Imon logo small ebf9c02551e3862e20044ea42b40276c78a1e84e4ee645c9511fcfd31b83e24f Internet Censorship and the Intraregional Geopolitical Conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa

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An investigation into how adversarial relationships between states in the Middle East and North Africa translate into Internet censorship practices.

by Helmi Noman


This study examines and maps Internet filtering practices around intraregional geopolitics in the Middle East and North Africa based on empirical data collected from 16 countries. The study finds that state censors employ technical Internet filtering as instruments to prevent content aligned with their rival states from reaching a domestic audience. The Internet filtering practices reflect the inter-state political rivalries, the contours of the geopolitical violent and nonviolent conflicts, and the political alliances around the conflicts. State-to-state geopolitical Internet filtering is becoming the new norm in the region, which is a stage of multiple adversarial political fronts. The blocked content contains counter-framing from rival sources that could potentially inform internal dissent and debate.


This study examines Internet censorship practices around foreign affairs in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). It investigates how adversarial relationships between states in the region translate into Internet censorship practices. The political backdrop in the region informs the research approach; this study tests if state censors block content originating from or affiliated with rival states in the region.

New and ongoing intraregional geopolitical conflicts and bilateral adversarial relationships increasingly lead to state-imposed Internet censorship of content from rival sources.

Geopolitical filtering in the region has been on the rise as a result of inter-state political and armed conflicts. A June 2017 study from the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society found that Internet filtering in the MENA region has expanded with respect to the region's geopolitical tensions and conflicts between countries.[0] Another paper also from the Center found that states engaged in the armed conflict in Yemen ban web content originating from or aligned with their adversaries.[0] This study provides an in-depth examination of the scope of geopolitical Internet censorship in 16 countries as a result of intraregional political dynamics in the MENA region. It maps the filtering practices to the political disputes and violent and nonviolent conflicts in the region.

Many states in the MENA region already employ technical filters to block political content including competing narratives on domestic issues, which originate primarily from political opponents and civil society. Inter-state rivalry poses a challenge to censors as the rivals are likely to use the Internet to disseminate their views on the conflicts, which their adversaries can find objectionable. Rival states can also engage in disinformation and public influence campaigns. For example, cybersecurity firm FireEye revealed a suspected Iran-linked campaign targeting Saudi Arabia in August 2018. The firm identified a suspected Iranian influence operation that leveraged a network of inauthentic news websites and accounts across multiple social media platforms to promote pro-Iran, anti-Saudi, and anti-Israel political narratives.[0]

Rival media counter-framing of conflicts is expected and can lead state censors to enforce their framing as the only option available to citizens within their political jurisdiction. Nebojša Vladisavljević has conducted a critical overview of the literature on how contemporary media frame different types of political conflicts. He writes that the “media’s framing of war normally comes from the perspective of its country of origin,” and that the media often adopts a nationalist position and supports the country’s armed forces. He writes that governments in democracies attempt to shape public opinion through news media, and may employ censorship in the process to win the propaganda war. Governments in non-democratic regimes also use censorship to prevent the diffusion of popular mobilisation during political conflicts. They use the media for propaganda, to create frames that promote loyalty among the population, and to strengthen legitimacy of non-democratic rulers.[0]

The free flow of news and information is another casualty of the ongoing conflicts in the region. Internet censorship in the region is only being hardened and expanded by the regional rivalries.

Counter-framing seems to be an overarching common theme in the blocked websites. The websites portray the geopolitical violent and nonviolent conflicts on the terms of their government, political, or institutional affiliation, or at least do not contradict them. Moreover, state-aligned media websites try to remove language barriers when present and produce content in the languages of the population of the rival states. For example, the Saudi state news agency has a version in Farsi,[0] a language spoken in Iran, and Iran’s news agency has a version in Arabic.[0]

In essence, this study examines not only who blocks what over what dispute, but also tests to what extent rival states tolerate adversarial content and counter-framing originating from rival actors.


This study examines the scope of state-imposed blocking of websites originating from or affiliated with other states at the consumer-facing ISP level in light of the ongoing adversarial relations between states in the region. Country-focused and issue-based URL lists[0] were created and tested from each country covered in this study. Each country list contains websites which disseminate news and views originating from or aligned with a country.

The countries included are Saudi Arabia, Iran, Yemen, Lebanon, Bahrain, UAE, Jordan, Qatar, Kuwait, Egypt, Turkey, Sudan, Syria, Israel, and the US. The study used URL lists representing content from each of the countries examined as well as content representing the following contentious topics: Muslim Brotherhood, Hezbollah, the Kurds, US-funded media, and regional websites with critical pan-Arab reporting. The URL lists are not meant to be inclusive of every relevant website. Several of the websites found blocked have gone defunct during the course of this study. Losing traffic from targeted countries due to blocking could have contributed to the sites going defunct.

Data was collected from vantage points within the network of each country for analysis to determine which of the URLs on the testing lists were subject to filtering. Test runs were conducted in the period between October 2016 and September 2018.

The websites are included in the test lists because they are either officially affiliated with the respective state, openly aligned with the government, or because they operate within the state’s political jurisdiction. The study does not assume that every blocked website is necessarily affiliated with or editorially aligned with their respective state. Attempts to classify the websites based on their political affiliation is challenging because many do not disclose ownership or political outlook. Also, this study does not attempt to examine the content of the websites for balance, accuracy, or bias.

Almost all of the websites included in the test lists use Twitter and Facebook to disseminate content from their websites. Twitter and Facebook remain accessible in all countries in the region except Iran.

Geopolitical Internet filtering: context and test results

Table 1: Summary of test results

Content affiliation Blocking Countries
Iran Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt, UAE
Saudi Arabia Iran, Yemen-Houthis, Syria
Yemen- Houthis Saudi Arabia, UAE
Yemen - Hadi Government Iran, Yemen-Houthis
Syria Saudi Arabia, UAE
Bahrain Iran, Yemen-Houthis
Kuwait Iran, Syria
Qatar Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt, Bahrain, Syria, Yemen-Houthis
UAE Yemen-Houthis
Egypt Iran
Lebanon-Hariri-aligned Iran, Syria
Lebanon-Hezbollah-aligned Saudi Arabia, Egypt
Turkey Saudi Arabia, Yemen-Houthis, Syria, Egypt
Sudan Iran, UAE
Oman None
Jordan UAE
Hezbollah Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, UAE, Oman
Ikhwan (Muslim Brotherhood) Saudi Arabia, UAE, Iran, Egypt, Syria
Kurds Turkey, Iran
Syrian conflict Syria, Iran, Yemen-Houthis
Israel country code top level domain (ccTLD) Iran, Syria, Yemen-Houthis
US Government Iran, Yemen-Houthis
Pan-Arab websites Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt, Jordan
Country-focused campaign websites Qatar, Saudi Arabia, UAE

Geopolitical filtering map

The following section includes descriptions of key geopolitical conflicts in the MENA region and the results of Internet filtering tests of websites related to each conflict.

Iran-Arab conflict

Majority-Sunni Saudi Arabia and majority-Shiite Iran compete in the region on ideological and geopolitical grounds and back opposing political and armed actors based on sectarian lines.[0] Antagonism between the two rivals has marked their relations for years. In January 2016, Saudi Arabia cut diplomatic relations with Iran because of Iran’s “hostile” policies in the region and to protest Iranian protesters storming into the Saudi Embassy in Tehran after the Kingdom executed a Saudi Shiite cleric.[0] State allies in the region joined diplomatic actions against Iran. Bahrain and Sudan severed relations with Iran, and the UAE downgraded its diplomatic representation.[0]

Internet filtering test results


Iran blocks several websites originating from or affiliated with Saudi Arabia, including government websites. The websites run stories representing the Saudi government’s foreign policy in the region and towards Iran. The blocked websites include the state’s news agency, Saudi Press Agency;[0] 26 Saudi news websites covering local and foreign affairs such as primary dailies al-Riyadh, al-Madina, and al-Sharq; and the websites of the Saudi-funded Middle East Broadcasting Center,[0] a pan-Arab entertainment and news TV broadcaster, and the pan-Arab al-Arabiya TV.[0]

Iran also blocks various websites from other countries in the region likely because they often run stories critical of Iran’s foreign policies. The stories cover topics that include Iran’s alleged intervention in Arab countries’ local affairs, Iran supplying arms to Houthi rebels in Yemen, and its complicity in sectarian violence against Sunni communities in Syria and Iraq.

Examples of blocked websites include Bahrain’s principal dailies (e.g., al-Ayam[0] and al-Watan News[0]), Kuwaiti newspapers (e.g., al-Seyassah,[0] al-Anba,[0] Hadath,[0] and al-Mustagbal[0]), Egyptian news websites (e.g., Masrawy,[0] Elmawke3,[0] Masr Alarabia,[0] Egypt Daily News,[0] and Dot Msr[0]), Sudanese website Sudanese Online,[0] and UAE news website Emaratyah.[0]

Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain and Egypt

Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt block websites affiliated with or originating from Iran, albeit to various degrees. Saudi Arabia is the most pervasive censor of Iranian websites. The countries block Iranian political and official media and news websites that promote Iran’s official narrative on local and foreign policies and that are critical of Saudi policies towards Iran and the region. Saudi Arabia blocks the websites of Islamic Revolution Leader Ayatollah Khamenei,[0] the Islamic Republic News Agency,[0] government-funded al-Alam TV website,[0] Fars News Agency, Kayhan,[0] Tabnak,[0] Asri Iran,[0] and Tasnim News.[0] On their part, UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt block the website of Iran’s government-funded al-Alam TV. UAE and Bahrain also block Iranian media websites Kayhan and Fars News.

Gulf crisis

Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt severed diplomatic relations with Qatar in July 2017 over Qatar’s relations with Iran and over allegations that Qatar supports terror and militant groups in the region and uses the al-Jazeera TV network to broadcast hate speech. Subsequently, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt blocked content affiliated with Qatar.

Internet filtering test results

Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Egypt block Qatari government and media websites including the state news agency Qatar News Agency,[0] Amiri Diwan (Amir's Office)[0], and the state TV[0] and Radio.[0]

Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt, and Bahrain block the websites of al-Jazeera TV Arabic[0], al-Jazeera English,[0] and al-Jazeera Documentary[0] and the websites of the newspapers Raya,[0] al-Sharq,[0] al-Watan,[0] al-Arab,[0] Gulf Times,[0] The Peninsula,[0] Qatar Broadcast,[0] and Qatar Tribune.[0]

Saudi Arabia and UAE also block the websites of Qatar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs,[0] Qatar Airways (the national carrier),[0] and BEIN Sports,[0] a network owned by a Qatari businessman. The network has the exclusive right to broadcast European football competitions and World Football Cup in the MENA region.

Saudi Arabia blocks additional Qatari websites, including those of the Government Communications Office,[0] the Ministry of Energy & Industry,[0] Ministry of Culture and Sports,[0] and Qatar University.[0]

Conflict in Syria

There are at least six external state actors with conflicting agendas in Syria: US, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar. The actors shaped the Syrian civil war by forming into a pro-Assad camp (Iran and Russia) and another against his regime (Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, and Western countries). Syria’s ally Hezbollah supports the Syrian government and forces.[0]

Internet filtering test results

Saudi Arabia blocks Syrian news websites that cover the conflict with a pro-Syrian government stance. The websites are Dam Press,[0] Cham Press,[0] and Syria Now.[0] On the other side, Syria blocks Saudi news websites al-Watan,[0] al-Sharq,[0] Jazeera News,[0] and al-Mokhtasar.[0] Syria also blocks the websites of Kuwait newspapers al-Seyassah,[0] al-Jarida,[0] al-Rai Media,[0] and al-Qabas.[0]

War in Yemen

Forces loyal to Yemen’s internationally recognized president Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi are fighting the Houthis and fractions of forces loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. Fearing Iran’s influence in Yemen through the Houthis, Saudi Arabia launched in March 2015 a multinational military campaign against the Houthi fighters in Yemen and in support of forces loyal to president Hadi.[0] The Houthis control the national ISP, YemenNet, which blocks a large number of websites affiliated with the government of President Hadi and Saudi Arabia, as previously documented by the Center.[0] The government of president Hadi launched in June 2018 a new Internet service in Aden as an alternative to the Houthi-controlled service.[0] We have found no evidence of filtering in this service as of December 2018.

Internet filtering test results

Yemen’s Houthi-controlled national ISP, YemenNet, blocks a large number of websites affiliated with the government of President Hadi, websites with content critical of the Houthi political and military activities, and independent websites that do not embrace the Houthi editorial stance. Examples of blocked websites include Mareb Press,[0] al-Masdar Online,[0] Aden al-Ghad,[0] and Yemen Press.[0] The Houthis also block Saudi news websites that report on the war in Yemen from a Saudi perspective. The websites include principal dailies Okaz,[0] al-Riyadh,[0] and al-Watan.[0] They also block websites based in the UAE, which is a member of the Saudi-led military coalition. The websites include al-Bayan[0] and al-Khaleej.[0]

On their part, Iran blocks Yemeni news websites that run articles critical of the Houthis and/or support forces loyal to President Hadi. The websites are Nashwan News,[0] Mareb Press, Aleqtisad News,[0] Bu Yemen,[0] Elmaam,[0] Naba News,[0] Ye1,[0] Yemen Press,[0] Yemen Sound,[0] and[0]

On the other side of the conflict, Saudi Arabia blocks news websites affiliated with the Houthis, such as Ansar Allah[0] and al-Masirah TV;[0] websites affiliated with former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, including al-Motamar;[0] and Yemeni government websites that are under the control of the Houthis, such as al-Thawra.[0] The UAE also blocks the website Ansar Allah.

Politics in Lebanon

Lebanon has often been at the center of Middle Eastern conflicts because of the influence of regional political players in the country. As a result, key national political actors are aligned with competing regional actors. For example, the prime minister Saad al-Hariri is backed by Western states and Saudi Arabia while Hezbollah, an influential power in politics, is backed by Iran.[0] [0]

Internet filtering test results

There is no evidence that Lebanese government authorities block political websites related to any local or regional actors. Regional actors, however, block websites of Lebanese political groups.

Iran blocks the website of Future TV Network.[0] Future TV Network is affiliated with the Future Movement, a political group supported by Sunni Muslims of Lebanon and aligned with Saudi Arabia. The group is a rival to Hezbollah, Iran’s ally in Lebanon. Iran blocks Lebanese news websites Ya Libnan,[0] Cedar News,[0] Elfann[0] and Bisara7a.[0]

Iran’s ally Syria blocks the websites of the March 14 movement,[0] a coalition formed in 2005 of political parties and independents in Lebanon that are united by their anti-Syrian government stance; al-Mustagbal newspaper,[0] which supports the March 14 Alliance; and Future Movement,[0] the largest member of the March 14 Alliance. Syria also blocks the news websites al-Balad Online[0] and al-Nahar newspaper.[0]

On the other side of the regional rivalry, Saudi Arabia blocks Lebanese news websites that take a pro-Hezbollah stance, including al-Akhbar,[0] New Orient News,[0] and Middle East Panorama.[0] Egypt blocks the website of al-Akhbar.


In March 2016, the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which consists of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain, Qatar, and UAE, designated the Iran-backed Hezbollah a terrorist organization over allegations that it was engaged in hostile acts in Syria, Yemen, and Iraq and that it was a threat to "Arab national security."[0] A week later, the league of Arab States made a similar move. Lebanon and Iraq expressed “reservations” and did not support the decision.[0]

Internet filtering test results

Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Bahrain block the website of Hezbollah TV channel al-Manar TV.[0] Saudi Arabia, Oman, and UAE block the Hezbollah website Moqawama.[0] Saudi Arabia also blocks websites that support Hezbollah, including Qawem,[0] al-Ahed News,[0] Islam Times,[0] and al-Mayadeen TV,[0] a pan-Arab television network known for its pro-Hezbollah stance.[0] UAE blocks Kataib Hizbollah,[0] and Bahrain blocks the website of al-Mayadeen TV.[0]

Muslim Brotherhood

The status of the Muslim Brotherhood, also known as Ikhwan, remains a contentious issue among Arab states, especially in Egypt and the Gulf region. Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and UAE designate the Islamist group a terror organization. They accuse Qatar of supporting the group, which causes a row in the relationships between the two sides.[0] Saudi Arabia and the UAE supported the removal of the Muslim Brotherhood president Mohammed Morsi in Egypt. In contrast, the Gulf state of Qatar is not hostile towards the Muslim Brotherhood.[0]

Internet filtering test results

UAE and Egypt block the websites Ikhwan,[0] Ikhwan Online,[0] and Ikhwan Wiki[0] and the country-specific website for the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan.[0] UAE also blocks the website Ikhwan Syria.[0]

Saudi Arabia, Syria and Iran block the website Ikhwan;[0] Iran and Syria block Ikhwan Syria;[0] and Syria also blocks Ikhwan Online;[0] Ikhwan Web,[0] and Ikhwan Press.[0]

US and US government-funded media

The US government, through the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), finances Farsi- and Arabic-language broadcasts to the Muslim world to “inform, engage, and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy”.[0] [0] Iran has jammed international satellite transmissions into the country, which has affected programs by some of these broadcasts.[0] Additionally, Iran has blocked the websites of these US-funded media networks.[0]

Internet filtering test results

Iran and Yemen-Houthis block the websites of the US-funded al-Hurra satellite television network[0] and Radio Sawa.[0] Iran also blocks the websites of Radio Farda,[0] Voice of America,[0] Radio Free Europe,[0] Azadi Radio,[0] and Iraq Hurr.[0] Moreover, Iran blocks the website of the US Central Intelligence Agency.[0]

Arab-Turkey relationships

Turkey’s alleged involvement in the affairs of key Middle Eastern countries since the Arab Spring has caused tensions between Turkey and several Arab states over a number of issues. The states objected to what they considered Turkey’s interventionist policy towards the uprisings in Egypt, the civil war in Syria, Iran's nuclear program, the sectarian conflicts between Sunni and Shia groups, ISIS, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.[0]

Internet filtering test results

Yemen-Houthis block Turkish news websites including the state-run press agency Anadolu Agency,[0] Akhbar Alaalam,[0] and Turk Press;[0] Egypt blocks the news websites Arab Turkey,[0] Hurriyet Daily,[0] Turk Press,[0] Daily Sabah,[0] and Turk Life;[0] Saudi Arabia blocks Turkey Post;[0] and Syria blocks the Turkish news website Turk Now.[0]

The Kurds

An estimated 25 to 35 million Kurds live in mountainous areas straddling the borders of Turkey, Iraq, Syria, Iran, and Armenia. They are the fourth-largest ethnic minority in the Middle East, yet they face political and cultural oppression. Having no nation state of their own, Kurdish political parties and groups have been seeking autonomy and in some cases independence.[0]

Internet filtering test results

Iran blocks the websites of the Kurdistan Workers' Party,[0] Kurdish media network Rudaw,[0] and Kurdistan 24.[0] Turkey blocks the websites of Kurdish newspapers Azadiya Welat[0] and Özgür Gündem.[0]

Country-focused websites and social media

A number of websites and Twitter accounts that have emerged over the past two years take aim at specific countries with campaigns that push out content that challenges the political narratives of the targeted countries. The content also paints the countries’ activities and motives in a negative light. These campaigns target countries involved in the ongoing diplomatic crisis in the gulf region, including Qatar and UAE (Table 2). A common tactic for these websites and Twitter accounts is to post material they describe as leaks and insider information that expose the political practices of the governments and ruling parties of the target country. The campaigns also use Twitter to amplify and propagate content from the websites to a wider audience, including those living in the countries targeted by the campaigns. Twitter remains accessible in all countries in the region except Iran. 

The following contains test results for notable websites in this category:

Website Domain creation date Blocked in
Qatari Leaks ( May 2017 Qatar
Qatari Leaks ( May 2017 Qatar
Against Qatar ( June 2017 Qatar
Qatar Exposed ( October 2017 Qatar
The Qatar Insider ( June 2017 Qatar
Emirates Leaks ( February 2018 UAE, Saudi Arabia

Regional and other notable websites

In addition to country-focused websites, states block regional news websites that report on the political developments and conflicts in the region. For example, Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Egypt block the news websites Arab 21,[0] Watan Serb,[0] Asrar Arabiya,[0] al-Quds,[0] Noon Post,[0] and al-Araby.[0] [0]  Jordan blocks the website Watan Serb.

There are a few examples of country-focused news website blockings that do not seem to fit into any particular conflict. For example, the UAE blocks the Sudanese news website Al-Sharq[0] and the Jordanian news website Gerasa news.[0]

Discussion and Conclusion

Domestic politics have been a key driver of state political Internet filtering in the MENA region, but new and ongoing intraregional geopolitical conflicts and bilateral adversarial relationships increasingly lead to state-imposed Internet censorship of content from rival sources. State censors block access to views and reporting on the bilateral and intraregional conflicts that dispute or contradict their own narratives, demonstrating limited tolerance to debate or coverage unaligned with the state viewpoint.

The scope of geopolitical Internet censorship reflects the gravity of the overall inter-state hostilities in the region. Geopolitical Internet censorship is a product of the conflicts and at the same time offers a glimpse into the political alliances and the cross-regional shared attitudes. For example, Iran, the Houthis in Yemen, and the Syrian government ban websites originating from Saudi Arabia. The same countries ban the Israel’s country code top-level domain .il.

On the other side of the conflict, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt ban websites affiliated with or originating from Iran and Qatar. Also, some of the Gulf states that designate Hezbollah a terrorist organization block its content online. At the regional level, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE block websites affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, and so do Iran and Syria. Also, Syria and Yemen-Houthis block Turkish news websites, and so do Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

It is important to highlight that there are inconsistencies between political relations and Internet censorship practices in some cases. For example, not all of the states that are members of the Saudi-led military coalition against the Houthis block websites affiliated with the Houthis. While Houthi web content is blocked in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, it remains accessible in Sudan and Egypt.

The geopolitical Internet censorship transcends political content and is used as a tool to hinder the commercial interests of adversaries and to limit their access to their local markets. An interesting observation in this regard is that Saudi Arabia blocks the websites of Qatar University and BEIN Sports, a subscription-based network owned by a Qatari businessman. Also, Saudi Arabia and the UAE block the website of Qatar’s national air carrier, Qatar Airways.

Political actors use social media to amplify content from the blocked websites, which poses a challenge to censors. The censors must choose between blocking the entirety of a social media platform or allowing it to remain accessible, as there is no easy way to block individual accounts.

The free flow of news and information is another casualty of the ongoing conflicts in the region. Internet censorship in the region is only being hardened and expanded by the regional rivalries. Censorship around the geopolitical tensions is likely to continue to increase in the future, especially if the objectionable content informs dissent and debate about local conflicts.


The author wishes to acknowledge the support of the people who contributed to this research. Casey Tilton provided editorial feedback and proofreading assistance on multiple drafts of the report and produced the map of blocked topics in the MENA region. Robert Faris provided editorial feedback. Hannah Ellis provided proofreading and editing assistance.

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Contact Casey Tilton or Rob Faris with any questions.