Cell Phones Outpace Internet Access in Middle East

by Steve Crabtree

Home Internet access common only in oil-rich Gulf countries

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Recent Gallup Polls in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) highlight the prevalence of wireless and Web-based communication among populations in that region.


Cellular phones are fairly ubiquitous in the MENA region; even in its most poverty-stricken areas such as Yemen and the Palestinian Territories, majorities of residents say they have cell phones. Home Internet access, on the other hand, is prevalent only among citizens of the oil-rich Persian Gulf states (it should be noted that non-Arab expatriates in these countries were not included in the survey) and Israel. However, in many countries, public Internet cafes can often be found in major cities.

Urban Internet cafes also reflect that in many countries, new information technologies are so far more accessible to city dwellers than to rural residents, who also tend to be less affluent on average. Three-fourths of urban Iranians, for example, said they have a cellular phone vs. two-thirds (66%) of those living in small towns and less than half (45%) of those living in rural areas or on farms. Similarly, almost half (48%) of Iranians in urban areas said they had home Internet access vs. 36% of those living in small towns and just 9% of rural residents. Sizable urban/rural divides are seen in several other MENA countries with substantial rural populations.


Bottom Line

New information technologies are creating or reshaping networks of social, economic, and political actors in most of the world, including the MENA region. Previously disconnected communities and interest groups now have more tools to work together in support of common interests.

However, the finding that wireless and Web technologies are often disproportionately accessible to urban populations sounds a cautionary note; in countries characterized by extreme income inequality, lack of access has the potential to further isolate those in poor, rural communities. It will be important to monitor the spread of such technologies, particularly in politically volatile regions and countries, to better understand the role they play in facilitating -- or undermining -- change.

Survey Methods

Results are based on face-to-face interviews with approximately 1,000 adults, aged 15 and older, in each country. Iranian data were collected in May 2008 and Israeli data in October 2008. Surveys in Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, the Palestinian Territories, Qatar, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen were conducted February-April, 2009. Non-Arabs were excluded from the sample in Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates; samples in these countries are nationally representative of Arab adults. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error ranged from a low of ±3.3 percentage points in Tunisia to a high of ±3.8 percentage points in Yemen. The margin of error reflects the influence of data weighting. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.
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