile example of a broader pattern.5 Nor is this technique limited to autocracies: amid rising unrest in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, the Israeli government reportedly asked social media companies to remove more than 1,010 pieces of content and promote so-called grassroots activities by recruiting citizens to mass report content on social media.6 And it has been reported that the UAE is systematically growing its own digital surveillance technology by recruiting high-profile digital mercenaries, such as former U.S. National Security Agency hackers, former Israeli intelligence officers, and former NSO Group employees to spy on critical voices, including civil society activists.7
Iran, too, has been very active in disinformation, including by targeting civil society. Endless Mayfly, an Iran-aligned network of inauthentic websites and online personae, is reported to have spread false and divisive information on Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United States by targeting journalists, analysts, and other influential nonstate voices. Notably, many of the inauthentic online personae created to push these negative narratives about Iran’s adversaries were labeled civil society or human rights activists or journalists.8
By a similar token, Saudi and Emirati troll farms have been infamous in creating alternative narratives of regional and global geopolitical crises, including by reinforcing Russian propaganda on the war in Ukraine. As these governments seek to dominate narratives on social media, critical voices leave this space; the void is filled by what Jones has called “a pseudo–civil society of trolls and bots” that deliberately create an alternative reality on social media in line with the preferred narratives of Saudi and Emirati leaders.9 A digital quasi-civic sphere has become a leading edge of geopolitical rivalry and been instrumentalized to strategic ends.
Chinese and Russian Soft-Power Efforts
External powers China and Russia have increasingly used civil society to enhance their soft power and support their geopolitical narratives in the MENA region, in the digital space as well as on the ground. Far from the narrow economic focus it is often ascribed, China has been investing heavily in schools and Chinese-language teaching in the Gulf, especially in the UAE, China’s central strategic partner in the region and home to the largest Chinese community in the Middle East. Beijing has also expanded its network of cultural diplomacy: as of 2020, twenty-three Confucius Institutes had been opened across MENA, including in the conservative Gulf.10
Further, Chinese nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), including government-organized ones, have been actively flanking Beijing’s online disinformation efforts to spread negative narratives about the U.S. role in the Middle East. In August 2022, in the wake of a U.S.-backed United Nations (UN) report about human rights violations against Uighur Muslims in China’s Xinjiang region, the China Society for Human Rights Studies issued a report that accused Washington of triggering a “clash of civilizations” in the Middle East. The report depicted the United States as a “war empire” that leaves behind a trail of devastation and sorrow marked by military interventions and double-faced human rights violations.11
China’s consistently pro-Palestinian positions on the Arab-Israeli conflict further help Beijing’s regional positioning by generating sympathy among Arab publics and allowing China to distinguish itself from the United States. Like Moscow, Beijing has deployed substantial coronavirus vaccine diplomacy in MENA, with several states in the region relying heavily on the Chinese Sinopharm and Russian Sputnik V vaccines in the early stages of the pandemic. And Beijing has sought to play the Muslim card to gather MENA countries’ sympathies for its repressive policies against the Uighurs in Xinjiang. Accompanied by favorable coverage in Arabic-language Chinese media, the Chinese Islamic Association, the institution that supervises Islam in China, has “[crafted] the Xinjiang narrative for an Arabic-speaking audience: defending the uniqueness of Chinese Islam . . . engaging in ‘Hajj diplomacy’; and conducting exchanges with Muslim leaders and Islamic institutions,” according to researchers at the Middle East Institute.12
Overall, Chinese soft-power efforts appear to be paying off: unlike in most regions of the world, where views of China have deteriorated in recent years, polls continue to show comparatively positive attitudes toward China across MENA. Roughly half to two-thirds of citizens in the region favor stronger economic relations with Beijing—with the exceptions of Algeria and Egypt, where only 36 and 30 percent, respectively, are in favor. Although MENA citizens remain skeptical toward all outside actors, the Arab Barometer research network consistently depicts China as the most popular global player in the region, far ahead of the United States and Russia.13
Nevertheless, more critical views of China are blossoming, including among CSOs. As the linkages between Chinese and Middle Eastern abuses of digital surveillance technology for the purposes of human rights violations become increasingly apparent, China is starting to be seen as an enabler or inspirer of MENA authoritarianism.14 China’s Uighur policy may also begin to stain the country’s reputation: as MENA governments such as those of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, which in a 2019 open letter publicly endorsed Beijing’s policy in Xinjiang, become increasingly complicit with China in extraditing Uighur citizens, so Egyptian rights groups have documented detentions and deportations.15 So far, however, such critical tendencies have yet to meaningfully influence China’s approval rates in MENA.
Russia’s hard-security engagement in the MENA region has been flanked by a series of soft-power measures in religious and cultural diplomacy and disinformation that have received less attention. These include religious diplomacy through the Russian Orthodox Church and use of the Muslim majority in the Russian region of Chechnya to portray the Kremlin as a friend of Islam; the opening of schools and cultural institutes; and, most notably, a systematic Arabic-language propaganda effort through Russian mainstream and online media.16 In their online disinformation operations, Russian bots have frequently posed as activists or journalists to legitimize the activity of inauthentic online personae that push pro-Russian narratives.
In the light of systematic Russian disinformation and propaganda, both the importance of social media as a news source in MENA and the heavy influence of Arabic-language Russian media across the region may help at least partly explain why Russia has not experienced the kind of lasting damage to its image that the United States did after its 2003 intervention in Iraq. Although the 2015–2018 Russian air campaign in Syria was accompanied by public mobilization against the war, this has not led to a significant backlash against Russian influence in MENA. Similarly, in the wake of Russia’s current war in Ukraine, the Russian disinformation tools RT Arabic and Sputnik have successfully propagated Russian war narratives across the region.17
Civil Society’s Response and Positioning
While governments in the MENA region have sought to boost their digital capacities for authoritarian ends, civil society’s response to this trend has been notable. Transnational civic advocacy reflects an awareness of the threat of digital authoritarianism and shows an increasing focus on upholding digital rights and countering disinformation across the region. As activists are targeted, counterinitiatives have mushroomed to combat trolling and defeat inauthentic online narratives. Just before his untimely death in 2018, Khashoggi reportedly supported the creation of a civic volunteer army called Electronic Bees to combat Twitter trolls, and the organization was later established by another Saudi dissident.18 Organizations such as the Tor Project have been instrumental in providing secure software and training human rights defenders, journalists, and activists in digital security.
Digital authoritarianism has not been the easy victory for regimes it may often appear, because it simultaneously restricts online activism and encourages civic activists to innovate with new methods to circumvent attempts at virtual repression. The use of virtual private networks (VPNs), encrypted communication, and peer-to-peer networking allows activists to bypass state censorship. At the same time, the availability of primary sources online and the boost in international networking among civic actors have given birth to entirely new methodologies, such as crowdsourced open-source intelligence. Such intelligence is generated, cross-referenced, and verified using publicly available information and helped to first uncover the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons against civilians. The methodology’s success led to its adoption by many human rights NGOs and even UN bodies to document human rights violations and rebut state disinformation. In another example of civic actors’ digital empowerment, the Ceasefire platform allows for real-time identification and online reporting of human rights violations using AI and machine-learning techniques.19
Despite the encouraging tone of these examples, the power imbalance between states and civil society is only likely to grow, because countermeasures against digital activism require a certain level of technical expertise and networking. For example, although MENA CSOs increasingly divert their activities away from state-monitored social networks and create their own websites to disseminate content, these sites have widespread and significant cybersecurity deficiencies, making them vulnerable to state interference. Such deficiencies are likely to be even more pronounced among the small-scale CSOs outside national capitals that lack necessary skills and outreach. For all their adaptability and courage, civic actors are increasingly at risk of finding themselves at the mercy of states’ apparatus of digital repression.
Beyond pushing back against new constraints, civil society has also vocally defended its own geopolitical positions, most notably in relation to the wars and crises in Libya, Palestine, Syria, and Yemen; the normalization of relations with Israel; and foreign states’ influence in the domestic affairs of MENA countries. While state objections to the foreign funding of civil society have a long history in the region, a more recent trend is that such concerns have begun to emanate from civil society itself. Political parties and their connections with foreign powers have been subjected to much scrutiny and controversy since the Arab Spring as nascent democracies have feared undue influence by foreign powers in shaping a new domestic order. High-profile prosecution cases, notably the 2018 trial of Egyptian CSOs accused of receiving illegal funding from abroad, have illustrated these dynamics.
The post-2011 proxy wars in Libya, Syria, and Yemen also led to growing unease about foreign military presence and increased awareness of proxy relationships. While authoritarian governments’ pushback against U.S. and European Union (EU) support for pro-democracy CSOs became more ferocious after the Arab Spring, the rejection of Gulf and Turkish funding for Islamist organizations triggered resistance from liberal segments of society, which feared an advantage for Islamists in political contestation.
In recent years, the controversy about foreign funding has come to encompass Gulf states’ financing of MENA governments and the influence they yield, in particular in the context of some Arab states’ normalization of relations with Israel. In Jordan, where Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE are among the biggest state donors, authorities have used blurry legislation to arrest and penalize several high-profile individuals for criticizing the Gulf states and their normalization of relations with Israel, making Jordanians wary of publicly condemning the Gulf states and their regional role.20 Normalization with Israel is among the issues on which government policy and public opinion clash most notably: polls consistently show that overwhelming majorities in Arab countries, including those concerned, reject normalization.21
This stance has been reflected in the reactions of CSOs, which have spoken out against the move toward rapprochement. In Bahrain, a group of twenty-three organizations—including leftists, liberals, nationalists, trade unions, and professional associations—issued a joint statement rejecting normalization with Israel. In Kuwait, a joint declaration by twenty-nine political parties and CSOs and another by thirty-seven parliamentarians warned strongly against the country eyeing normalization. The grand mufti of Oman issued a statement reminding Muslims that the liberation of the Al-Aqsa Mosque remained a sacred duty.22
Meanwhile, in Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, and Qatar, chapters of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, which seeks to put economic pressure on Israel, formed a united group called Gulfies Against Normalization. Emirati civil society also issued collective statements urging the government of the UAE to reconsider. Although Saudi civil society kept a low profile in terms of its statements, the hashtag #SaudisAgainstNormalization soared to Twitter’s top three after the Abraham Accords were signed in 2020.23 Concerned about normalization sidelining the rights of vulnerable communities, in particular Palestinians, Saharawis, and Yemenis, civil society coalitions continue to campaign against the rapprochement process more broadly.
The Limits of Civil Society’s Geopolitical Impact
For a fuller picture of civil society actors’ ability to play an active role in geopolitical themes, these movements must be seen in the wider regional context. Unlike armed groups and other transnational security actors, CSOs in MENA often lack the geopolitical assets and leverage to directly influence the actions and relationships of major regional and global players. CSOs’ ability to lobby influential state actors, sway public opinion, or mobilize crowds is partly conditioned by the geopolitical profile of their host government, which influences the support civic organizations can expect from abroad.
With the heightening of interstate contestation, several geopolitical concerns have gained prominence, providing openings for MENA governments to raise their geopolitical profiles. Themes such as climate change and energy transitions; the emerging security alliance between Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE; the restoration of nuclear deterrence via the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran; and, most recently, Russia’s war in Ukraine and the global split it caused have risen to the top of global players’ priorities. While these developments have opened the door to some geopolitical roles for civil society, CSOs that deal specifically with human rights have been put on the defensive as the international community has foregrounded more realpolitik-focused goals.
These dynamics can be clearly observed in the international community’s dealings with Iran. Restoring nuclear deterrence via the JCPOA has been a key objective of Western governments over the past few years. Not risking Iran’s negotiation capital and reformers’ domestic backing has been a guiding theme in EU and U.S. governments’ dealings with the Islamic Republic. The effects of this approach have been sorely felt by human rights organizations lobbying for the release of Iranian and foreign political prisoners in Iran. Iranian-British dual national Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was held by the Iranian authorities for almost six years as leverage for a debt owed by the United Kingdom over its failure to deliver tanks to Iran in 1979. Other political prisoners, especially dual nationals, have seen their fates tied to larger Iranian geopolitical designs and have become bargaining chips as part of Iran’s leverage over foreign governments.
The war in Ukraine and the EU’s need to diversify its energy supply away from Russia boosted the geopolitical capital of Gulf energy exporters, especially gas champion Qatar. The outlook of a new regional security alliance between Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE has raised the leverage of all three states in their relations with the United States. That has led to a rapprochement between Washington and Riyadh, whose relations had cooled after the killing of Khashoggi. Similarly, human rights defenders report that the UAE’s regional geopolitical role today makes the Emirates inviolable and immune to international advocacy campaigns.
In the MENA region, domestic, regional, and global politics are deeply intertwined. Some civic actors have been able to effectively navigate the region’s new geopolitical context. But many others have struggled to align their mainly domestic agendas with these regional and global dynamics. Several nonstate actors in the region have been influential geopolitical players for decades, and some patterns of adaptation can be identified. By and large, however, MENA civic actors have yet to meaningfully adapt to an era of intensified interstate competition.
Among the most important linkages between geopolitics and civil society is the way in which the rise of geopolitics affects civil society’s ability to raise its profile and alter the priorities of states. To the degree that both civic activism and regimes’ efforts to control it have moved online, the biggest front line for civil society geopolitics is now in the digital sphere. The aspirations of Saudi Arabia and the UAE to expand their regional influence as digital tech hubs is of particular concern in this regard. Digital activism presents an opportunity to jump-start the capacities of players that lack traditional geopolitical assets, potentially shifting the balance of power among societal forces—to the benefit or detriment of civil society.
Kristina Kausch is a senior resident fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
The Carnegie Endowment thanks the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation and the Ford Foundation for generous support that helps make the work of the Civic Research Network work possible. The views expressed in this publication are the responsibility of the authors alone.
1 Kristina Kausch, “Competitive Multipolarity in the Middle East,” The International Spectator 50, no. 3 (2015): 1–15, https://doi.org/10.1080/03932729.2015.1055927.
2 “Egypt: COP27 Should Not Overshadow Human Rights Crisis in the Country,” Amnesty International, May 23, 2022, https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/mde12/5638/2022/en.
3 Marc Owen Jones, Digital Authoritarianism in the Middle East (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2022).
4 Kate Conger, “Twitter Worker Accused of Spying for Saudi Arabia Heads to Trial,” New York Times, July 20, 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/07/20/technology/twitter-saudi-trial-ahmad-abouammo.html.
5 Katie Benner et al., “Saudi’s Image Makers: A Troll Army and a Twitter Insider,” New York Times, October 20, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/20/us/politics/saudi-image-campaign-twitter.html.
6 Marwa Fatafta, “Transnational Digital Repression in the MENA Region,” Project on Middle East Political Science, 2021, https://pomeps.org/transnational-digital-repression-in-the-mena-region.
8 Gabrielle Lim et al., Burned After Reading: Endless Mayfly’s Ephemeral Disinformation Campaign, Citizen Lab, May 14, 2019, https://citizenlab.ca/2019/05/burned-after-reading-endless-mayflys-ephemeral-disinformation-campaign.
9 Jones, Digital Authoritarianism.
10 Roie Yellinek, Yossi Mann, and Uri Lebel, “Chinese Soft-Power in the Arab World – China’s Confucius Institutes as a Central Tool of Influence,” Comparative Strategy 39, no. 6 (2020): 517–534, https://doi.org/10.1080/01495933.2020.1826843.
11 “U.S. Commits Serious Crimes of Violating Human Rights in the Middle East and Beyond,” China Society for Human Rights Studies, August 9, 2022, http://www.chinahumanrights.org/html/CSHRS/REPORTS/2022/0809/18702.html.
12 Lucille Greer and Bradley Jardine, “The Chinese Islamic Association in the Arab World: The Use of Islamic Soft Power in Promoting Silence on Xinjiang,” Middle East Institute, July 14, 2020, https://www.mei.edu/publications/chinese-islamic-association-arab-world-use-islamic-soft-power-promoting-silence.
13 “Fragile Popularity: Arab Attitudes Towards China,” Arab Barometer, December 15, 2021, https://www.arabbarometer.org/2021/12/fragile-popularity-arab-attitudes-towards-china; and Michael Robbins, “Is This China’s Moment in MENA?,” Arab Barometer, July 24, 2020, https://www.arabbarometer.org/2020/07/is-this-chinas-moment-in-mena.
14 See, for example, Omar Shakir and Maya Wang, “Mass Surveillance Fuels Oppression of Uyghurs and Palestinians,” Human Rights Watch, November 24, 2021, https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/11/24/mass-surveillance-fuels-oppression-uyghurs-and-palestinians.
15 Jomana Karadsheh and Gul Tuysuz, “Uyghurs Are Being Deported From Muslim Countries, Raising Concerns About China’s Growing Reach,” CNN, June 8, 2021, https://edition.cnn.com/2021/06/08/middleeast/uyghur-arab-muslim-china-disappearances-cmd-intl/index.html.
16 Anna L. Borshchevskaya, “Russia’s Soft Power Projection in the Middle East,” in Great Power Competition: The Changing Landscape of Global Geopolitics, ed. Mahir Ibrahimov (Fort Leavenworth, Kansas: Army University Press, 2021).
17 Nadia Oweidat, “The Russian Propaganda in Arabic Hidden From the West,” Washington Institute, April 18, 2022.
18 Benner et al., “Saudi’s Image Makers.”
19 Ahmed Shaheed and Benjamin Greenacre, “Binary Threat: How Governments’ Cyber Laws and Practice Undermine Human Rights in the MENA Region,” Project on Middle East Political Science, August 2021, https://pomeps.org/binary-threat-how-governments-cyber-laws-and-practice-undermine-human-rights-in-the-mena-region.
20 Fatafta, 2021.
21 “The 2019–20 Arab Opinion Index: Main Results in Brief,” Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, https://www.dohainstitute.org/en/Lists/ACRPS-PDFDocumentLibrary/Arab-Opinion-Index-2019-2020-Inbreef-English-Version.pdf; and Michael Robbins, “Taking Arabs’ Pulse on Normalization of Ties With Israel,” Arab Barometer, December 11, 2020, https://www.arabbarometer.org/2020/12/taking-arabs-pulse-on-normalizing-ties-with-israel.
22 Elham Fakhro, “An Open Affair: As the UAE and Israel Normalize Ties, Gulf Actors Respond,” Jadaliyya, August 20, 2020, https://www.jadaliyya.com/Details/41608.