Internet usage in Arab states has increased dramatically over the past two decades, rising from 8.6% of individuals in 2005 to 70% in 2022. During the COVID-19 pandemic, regional governments accelerated their efforts to bring larger parts of the population online, and many people, for the first time, used the internet to access goods and services during lockdowns. However, these developments mask persistent inequalities regarding internet access and digital skills, for example, along gender, age, and urban-rural divides. In this context, both the United States and the European Union are increasingly focusing on digital development in the Middle East and North Africa as part of their efforts to support economic growth and tackle the region’s youth unemployment crisis. Deeper transatlantic cooperation in this field would greatly benefit both sides and drive forward digital development in the region. The pooling of resources and soft power would allow the U.S. and EU to more effectively lobby for an open, inclusive, and secure regulatory environment in their engagements with local governments and to more efficiently implement digital development programming on the ground. This would require elevating current cooperation to the strategic level and choosing select projects and countries as test cases.
The current geopolitical context has made strategic cooperation on this issue more urgent. Whereas their approaches to dealing with an increasingly assertive China vary, both the U.S. and EU are on the same side in the rivalry between Beijing and the West. This rivalry also extends to the MENA region, where Chinese state-backed companies such as Huawei and ZTE have successfully struck deals with regional governments to provide critical digital infrastructure, including for 5G technology. MENA governments opted for these providers to a large extent for cost-benefit reasons, despite warnings from Western governments about security risks. In spite of shared concerns over China, the U.S. and Europe differ in their approach to dealing with Beijing’s increasingly aggressive posturing toward Taiwan. For Brussels, the issue of Taiwan is less important than it is for U.S. officials and lawmakers, as many European governments are eager to continue their long-standing economic ties with China. In Washington, by contrast, Taiwan is becoming an increasing focal point in the broader U.S. struggle against China.
Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine has led to heightened U.S.-EU cooperation, as Washington and Brussels are supporting Kyiv in its defensive efforts and are countering Moscow diplomatically. As the world faces a semiconductor shortage, the U.S. and EU have used the recently established U.S.-EU. Trade and Technology Council (TTC) to develop “a transatlantic approach to semiconductor investment aimed at ensuring the security of supply and avoiding subsidy races.” As outlined further below, the two sides do not always align when it comes to digital transformation, but they do share the goal of creating an open, inclusive, and secure digital ecosystem in the MENA region.
Ways to transform transatlantic cooperation on digital development in MENA
Coordination between the U.S. and EU on supporting economic development in MENA countries already exists, as discussed in a recent EuroMeSCo policy study. In Jordan, for example, a coordination platform on trade and private sector development has been established. In Lebanon, economic counselors from the U.S., EU, U.K., IMF, and the World Bank, as well as others, have been holding bi-weekly meetings on economic development issues. However, coordination in its current form focuses predominantly on sharing information on planned and implemented initiatives and does not involve the joint development and implementation of strategies. These activities can nevertheless serve as a starting point for more strategic cooperation going forward.
According to interlocutors working on digital transformation and economic development in the region, these information exchanges are seen as a positive step, but their transformative potential is limited in the current format. There is an opportunity to change that, as interviews with key actors on both sides showed that there is an appetite to expand coordination mechanisms between the U.S. and EU on digital development. To make that happen, interlocutors stressed that higher-ups at the political level would need to lead in improving coordination.
The prioritization of expanding transatlantic cooperation in this area would benefit from being incorporated into an institutional structure. The TTC already has working groups on digital issues such as technology standards, promotion of small and medium-sized enterprise access and use of digital technologies, and the misuse of technology threatening security and human rights. The involvement of cabinet-level politicians in the discussions would allow for the issue of deeper donor coordination on digital development to be elevated to the political level, a step that practitioners on both sides described as necessary. In addition to the 10 existing working groups, leaders could establish an additional one on “supporting inclusive digital development in the MENA region and sub-Saharan Africa.” Sub-Saharan Africa faces similar problems with regard to digital transformation as the MENA region, and is an important focus area for both the U.S. and EU’s development agenda. From a geopolitical perspective, China is very active in both regions, promoting its model of internet governance.
Given the TTC’s global focus, widening the geographical scope to include two regions that are important from a geopolitical and developmental perspective would be beneficial. Work on MENA and other regions could be prepared by dedicated groups of technical experts from academia, the private sector, government, and civil society. The heads of the expert groups should invite local experts and practitioners to join and share their knowledge as well, for example, regarding the feasibility of implementing policy ideas. Arab and sub-Saharan governments also have a crucial role to play. Expert groups should present their policy recommendations and discuss them with local governments. Local government delegates could join the consultation process at various stages and host expert delegations for private discussions. In order for digital development policies to have the maximum impact on the ground, it is critical that local authorities adopt a whole-of-government approach, as coordination on digital development between different ministries is still in need of improvement in several MENA countries. Beyond that, the involvement of private sector and civil society actors helps to ensure that the current obstacles to digital transformation, including the needs of businesses, but also of vulnerable populations, are integrated into policy discussions.
Focus areas could include developing recommendations on how to close the digital divides in the MENA region and sub-Saharan Africa, how to make internet access more affordable and reliable (including in remote regions), and how to holistically integrate the teaching of digital skills in public education systems. Regional bodies like the African Telecommunications Union or the Digital Cooperation Organization, local governments, and other local stakeholders should be consulted to provide input on what areas the expert groups should focus on.
Building on the work of the expert groups, U.S. and EU representatives in the digital development working group could then formulate strategies on how to better pool resources and advance a common vision of inclusive digital development in the MENA region. Following on from that, these ideas could be debated and adopted at a subsequent ministerial meeting between the two sides.
Previous TTC ministerial meetings have already demonstrated a willingness to forge agreements on digital issues. Washington and Brussels have so far agreed to coordinate semiconductor investment, have published a roadmap for trustworthy artificial intelligence (AI) and risk management, and are working toward a common roadmap on 6G technology. On the subject of AI, the European Commission and U.S. government in January 2023 signed an administrative arrangement expressing their intent to support research on advanced AI with regards to extreme weather and climate forecasting, emergency response management, health and medicine improvements, and energy grid and agriculture optimization. In the realm of human rights, the two sides agreed on a list of high-level principles both on the protection and empowerment of children and youth in the digital environment, as well as on access to data from online platforms for researchers.
Crucially in the context of digital development, they have announced joint support for secure and resilient connectivity projects in countries such as Kenya, Jamaica, Costa Rica, and the Philippines. The U.S. and EU also support infrastructure projects via the Partnership for Global Infrastructure (PGII), which was launched in June 2022. Additionally, the U.S. is partnering with India, Israel, and the United Arab Emirates as part of the I2U2 group to, among other priorities, modernize infrastructure and “advance physical connectivity between countries in the Middle East region.” In the field of cybersecurity, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators in May introduced a bill to deepen cooperation between the Department of Homeland Security and the Abraham Accords countries Israel, the UAE, Bahrain, and Morocco, with the stated goal to “address shared cybersecurity threats, including nation-state targeting of critical infrastructure and ransomware attacks.”
Key benefits of and obstacles to deeper transatlantic cooperation
The U.S. and EU share the goal of creating an open, inclusive, and secure digital ecosystem in the MENA region. Both sides also share an interest in supporting digital transformation as an economic development strategy as the region continues to suffer from a youth unemployment crisis.
Establishing improved mechanisms to coordinate programming to support digital development would allow for a more efficient allocation of resources and avoid the duplication of efforts. Moreover, early coordination at a stage where program ideas are drawn up and budgets are being decided could help identify where each other’s focus areas are and where potential gaps lie, for example, when it comes to the thematic and geographical distribution of initiatives.
Amid discussions in the region about what type of digital ecosystem will be established in the long term, the U.S. and EU would benefit from pooling resources and soft power to lobby for an open, inclusive, and secure regulatory environment in their engagements with local governments. This can apply to lobbying for the expansion of digital infrastructure in a manner that allows for affordable and secure access across the whole region, while also giving local communities a stake in the process, such as through setting up community networks.
Despite the stated interest from both sides to improve coordination, several obstacles would need to be overcome. First, the alignment of budgetary cycles is likely to prove difficult, given the differences on either side of the Atlantic. Currently, programming on digital has to compete with other priorities set out in the yearly budget set by Congress for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The fact that parts of the budget are earmarked by Congress restricts USAID’s ability to allocate funding to joint U.S.-EU initiatives on an ad-hoc basis. Budgetary restrictions also constrain the EU’s flexibility to cooperate. To overcome this challenge, both sides should elevate cooperation to the political level and cascade priorities through long-term planning to advance areas of common interest on the ground.
Despite their partnership, both sides are aiming to promote their specific vision of digital transformation, with the EU championing what it sees as a more human-centric and rights-based approach than the U.S. Both sides are also likely to want to partner with private sector companies headquartered in their geographies to support digital development in the MENA region and create new business opportunities for homegrown firms.
While sharing a vision for an overarching goal, the U.S. and European approach to regulating technology companies markedly differs, as is illustrated by ongoing discussions on the regulation of big social media platforms and their usage of consumer data. Nevertheless, in spite of the existence of different models of regulation, they are not “antagonistic,” and the TTC could serve as a vehicle to align the models more closely, as argued by Ringhof and Torreblanca.
Another challenge is that the shared priorities of the U.S. and EU do not always align with the concerns of MENA governments. 5G technology is a key example of that as many regional governments have chosen to work with Huawei to upgrade their digital infrastructure, mainly for cost-benefit reasons. MENA governments’ legislation mandating data localization as part of a focus on cyber sovereignty stands in contrast with the U.S.’ approach to cloud technology, which stresses the free flow of data across borders.
Notwithstanding these obstacles, deeper cooperation is achievable and would go a long way toward addressing the inequalities that limit the potential of digitalization to be truly transformational in terms of its positive socio-economic impact. In order to implement better coordination mechanisms on the ground, Washington and Brussels should launch pilot projects in select countries and on select issues while using the TTC as an overarching strategic framework. Jordan could serve as a first test case for deeper cooperation, as the U.S. in September signed a memorandum of understanding worth $1.45 billion in annual foreign assistance over seven years. The EU also remains heavily engaged in supporting economic development in the kingdom and has experience with digital transformation projects.
Digital development is just one area affecting the MENA region that would benefit from enhanced transatlantic cooperation. Other areas, such as boosting renewable energy, key in efforts to battle the impact of climate change, would equally profit from it as well.
Manuel Langendorf is a researcher and consultant on digital transformation in the MENA region.
Photo by SABAH ARAR/AFP via Getty Images
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