‘Mobile’ Changes in the Arab World

July, 2011
By Shivangi Muttoo

A year ago, Souktel-a non governmental organization (NGO), announced that it would use an innovative ‘voice recognition’ mobile technology in Morocco to connect illiterate job seekers with prospective employers. The country is confronted with a difficult odd; the adult illiteracy in Morocco is among the highest in the world, and as a result there are a large number of illiterate job seekers. The ‘voice recognition’ mobile technology will enable the illiterate unemployed youth to upload their voice CVs or resumes and send them to employers. This is just one of the many recent examples to show that the use of mobile phones in Arab countries, as in the rest of the world, is no longer about just making calls but increasingly about utilizing mobile phone applications for positive societal changes. Mobile phones have now emerged as a new tool to facilitate socioeconomic development and for political mobilization in Arab countries. 

At present, the Arab region represents one of the fastest growing mobile phone markets in the world. The Arab countries are witnessing a steadily increasing penetration of mobile phones, much faster than internet penetration. According to a survey conducted by Gallup, 87 percent of young Arabs aged 15 to 29 had access to mobile phones in 2010, an increase from 79 percent in 2009. In the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries like UAE and Qatar, the mobile phone penetration rate is more than 100 percent. Even in poorer countries like Palestine and Yemen, a surge in mobile phone penetration is expected in the next few years because of a burgeoning youth market and emergence of new telecom operators. 

Arab countries are harnessing the power of mobile phones to empower communities through various innovative mobile phone applications. In Syria, for instance, an Electronic Voucher System was launched in 2009 to alleviate food insecurity among Iraqi refugee families in Damascus. Under this programme, which is the first of its kind in the world, Iraqi refugees receive vouchers on their mobile phones to purchase rice, wheat, lentils and perishable food items such as eggs, cheese and fish from government-owned stores. The local telecom operator provides SIM cards to refugee families free of charge. The Bedouin women in Jordan are consulting doctors via mobile phones. These women are not culturally empowered to seek help without their husband’s permission. Mobile phones have thus provided them with an opportunity to seek medical advice, which has the potential to create long-term positive impact on their health. The above illustrative examples show how innovative mobile phone applications are aiding and helping poor and vulnerable communities in the region.

In addition to bringing about socio-economic benefits, mobile phones are also playing a key role in facilitating political mobilization across the Arab world. There is a widespread perception that during the Arab Spring, internet-based social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter played a crucial role in mobilizing and awakening the people. While these sites provided an important tool of communication, it was the mobile phones which were used much more than the social media sites in spreading anti-authoritarian and pro-democracy sentiments. For many protestors, mobile phones became an easy and accessible way for organizing protest rallies and capturing videos of atrocities towards the agitators. According to Mohammed Ibahrine of the University of Hamburg*, mobile phones have the potential to coordinate political action and increase the functional capacity of organizations and individuals during demonstrations. Unlike many democracies across the world, protests and demonstrations were not a common concept in the Arab world. However, in the context of the recent uprising, mobile phones emerged as a means of brining people out into the streets. Having assumed a significant role in the political settings of Arab countries, mobile phones will continue to mobilize people during elections and future movements.

Recent trends indicate that new mobile phone applications will emerge at a fast pace in the coming years. Over the next 10-15 years, it may be possible to witness Arab entrepreneurs trading through mobile phones or people in rural and remote areas using mobile phones to avail banking and financial services. In addition, a combination of water technology and mobile phone applications could address water shortages in all likelihood as the region is severely water stressed. Egypt has already launched a mobile phone service called the ‘Blue Line’ to help farmers in the Nile Delta region to manage scarce water resources more efficiently. This service involves establishing hotlines to improve communication between water officials and farmers in the area. This service disseminates messages from officials regarding water supply and allocation to all mobile phones in the area, which enables farmers to practice sustainable irrigation. 

Thus, innovations and changes in mobile phone technology/applications will likely usher in socio-economic development and promote the ongoing political activism in the Arab world.

* Mohammed Ibahrine. ‘Mobile Communication and Socio-political Change in the Arab World.’