The Internet and political change in Kuwait

Will Internet diffusion and enhanced citizen communication capabilities help to open up the “closed societies” of the Middle East? U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is banking on it. “Internet freedom had become a fundamental principle of American foreign policy,” she said in a well-received speech in March. “Even in authoritarian countries,” she argued, “information ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

Will Internet diffusion and enhanced citizen communication capabilities help to open up the "closed societies" of the Middle East? U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is banking on it. "Internet freedom had become a fundamental principle of American foreign policy," she said in a well-received speech in March. "Even in authoritarian countries," she argued, "information networks are helping people discover new facts and making governments more accountable." Do Arabs themselves think that the diffusion of the Internet will make their societies in the Middle East more open and "more accountable" as their publics become increasingly politically aware and socially networked? A survey of Internet users we conducted in Kuwait last summer suggest that they do: More than 80 percent stated that the Internet has a definite impact on Arab politics.  That's a tantalizing sign that Arabs do see the potential for the Internet to drive change … even if they may turn out to be wrong.

Last July, we worked with a group of students at the American University in Kuwait to design a unique survey of Internet use in the emirate. The students were given a list of 29 questions and asked to interview a cross section of Kuwaiti Internet users including men and women, young and old, from across the social-class spectrum, including only Kuwaiti nationals. The sample ultimately included 267 Internet users, with ages ranging from 16 to 61. Although this is not based on a random sample, the survey offers a fascinating glimpse into the online life of Kuwait's wired public.

Will Internet diffusion and enhanced citizen communication capabilities help to open up the “closed societies” of the Middle East? U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is banking on it. “Internet freedom had become a fundamental principle of American foreign policy,” she said in a well-received speech in March. “Even in authoritarian countries,” she argued, “information networks are helping people discover new facts and making governments more accountable.” Do Arabs themselves think that the diffusion of the Internet will make their societies in the Middle East more open and “more accountable” as their publics become increasingly politically aware and socially networked? A survey of Internet users we conducted in Kuwait last summer suggest that they do: More than 80 percent stated that the Internet has a definite impact on Arab politics.  That’s a tantalizing sign that Arabs do see the potential for the Internet to drive change … even if they may turn out to be wrong.

Last July, we worked with a group of students at the American University in Kuwait to design a unique survey of Internet use in the emirate. The students were given a list of 29 questions and asked to interview a cross section of Kuwaiti Internet users including men and women, young and old, from across the social-class spectrum, including only Kuwaiti nationals. The sample ultimately included 267 Internet users, with ages ranging from 16 to 61. Although this is not based on a random sample, the survey offers a fascinating glimpse into the online life of Kuwait’s wired public.

We found that the average number of hours per week spent online for both Kuwaiti men and women was 20 hours. Almost 100 percent owned a mobile phone, and they sent on average 34 text messages a day. Nearly 100 percent of those surveyed had Internet access at home, while more than 75 percent have Internet access on their mobile phones. More than 65 percent of those Kuwaitis interviewed have a Myspace or Facebook page, and 30 percent of those surveyed visit blogs regularly. At the same time, only 4.5 percent of the Kuwaitis surveyed actually blog themselves.

The six most-common Internet uses among Kuwaiti men and women (2009) 

  

An impressive 80.5 percent of the Kuwaitis surveyed thought that the Internet was significantly impacting local politics. In the open-ended part of the interviews, the Kuwaitis explained their assessment in ways that closely match Clinton’s hopes. For example, some argued that the Internet “opened Arab minds.” Others stated that with Internet use growing in the region, states could no longer hide political information from their publics: As one said, “It makes people see what governments try to block on TV and mislead the people about.” Another pointed to the impact on youth: “It is opening the eyes of the younger generation, and they are exercising more freedom. They can compare freedom in their countries with other countries.” Most telling, however, is one Kuwaiti who responded that the Internet is having an impact on politics, “because people feel safer expressing themselves via Internet.”

The Kuwaitis in the survey look both to their own politics and abroad for examples of how the Internet is changing politics. Some pointed to the Internet’s role in helping to organize campaigns for the 2009 Kuwaiti elections. Highlighting an awareness of the Internet’s relationship to politics, one Kuwaiti surveyed states, “The biggest impact it had on politics recently was during the U.S. elections and Kuwaiti parliamentary elections. People’s votes were swayed using electronic messages.” Some attributed great political power to their own bloggers, while others pointed to the Iranian election protests, which they thought would not have been possible without new media tools. Another observes that the Internet “is helping women’s rights and women’s awareness,” pointing to the role of Internet campaigning in the 2009 election of four female MPs to the Kuwaiti parliament.

Those hoping for dramatic change should not get carried away, however. From the outside looking in, it is difficult to see such “transformations” affecting policymaking and the institutions of state. In addition to giving publics more information access and networking abilities, the Internet has likewise given more power to the authoritarian state, especially enhanced powers of surveillance. The Internet increases the power of publics and states simultaneously, and Middle Eastern state authority has not crumbled (even if legitimacy has waned in some cases). We are seeing significant transformations in public engagement and risk taking, but as yet little change in the formal institutions of power. That’s a start: As Hannah Arendt once observed, “No revolution is even possible where the authority of the body politic is truly intact.” The growing online engagement of Kuwaiti youth cannot be ignored, but we are far from knowing whether their hopes that it will manifest into political change will be realized. 

Deborah L. Wheeler is an assistant professor of political science at the U.S. Naval Academy. Lauren Mintz is a graduate student at the University of Maryland and a Naval Academy graduate. 

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