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World Politics
Reference:

Digitalization in the Middle East: a Threat to the Regional Security or a Way to maintain it?

Il'ina Elizaveta Vladimirovna

Student, Global Politics Department, Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO University)

119454, Russia, Moscow, 76 Vernadsky Ave., bldg. B

ilinaelizaveta2002@gmail.com
Chipizubova Polina Andreevna

student, Global Politics Department, Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO University)

119454, Russia, Moscow, Vernadsky str., 76, bldg. B

chip-polina2002@mail.ru

DOI:

10.25136/2409-8671.2023.3.38743

EDN:

XRNYRT

Received:

09-09-2022


Published:

19-09-2023


Abstract: The article is devoted to the main threats and advantages brought by digitalization in the Middle East nowadays. The research problem of the article is "which influence of digitalization – positive or destructive – prevails in the Middle East and what prospects await this region in the digital sphere. The interests of key regional players in the cybersphere (Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Turkey, Iran, etc., as well as anti-systemic non-state actors), as well as regional and national initiatives in this industry, including "Peninsula Shield", "Vision 2030" and others, are analyzed. The scientific novelty of the study lies in a non-classical approach to security problems in the Middle East, namely through the prism of the digital sphere, taking into account its complexity and the multiplicity of its actors. The theoretical basis of the research is based on a neoliberal approach to world politics, in particular, on the concept of complex interdependence, since the authors rely on the postulate that the world policy sphere is inextricably linked with others, and also consists of a multitude of heterogeneous actors and connections between them. From the point of view of studying regional integration in the Middle East, the dominant approach is neofunctionalism, developed by E. Haas, in particular, the theory of "spillover". The research methods used are description, study of official documents and statistical data, situational analysis, comparative analysis, which made it possible to assess the key threats and prospects for regional security and their correlation. The authors conclude that the key threat to the region is the disunity of the main actors' interests and the associated possibility of political contradictions' aggravation. Nevertheless, digitalization provides the Middle East with such advantages as deepening regional integration and inclusion in international cooperation, the growth of soft power and the potential for economic diversification.


Keywords:

Digitalization, Middle East, cybersecurity, antisystem actors, regional integration, Peninsula Shield, Gulf Cooperation Council, soft power, Iran, Saudi Arabia

This article is automatically translated. You can find original text of the article here.

Introduction. At the beginning of the XXI century, an American political scientist of Lebanese origin, Nicholas Taleb, developed the theory of the "black swan". The "Black Swan", in his understanding, is a kind of turning point for history, which is, on the one hand, unprecedented and transformative, and on the other hand, quite rationally explicable in retrospect. All the events that initially caused a wide public outcry, whether it was the Arab Spring, the war in Yemen, or the launch of Iran's nuclear program, eventually became so firmly rooted in our perception of the world and received so many logical explanations that now they seem to us almost the only possible outcome of a series of events and processes that preceded them. Taleb explains this amazing phenomenon with cognitive distortions inherent in human thinking, however, in this regard, he comes to a disappointing conclusion: no matter how many prerequisites are in our field of vision, the appearance of another "black swan" is extremely difficult to "calculate", as well as its consequences, which often add up to an endless shoal of new swans.

This concept is of great analytical interest from the point of view of the Middle East region: firstly, this region has taken on as many "black swans" over the past couple of decades as any other, and secondly, the Middle East is a complex tangle of various factors, which, on the one hand, is a source of internal instability. in the region, and on the other hand, the reason for its relative autonomy and immunity to external influence, so any "black swan" inevitably acquires two parallel dimensions in the Middle East.

Among the "black swans" Taleb highlights the invention of the Internet and the widespread digitalization that followed it. The concept of digitalization, which is believed to have been introduced in 1995 by Nicholas Negroponte [1], is ambiguous and is still interpreted differently by both politicians and scientists. Thus, M.M. Gobble from the Brookings Institution defined digitalization as "the process of using digital technologies and information to transform economic, social, political, and other processes" [2]. A researcher from St. Petersburg State University, A.N. Sytnik, proposed the following definition: "the ongoing transition to digital technologies in all spheres of society and datafication, i.e. the accumulation of big data in order to optimize, study and predict economic and political activities and social processes" [3]. Her colleague from SPbGEU V.A. Plotnikov interprets this phenomenon as "the process of introducing digital technologies for generating, processing, transmitting, storing and visualizing data in various spheres of human activity" [4]. Taking into account the main aspects of these definitions, we propose a narrower definition of digitalization from a world political point of view, which presents this phenomenon not as a purposeful activity of certain actors, but as a more spontaneous process depending on many factors: "the process of strengthening the role of digital technologies in the domestic and foreign policy life of states, influencing the interaction of its participants".

Globalization has opened its doors even to the most isolated and conservative corners of the globe. The Middle East, for which digitalization is both an engine of progress and a source of previously unthinkable threats, did not stand aside either. Our research is based on the question of which side of the influence of digitalization – positive or destructive – still prevails in the Middle East, and what prospects await this region in the digital sphere.

Despite the above arguments about the problematic nature of political forecasting above, Taleb does not claim that it is meaningless. On the contrary, according to his concept, the forecast will be of significant importance if we do not calculate the probability of certain scenarios based on trifles, but only limit the scope of the possible, guided by general trends and analyzing the situation comprehensively, which we plan to do in our work.

Digitalization as an element of Middle Eastern reality. In recent years, digitalization in the Middle East has gained unprecedented proportions: by the end of 2020, many countries in the region were ranked either in the group of leaders or promising countries in the Harvard Business Review digitalization rating [5]. The number of Internet users in the Middle East region has grown by 59% over the past five years, which made it the leader in terms of user growth [6]. The countries of the region have also been leading the ratings for the penetration of social networks for several years [7]. The "Arabization" of the world Wide Web is actively underway: in 10 years, the percentage of content in Arabic from all content on the Internet has grown by more than 2500%. Such a brief statistical summary clearly shows the scale of digitalization in the Middle East and its impact on the life of the region.

The first fruits of these processes turned out to be destructive: on the one hand, waves of politically motivated cyberattacks at the beginning of the century caused by the "Al-Aqsa intifada" and the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001 [8], on the other – the Arab Spring, one of the key factors of which were information and communication technologies. During the Arab Spring, the Middle East for the first time faced what is now called the information war, with its inherent manipulation of public opinion, fake news, emotional myths. Since then, these phenomena have accompanied literally every crisis in the region. The event that gave digital security in the Middle East a global world-political dimension was the cyberattack of a new generation of Stuxnet virus (developed, according to expertise, by Israel together with the United States), which not only caused significant damage to the Iranian nuclear program, but also demonstrated how destructive cyberweapons can have on the scale of entire states.

It so happened that the Middle East, being one of the most conflict-ridden regions of the world, has also become a kind of arena for fierce digital confrontation, in which a wide variety of actors have been involved, from traditional regional antagonist countries in the person of, for example, Iran and Israel, as well as external players such as the United States, to non-classical subjects, such as cyberterrorists or hacker groups. The newly formed digital dimension of Middle Eastern security has not only inherited conflicts that have been dragging on for decades, but has also been "enriched" with new ones, tightening the knot of contradictions even more tightly.

The countries of the Middle East are far from forming a consolidated position on cybersecurity issues. Since 2017, mutual accusations of the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Egypt and other Arab countries in cyber attacks and computer espionage have intensified. Due to the escalation of digital confrontation in the region, there is a gradual build-up of offensive cyber weapons [9]. According to the Global Security Index, the countries of the region differ significantly in terms of cyber security: the leaders Saudi Arabia and the UAE took 2nd and 5th places (along with Russia, by the way), respectively, Egypt, Oman, Qatar are on the 20th lines, and countries such as Syria and Yemen are at all they close the rating [10]. Therefore, stability in the field of cybersecurity in the Middle East directly depends on key actors, the balance of interests of which is the only key to a sustainable architecture of regional digital security, and its violation is a sure path to the collapse of this architecture. Based on this, we propose to proceed to a detailed analysis of the largest players in the Middle Eastern cyber arena.

At the regional level, there is a key dyad of cyber-confrontation between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which promote diametrically opposite visions of the cybersecurity architecture in the region, and this provoked the formation of peculiar security blocks around these poles. Saudi Arabia has the support of the most influential countries in the region, such as the UAE and Israel, as well as external players mainly represented by the United States, while on the Iranian side, in addition to some extra-regional actors, multiple non-classical digital security actors indirectly act. Consider the existing system of actors.

Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is a recognized leader of Arab countries and the Islamic world in the field of cybersecurity, having completely transformed state policy in the digital sphere in less than ten years and breaking out of the 20th position to the second. In addition to improving cyber institutes at the national level, Saudi Arabia has taken a confident course for international cooperation in this area within such platforms as ITU, UN specialized groups, LAS, which allowed it to become a full participant in global digital processes, but at the same time put it in a situation of interdependence with developed countries, mostly with the United States. The experience of international cooperation has been largely used by Saudi Arabia to build its own collective cybersecurity unit under its leadership in the Middle East, which is being formed within the framework of the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Persian Gulf (GCC) [11]. This conditional "block" is based rather on the Western understanding of digital security, which refers more to the technical aspects of cyber threats than to their socio-political consequences. This interpretation of information security becomes the object of significant disagreements between the GCC countries and other States in the region. However, the Kingdom's success in digitalization nevertheless allowed it to become a kind of regional center of attraction and attract such digital allies as the UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain.

The digital factor played a significant role for Saudi Arabia in the confrontation with Yemen. In 2015, due to the Kingdom's intervention in the internal conflict, anti-Saudi sentiments sharply radicalized in Yemen, which resulted, among other things, in a series of cyber attacks by a hacker group that called itself the Yemeni Cyber Army. Among the crimes of the Yemeni cyber Army were large-scale data theft from the Saudi Foreign Ministry, an attack on state media, and the transfer of state documents to WikiLeaks [12]. Despite the fact that the group's activity ceased in the same year, it provoked many diplomatic scandals, including due to the fact that the key customers and participants of the project were never identified; and it also became a catalyst for the urgent strengthening of the national cyber security system of Saudi Arabia.

Israel. Israel, although not an ideological like–minded Saudi Arabia, in the digital sphere quite often acts as its unexpected ally on the principle of a common patron – the United States – and a common enemy - Iran. The fruitful development of cooperation is also indicated by the signing of the "Abraham Agreements" in 2020, in which Arab countries, in particular Saudi Arabia's allies the UAE and Bahrain, declare the normalization of relations with Israel, including in the cyber sphere. Also, the GCC countries are largely dependent on Israel in the digital sector: Arab countries have signed expensive contracts with well-known Israeli cyber companies, and some government agencies work on special Israeli software [13].

In general, Israel's national cybersecurity system is extremely well-established and honed, its characteristic feature is a huge number of cyber units integrated into government agencies that are created specifically for various projects, and whose members are recruited, including from hacker groups [14]. Such legal hacker units are called "white hats".

The fact of Israeli cooperation with Qatar in the conditions of their mutual non-recognition is interesting. Qatar as a whole plays a rather contradictory role in regional cybersecurity: on the one hand, Qatar is an ally of Saudi Arabia in the GCC and leads an active pro–Palestinian course in the field of public policy, on the other hand, Qatar actively cooperates with Israel in the field of digital security, and simultaneously acts as an important economic partner of Iran - a strategic opponent of all of the above. But as for the digital cooperation between Israel and Qatar, Qatar used a model similar to outsourcing [15]. In the first half of the 2010s, when Qatar did not yet have its own developed system of protection against cyber threats, the country announced tenders to strengthen digital security, and most of them were occupied by Israeli companies (in particular, ClearSky Cyber Security). Israeli "white hats" have also repeatedly participated in repelling cyber attacks on Qatar: for example, when Iran attacked oil and gas facilities using the Shamoon virus in 2012. Over time, Qatar has established a national cyber defense system, while cooperation with Israel in this area has been preserved by inertia, but it has not reached the public level for political reasons: in official documents of Qatar, Israel acts as a "consultant" or "contractor".

Turkey. Turkey is another contender for regional leadership in the cybersphere [13], which makes it more of an opponent for the GCC countries due to the coincidence of areas of interest. Turkey takes the issues of digital security extremely seriously: since 2012, an appropriate department has been functioning in the country, under which at least 13 thousand employees of the Turkish Cyber Army T?rk Siber Ordusu are located, digital activities are supported by national cyberdoctrins [16]. The country is largely adopting the experience of Western partners, hiring foreign consultants and taking part in international cyber studies. Recently, Turkey has been actively increasing its offensive cyber weapons and expanding cooperation with the hacker community, which provokes fears of Saudi Arabia and its satellites. Nevertheless, Turkey is not at all set up for confrontation with the countries of the Persian Gulf, rather, on the contrary, for cooperation in the interests of its cyber companies. Firstly, Qatar is also a reliable ally of Turkey, and a clash between Turkey and the GCC would disrupt the process of normalization of relations between the GCC and Qatar after the diplomatic crisis of 2017. Secondly, the Gulf states still do not pose a threat to Turkey, unlike, for example, Egypt or hacker units of the Gulen Movement and the Kurdistan Workers' Party [16].

Egypt. From the point of view of cyber power, Egypt as a whole acts on an equal footing with the countries of the Persian Gulf, and therefore can afford to promote its own interests, often going against the interests of the Arabian monarchies, nevertheless, there are enough points of contact. In the field of cybersecurity, the Egyptian authorities are more interested in internal stability than in regional vicissitudes, so Egypt pays great attention to the control of the media, television and the national Internet, and is not interested in confrontation with other powers [17].

Iran. Iran is the only player in the Middle East whose policy can pose a global threat, in this regard, it is also the most frequent target of cyber attacks in the region, taking 10% of all cyber attacks in the world [18]. In 2010 Iran was subjected to the already mentioned destructive Stuxnet attack, which became a catalyst for the active development of the national cybersecurity system in the face of increasing attacks from the United States and Israel. At the same time, in the digital sphere, Iran faces not only external, but also internal threats due to the difficult domestic political situation. Iran is not among the leaders in the international cybersecurity rankings, but this does not reflect the real situation, because the ratings do not take into account, for example, the potential of offensive cyber weapons and stable ties with hacker groups. Western researchers attribute Iran to a group of 6 countries with the most developed digital competencies, along with the USA, Russia, China, Israel, and the UK [19].

In the early 2000s, Iran's cyberattacks were rather poorly coordinated declarative actions of individual groups, whereas now carefully designed large-scale cyber espionage operations are being carried out, including detailed data collection from websites and the introduction of malware, and using PCs and personal accounts of persons affiliated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). To date, Iran's cybersecurity is provided mainly by the IRGC and the Ministry of Intelligence, regulating the relevant special forces, and cyber groups have also been formed as part of special forces and paramilitary militia.

The priority targets of Iranian cyberattacks are mainly the United States (and its Western allies), Israel and the Arabian monarchies. However, recently there has been a tendency to reduce the number of cyber attacks and switch mainly to intelligence, as well as shifting attention from external opponents to the internal opposition, in connection with which many experts argue that Iran is gradually moving away from the position of a "global cyber threat."

As for Iran's cybersecurity allies, they probably don't exist at the official level. Some experts consider Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen to be such, but this cooperation is not fixed at the state level, and the level of development of these countries does not allow them to reach the level of a full-fledged ally, rather a satellite. The Arabian monarchies, for example, claim that the Yemeni cyberarmy was actually a project of Iran, however, due to the specifics of the sphere, it is very difficult to verify this, and it is unlikely that it will ever be established for sure. There is also a category of countries "sympathetic" to Iran, such as Qatar, which seeks to adhere to neutrality and does not enter into confrontation with Iran, in particular, Qatar refused to provide Israel with data on the activities of the Iranian proxy group "Lebanese Cedar" [15]. But Iran's main support in the region is provided by some anti-systemic hacker groups that are associated with non-state actors, including various terrorist groups such as ISIS* and Hezbollah.

Anti-system actors. In the Middle Eastern cyber arena, non-state actors are as firmly rooted as state actors. Unfortunately, most of them have a destructive impact on regional security, as they are associated with terrorist cells. One of the first in the digital space (2006-2007) were the cyber-jihadist groups of Al-Qaeda*, of which there are more than ten, but their activities were mainly limited to propaganda and defacement. A more determined group is the "United Cyber Caliphate of ISIS *", which owes its origin to the young Briton Junaid Hussein, known for hacking the personal accounts of Zuckerberg and Tony Blair. This group has carried out a number of attacks on the accounts of state agencies and the media, but now it specializes in espionage on energy infrastructure facilities in Western countries and threatens a global cyber attack. The already mentioned "Lebanese Cedar" belongs to the same group, known for its large-scale attack on Internet service providers and telecom operators in Western countries, Arab countries, Israel.

A very special role is played by actors who are somewhere between state and non-state actors, and a vivid example of such actors is the project "Cybermukhi". "Cybermukh" is difficult to attribute to full-fledged cyber groups, they are rather a collection of all hackers loyal to Saudi Arabia, including single ones. They do not have a clear structure or a common leader, but for a long time their informal leader was considered the first adviser to the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Al-Qahtani. However, "Cybermukhs" do not belong to the Arabian "white hats". On the one hand, they obviously cooperate with the government, which was clearly manifested during the diplomatic crisis with Qatar and the conflict with Yemen. On the other hand, coordination seems to be insufficient: in 2021, "Cyber flies" attacked the Iranian Ministry of Transport shortly after the conclusion of agreements between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which significantly undermined the authority of these agreements.

The disunity of "Cybermuh" is only one of the problems of their integration into the state structure. In addition, an internal factor plays an important role, namely public opinion: hacking is perceived by many Muslims as a serious sin, and Saudi Arabia cannot give up its claims to leadership in the Islamic world. Also, as already noted, Saudi Arabia has made a serious bet on international cooperation in the cybersphere, and the open inclusion of a hacker group in the state staff could shake its international image.

Integration as a stabilizing factor of digitalization in the Middle East. Internal and external threats force the States of the Middle East to consolidate their efforts in order to effectively ensure digital security, which leads to the intensification of regional cooperation. The so-called "Peninsula Shield", created by the GCC member states back in 1984 to deter and respond to military aggression, over time began to take shape as an information shield designed to provide cyber defense of the region [20]. In the course of close cooperation in the field of ICT, the GCC countries have managed to develop a sustainable system of measures to counter cyber threats, and building a collective cybersecurity strategy is one of the main elements of integration processes in the region.

In addition, digitalization leads to the smoothing of traditional political contradictions. At the moment, the GCC countries are actively cooperating with Israel on cybersecurity issues. For obvious reasons, this cooperation is not widely publicized, but it is extremely fruitful and has broad prospects. Since the beginning of the 2000s, the UAE has focused on a number of Israeli projects to build its own cybersecurity system, and since about 2008, comprehensive technological cooperation has been underway. Thus, in 20082015, the modernization of surveillance systems at the most important oil and gas facilities in the UAE actually took place under the leadership of the Israeli firm Logic Industries, although the official contractor was the Swiss corporation AGT International. In addition, the UAE state bodies interact with the relevant Israeli authorities [21].

It is worth noting other states that cooperate with Israel in the framework of information technology and cybersecurity issues. Saudi Arabia is in contact with IntuView, a company that uses artificial intelligence technologies to monitor closed channels on social networks in order to identify terrorist threats. Qatar, as already mentioned, has established relationships with ClearSky Cyber Security, which provides services in the field of strengthening information protection of the national critical infrastructure.

In addition to the above-mentioned GCC countries, Oman and Bahrain also cooperate with Israel in the information sphere, but for them, issues of not so much cybersecurity as digitalization of the most important areas: finance, health and education come to the fore. Thus, in 2005, Bahrain began implementing a program on digitalization of higher and secondary vocational educational institutions aimed at modernizing teaching methods and forming students' knowledge about modern information technologies [22]. To implement the project in Bahrain, the EduWave electronic educational platform from the Jordanian company Integrated Technology Group was widely deployed, and the implementation of the program and user training took place with the support of Israeli computer experts.

In Oman, which is trying to balance between Iran and Israel [23] and therefore, unlike other GCC member countries, is not ready for full-fledged normalization of relations with the Jewish state, with the help of Israeli specialists, an initiative was developed to introduce and develop Internet banking, aimed at speeding up the process of registering customers and simplifying the banking system in as a whole. The company NNTC from the UAE, which is engaged in software development, also takes an active part in this process [24].

Economic diversification. An important element of the development of collective cybersecurity was the adoption by the GCC countries in the second half of the 2010s of the Vision 2030 programs, which represent long-term strategies for moving away from the raw material component of national economies and their diversification. At the same time, digitalization of all spheres of life of states is considered as the main driver of the development of the region. Despite the fact that most countries in the region recognize the need for digital modernization of the economy, not all of them successfully implement the program. Perhaps the best example in this regard is Saudi Arabia.

The introduction of the Saudi Vision 2030 program [25] was announced in 2016, when there was a sharp decline in oil prices. Saudi Arabia, like many countries in the Middle East, is heavily dependent on oil and natural gas production, so the Kingdom's government needed to take emergency measures to get out of the economic crisis, because of which the country was mired in debt, there was an increase in unemployment and a significant decline in living standards.  The program includes a number of economic reforms aimed at reducing Saudi Arabia's dependence on oil and gas exports and developing other sectors of the economy.

Saudi Arabia is one of the most digitally developed states in the Middle East. At the moment, Saudi Arabia has achieved a number of successes within the framework of the Vision 2030 program: the Yesser e-government program was created, the implementation of the National Strategy for the Development of the Internet of Things was launched in 2019, citizens' trust in online transactions is regularly increasing in Saudi Arabia and, as a result, the percentage of electronic payments is growing [26] (as of 2019 they accounted for 36.2% of all payments, which exceeded the target of the program) and there is an active development of electronic commerce (as of 2020, the Kingdom ranked 5th among developing countries in this indicator) [27].

Digitalization is also actively taking place in the most important social spheres: healthcare and education. A large number of Saudi citizens use the Mawid electronic platform to receive medical services, which allowed Saudi Arabia to save more than $ 200 million in 2020. The Noor electronic educational platform unites all educational institutions of the Kingdom and is actively used by students throughout the country. The tourism sector is also developing digitally: more than 250 thousand tourist visas have been issued through the electronic platform. Digital technologies are being introduced even into the process of organizing and conducting Hajj and Umrah, which is the specifics of the digitalization of Saudi Arabia [26].

The probability of complete diversification of Saudi Arabia's economy by 2030 is unlikely, but the country has a huge potential, and if the country's leadership competently uses it, Saudi Arabia will be able to become one of the most developed states in the field of digitalization and cybersecurity, not only in the region, but throughout the world.

As mentioned earlier, similar programs have been launched in other countries of the region (UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait); national Digital Development Strategies have been adopted in many countries of the Middle East, e-government projects have been developed. An interesting fact is that in official documents on digitalization, almost every country aims to reach a leading position in terms of cybersecurity and the level of digitalization in the region [28].

What is the practical impact of the digital transformation of the economies of the Middle East on their development? Firstly, there is economic growth, which is ensured by economic diversification; secondly, thanks to modern technologies, the countries of the Middle East are becoming places of attraction for investment; thirdly, a large number of jobs are created, since countries need specialists in the field of ICT (many of them are implementing various projects on digital education among schoolchildren and students).

Soft power. Many states in the Middle East seek to use digitalization as a soft power, thereby promoting their interests in the international arena and influencing global political processes. For this purpose, public diplomacy is used, which, being implemented in the Internet space, becomes digital diplomacy, and social networks are its main tool.

In the Middle East countries as a whole, the level of citizens' interest in social networks and Internet use is growing: as of January 2021, the UAE ranked first in the world in terms of the number of people using the Internet (99% of the population), Saudi Arabia ranked 8th (95.7%), Israel ranked 23rd (88%) [29].

One of the most successful countries in using digitalization as a soft power is the UAE [30]. In domestic digital policy, the UAE strives to create a smart, "paperless" government. In December 2021, the government of Dubai became the first in the world to introduce a completely paperless document flow [31]. This important decision has already saved 336 million paper sheets, which is about 14 million hours of human labor and 353.8 million dollars [32].

As for the external sphere, social media diplomacy is gaining popularity in the UAE: the authorities use the Internet space to promote their ideas and national interests, strengthen the country's position in the system of international relations, and maintain its image. For example, in 2017, the Prime Minister of the UAE became the most quoted politician on Twitter [33], and his account has more than 9 million subscribers (11th place among world leaders). In addition, there are special state bodies in the UAE that coordinate the activities of foreign policy institutions on the Internet, for example, the Office of Public and Cultural Diplomacy. All this promotes the national brand of the UAE (in 2021, the UAE took 17th place in the ranking of national brands; Saudi Arabia is 2 lines lower) [34].

Is digitalization a threat to regional security or a tool to maintain it? Which side of the influence of the "black swan" in the face of digitalization will prevail for the Middle East?

1). A significant threat to the Middle East in the field of cybersecurity is the very multiplicity and significant disunity of the interests of its actors. Regional powers are fighting with each other for leadership, which, in turn, can lead to a race of cyber weapons and a deepening of the gap in development between the most and least developed regional powers. In parallel, anti-system hacker groups and other non-classical actors operate, whose interests and structure are often extremely difficult to identify, and which at the same time can significantly undermine the existing balance of power.

On the other hand, competition within the region in the field of cybersecurity and digitalization contributes to regional development in this area. Moreover, despite the differences in national interests, the countries of the region are willing to integrate into the cybersphere. Active cooperation, in turn, increases the level of their protection from extra-regional threats, and also leads to the stabilization of the domestic political situation due to the digitalization of socially-oriented industries.

2). External players, such as the United States, developed Western countries, China, Russia, and the DPRK, are often involved in the line of regional cyber-confrontation, which creates a threat of turning the Middle East into an arena of cyber-proxy conflicts. At the same time, the participation of the countries of the region in specialized international organizations, as well as the mediation of American and European digital companies in the relations of the GCC countries with Israel can serve as a foundation for greater integration of the Middle East countries into the international community.

2). Given the unstable political situation in the region, cyber-contradictions in theory can exacerbate existing political conflicts and become a reason for new ones. On the other hand, there is already a certain effect of the "spillover" of the integration of the Middle East countries from the information sphere into the economic, cultural, and, most importantly, into the political one. Examples of Saudi Arabia-Israel, Qatar-Iran, etc. They show that countries are looking for ways to bypass their traditional political conflicts in order to benefit from cooperation in other areas, in particular, in digital, which significantly contributes to reducing the conflict potential in the region.

3). As for the change in Iran's regional position in the cybersphere, according to a number of forecasts, its departure from the role of the main "villain" may split the regional community, since, having lost a cohesive threat, they will begin to look for it in each other.

However, the same trend may, on the contrary, lead to the construction of an updated cybersecurity architecture not based on the principle of a common enemy, which is characterized by instability, but on the basis of mutual interests of the countries of the Middle East.

4). Digitalization is a source of qualitatively new advantages for the Middle East, the competent use of which can significantly strengthen the international positions of the countries of the region. Firstly, the digital industry is a promising and quite feasible opportunity to diversify the economy and escape from the "oil needle" for oil exporting countries, which are the majority in the region. In addition, the digital transformation of the economy can become the basis for the introduction of the Middle East countries into new global production chains.

The second key advantage is the use of digitalization and digital diplomacy as a soft power. With its help, the countries of the Middle East promote their interests, form a positive national image, strengthen their positions not only in the digital, but also in the political space. Since digitalization in the Middle East is only gaining momentum every year, and there are more and more Internet users, it can be assumed that in the foreseeable future the region will become one of the world's main digital centers, and its states will begin to exert a much greater influence on the world community.

The answer to the question of how digitalization will turn out in the Middle East is ambiguous, otherwise we would not have included digitalization among the "black swans" initially. We have presented several possible scenarios for the development of events, the probability of each of which depends on a whole range of random factors, which makes it pointless to make more accurate forecasts. It seems to us, however, that today positive aspects still prevail, since they not only create ways to level traditional contradictions that have long been deadlocked, but also provide additional impulses for development.  In any case, the Middle East, apparently, is a natural habitat for the "black swans", which gives us reason to believe that this one will certainly not be fatal.

* movements are recognized as terrorist and banned in the Russian Federation

 

 

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The subject of the peer-reviewed study was the process of digitalization in the Middle East, as well as the dangers and threats that arise from this process. In recent years, the topic of digitalization of modern politics and public administration has attracted increasing attention from researchers: new digital technologies being widely introduced into management processes arouse great interest among specialists and experts, resulting in a rapid growth of scientific and journalistic works on this topic. Therefore, the practical relevance of the research topic chosen by the author of the article does not cause the slightest doubt. The ambiguity and vagueness of its conceptual descriptions, characteristic of any new and little-studied phenomenon, as well as the lack of a paradigmatic consensus on methodological tools and terminological apparatus, give special theoretical significance to this topic. The more interesting is the approach proposed by the author, linking two relatively new concepts – "black swans" and "digitalization" – for the analysis of Middle Eastern realities. Unfortunately, having defined the conceptual framework of his research, the author says nothing about the methodological tools used. From the context, it can be understood that in addition to general scientific analytical methods, elements of systemic and institutional approaches, the case study method, as well as secondary analysis of statistical data were used in the research process. This methodological approach allowed the author to obtain results with signs of scientific novelty. First of all, the author's attempt to apply the conceptual apparatus of the theories of "black swans" and "digitalization" in the analysis of empirical data from Middle Eastern states – Saudi Arabia, Israel, Qatar, Turkey, etc. is of scientific interest. As a result, it was possible to identify not only the positive consequences of digitalization (which are mainly recorded in numerous studies on this topic), but also those effects generated by it that can play the role of "black swans" in the policies of the studied states. The conclusion about the prospects of using digitalization as one of the "soft power" ("soft power", "soft power") technologies is also interesting. Finally, the "micropolitical" definition of the phenomenon of digitalization proposed by the author is of particular theoretical interest, linking this process not only with the "big" politics (both external and internal) of states, but also with the micro-interactions of political actors. Structurally, the article also makes a positive impression: the logic of the presentation is quite consistent, and the structural elements are categorized. The "Introduction" sets tasks and defines the conceptual design of the study. The first substantive section, "Digitalization as an element of Middle Eastern reality," describes the main directions of the digitalization process in the region under study, which are then concretized on specific country cases. Next, destructive and stabilizing factors of regional security are considered: the activities of anti-systemic actors, integration processes, economic diversification, and soft power tools. In the final section, "Digitalization – a threat to regional security or a tool to maintain it?" The results of the conducted research are summarized and prospects for further research on this topic are outlined. According to the style, the reviewed article can also be qualified as a scientific work written quite competently, in a good scientific language, with the correct use of scientific terminology. The bibliography includes 34 titles, including works in foreign languages, and adequately represents the state of affairs in the field under study. Although it could have been expanded due to the work of N. Taleb, since his concept of "black swans" has become one of the key design elements of the conducted research. Moreover, several works by this author have been translated into Russian. The appeal to opponents takes place in the context of discussing various approaches to the phenomenon of digitalization. GENERAL CONCLUSION: the article submitted for review can be qualified as a scientific work that meets all the requirements for works of this kind. The results obtained by the author will be of interest to political scientists, sociologists, specialists in the field of public administration, world politics and international relations, as well as students of the listed specialties. In terms of content, the article corresponds to the topic of the journal "World Politics" and is recommended for publication.
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