The internet continues to transform how people and businesses connect, share information, socialize, and operate. It has become part of our daily life as its influence continues to grow. As of January 2020, there were 4.54 billion active internet users, up from 3.9 billion in 2017. This means that more than half of the global population has access to the internet. China has the most internet users with over 854 million, partly due to its large population, technological prowess, and economic might. India has 560 million users, ahead of the United States (293 million), Indonesia (172 million), Brazil (150 million), and Nigeria (124 million). The Middle East has not been left behind as internet usage in the region stands at 67.2% (164 million) against a global average of 58.8%. This is a significant increase from 22.8% reported a decade ago. Just like the rest of the world, most people in the Middle East access the internet through mobile devices.
Middle Eastern Countries by Number of Internet Users
Iran has the most internet users in the Middle East, with 62.7 million, representing 77.5% of the population. This is a tremendous growth from 29% reported a decade earlier. Iran heavily censors the internet to prevent the population from accessing or distributing information that may portray the negative image of the regime and protect the masses from what it calls “Western Manipulation.” Since 2012, about 27% of websites were blocked at any given time, and since 2013, about 50% of the 500 most visited sites were blocked, including Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. In 2019 the government shutdown 95% of Internet traffic in response to fuel protests. Most Iranians use mobile phones to access the internet and virtual private networks to bypass censorship and access restricted websites.
Saudi Arabia has about 30.3 million active internet users representing 92% of the population. This is a remarkable improvement from 47.5% in 2011. The number of people accessing the internet through mobile devices continues to rise, while those with fixed broadband subscriptions decline. In 2018, the Ministry of Communication and Technology ordered mobile service providers to improve the quality of their networks in remote areas or provide local roaming services. By the end of 2018, more than 95% of internet users had access to 4G networks, and by the beginning of 2019, internet service providers began installing 5G infrastructure. Saudi Arabia censors the internet but to a lower extent compared to Saudi Arabia. Popular sites such as YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter are really prohibited but websites deemed to contain "illegal," "harmful," or anti-Islamic materials are blocked.
About 20 million people access the internet in Iraq, representing 49.5% of the total population. Although this is less than the global average, it is a tremendous improvement from 7.1% reported in 2012. Saddam Hussein viewed the internet as a threat to its regime and therefore prevented the development of ICT in the country. In 2002, only 25,000 Iraqis had access to the internet. Since 2010, Iraq has invested heavily in improving its communication infrastructure with the help of the United States. Iraq barely censors the internet, but when it chooses to, it does so to a great extent. In March 2019, 70% of the country was offline, and popular websites were inaccessible to quell anti-government demonstrations. Much of Iraq remains underdeveloped, without electricity and communication infrastructure, thus limiting access to the internet.
United Arab Emirates
The United Arab Emirates has 9.4 million active internet users. UAE is among the most connected countries in the world, with an internet penetration of more than 95%. Most people access the internet through mobile devices, but broadband connectivity is also high. Internet prices in UAE are among the highest in the region but affordable to most users, given the high per capita income. Internet censorship is high in the country, while freedom is restricted and characterized by legal constraints and hefty penalties. The literacy level in the UAE is high and contributes to the ability of the general population to use the internet. The government occasionally blocked websites it considers a “threat” to national security and the stability of the country, as well as those that publish anti-Islamic content.
Jordan has about 8.7 million internet users, representing 86.5% of the population. The country has developed its communication infrastructure rapidly and continuously updates and expands ICT services. Internet usage doubled between 2007 and 2009, and by 2013, 63% of the population was connected. The government withdrew taxes on computers and internet connection to stimulate the growth of the industry. About 75% of youths between 18 and 35 access the internet regularly compared to 57% for those above 35. Jordan has relaxed censorship of the internet; it regularly blocks and filters content, especially those it considers anti-Islamic and anti-government.
Yemen has about 7.9 million internet users, but the least internet penetration in the Middle East at about 26.7%. Although this is far below other Middle Eastern countries and the global average, it is the highest the country has ever had. In 2000 only 0.1% of the population had access to the internet, and by 2010 penetration was at a mere 1.8%. Rapid development between 2010 and 2015 saw internet usage rise to 24.7 %. The progress was hindered by a civil war that broke out in 2015, leaving much of the country under control of militias and millions of people displaced. In 2019, the Houthi government declared plans to reduce internet usage to get people to spend less time on their phones.