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Smart Cities: Opportunity in the Desert or Social Exclusion?

Kelly Blount


  • The Middle East is seeing a surge in smart city projects, both retrofitting existing cities with IoT technologies and building new ones from scratch. 
  • While smart cities promise efficiency and improved quality of life, they also raise concerns about privacy violations and human rights abuses. 
  • In Egypt, the government's use of data monitoring has led to censorship, arrests, and imprisonment of dissenting voices. 
  • The New Administrative Capitol (NAC) in Egypt showcases exclusionary practices and military control, further marginalizing certain groups and restricting freedom of movement.
Smart Cities: Opportunity in the Desert or Social Exclusion?
nayuki via Getty Images

Keeping pace with the rest of the world, the Middle East is also home to dozens of development projects that include the implementation of smart cities. While a handful of Smart Cities will be retrofitted with IoT (internet of things) and smart sensor technologies, there are also numerous cities which will be built from the ground up, termed greenfield sites.While the promise of these cities is not without merit, a closer look at the potential for exacerbating existing human rights violations makes these desert cities particularly threatening.

I. The Smart City

Smart cities have been in the news for quite some time and taken on the status of a buzzword or even household term. At least 56 countries are known to host smart cities, which rely on a system of interconnected electronic, infrared, and thermal sensors, as well as automated data mining and real time facial recognition technology to ensure the efficient running of services. Though there are various definitions and theories behind smart cities, at their core it is the use of technology and networking for the interaction of infrastructure, capital, behavior, and the individual.

The rationale for implementing smart cities are multi-fold. Proponents may rightly point to increased energy efficiency, a correcting of housing scarcity,increased public security, better transportation, more efficient healthcare and quality of life for citizens, and countless other direct effects on daily life and governance.

However, there are also many reasons to be concerned by the large scale of the projects. Though many of the efficiency gains are certain to bear out, there are also proven and likely drawbacks to the smart city. Chief among them is the issue of privacy. Smart cities work on the basis on data interoperability. Without massive quantities of diverse data there would be no smart network to speak of. However, the data collected in the smart city affects every aspect of citizens’ lives, from public places, their daily commute, in their home, and even in their health records. Citizens living in the smart city have no control over which data are collected, how they are used, and by whom they are retained. Much information is even the cumulative effective of data interactions, rather than discrete facts alone. There is therefore very little consent to data processing nor ability to disentangle the devices, collected data, and the repository of information they together build.

Programs used for social scoring and censorship are already well reported in countries such as China.

In addition to the acute privacy ramifications discussed in the examples below, smart cities present real threats to their inhabitants. Large interconnected networks housing vast data are an appealing target for cyberattacks, hacking, and theft. Many of the devices linked within this IoT environment include numerous unsecure devices, from personal gadgets to satellites and drones. This does not only threaten critical infrastructure, think of a smart hospital or water supply, but also threaten the integrity of individuals’ data.

II. Egypt & Qatar

Taking the arguments above applied to examples of smart cities in the MENA region highlight some of the unique threats that stem from their specific development. Some of the most notable projects in the region come from Egypt. While Qatar has two smart cities already being developed as a part of its National Vision 2030, alongside a suite of related technologies, such as autonomous trucks, shuttles, passenger vehicles and buses. Egypt has taken on an intense agenda of building over three dozen smart cities. These cities will feature all the typical smart city gadgets, such as lampposts that include smart sensors for lighting, Wi-Fi, and surveillance cameras with live feed capability.

In countries where political opposition is regularly silenced, it is likely that the increased surveillance and tracking of individuals will lead to a chilling effect on the freedom of expression.

This creates and fosters a larger imbalance of power between the state and the society. It similarly stands to reason that a number of the existing, oppressive uses of criminal sanctions against acts seen to threaten facets of moral integrity will only be heightened by the increased level of information available to the state.

Even more problematic may be the potential effects on human rights; particularly the right to freedom of expression, religion, sexuality, and security. It has already been demonstrated in Egypt time and again the lengths that the government will go to justify the censoring or outright silencing of political opposition, LGBT citizens, and the press. In 2019, the government announced the creation of an affiliate office, the Communication, Guidance and Social Media Department (CGSMD). The CGSMD essentially proclaimed carte blanche to proactively monitor social media profiles and comments to ensure national security, social peace, and the sanctity of Egyptian family life. Prior to any complaint or charge, the public prosecutor office now has authority to monitor individuals and has already used this power to file multiple lawsuits. It is hard to imagine that an increase in available data will lessen the frequency of these attacks.

At the end of 2022, over 600 public interest websites remained blocked; a dozen journalists had been arbitrarily detained; numerous female social media voices or influencers were charged with morality-related offences; and several peaceful protests ended in jail time for the protestors. One man received a three-year prison sentence for publishing an “Egyptian Atheists” page on Facebook.It is a well-known practice of the police to access certain dating platforms popular with the gay community to identify, target, and even entrap individuals for the purposes of luring them into a public space for arrest.As was witnessed in Qatar around the World Cup, while hosting COP27 Egypt similarly censored the coverage and discussion of certain topics, even including projects such as the New Administrative Capitol (NAC).

Similarly in Qatar, many of the acts discoverable by online surveillance are already criminalized.Laws are in place to prosecute and convict those seen as spreading “fake news” or violating “social values or principles” with prison time and a hefty fine. It is already well documented that regular, general surveillance is commonplace on the internet as is censorship.

Looking to the official Covid-19 contact tracing application in Qatar, the Ministry of Public Health sough to “read, delete, or change all content on the phone, as well as to connect to WiFi and Bluetooth, override other apps and prevent the phone from going into sleep mode.” The enforcement of other laws, such that women must seek permission to enjoy many ordinary rights, that migrants may not join labor unions, and banning many press activities. In 2022 two men were sentenced to life in prison for allegedly “’threatening’ the Emir on social media, compromising the independence of the state…and ‘violating’ social values online.”

While there are numerous cities being developed in Egypt, the NAC may be the most well- known and studied, as well as the largest. In addition to the previously highlighted human rights issues, it also demonstrates clear and strategic social exclusion of its citizenry. It has been reported that the standard and process necessary for moving to the NAC is highly exclusive. Though civil servants have the chance to work in a NAC facility, they require permission, security clearance, and advanced training. While this is often off limits to many, such as single women who may not move without their families, the ability to work in the NAC does not even confer the right to live there. For those who do receive this permission, the price is often prohibitive.

An additional source of concern in the NAC is the manner in which the governance structure has been strategically ordered. In addition to majority ownership of the city by army-owned entities, the military is responsible for security and public safety in the NAC, which means that any alleged offence as well as the individuals present in the city are situated in military jurisdiction. Day to day, individuals moving within the city are also closely monitored. Commuters are provided transport tickets only through their employers which only allow movement between their home and office. In addition, all train stations have digital check points to monitor the movement of individuals within the city.

The exclusionary effect of populating this city, real and potential is fairly obvious. Already it has been reported that dozens of villages were bulldozed to clear the area, with even a man to have been allegedly executed for refusing to submit his property. In a country where migrant rights and mobility are already at issue, these are troubling matters.


The smart city offers us hope for solving issues of climate change, equitable quality of life, and economic development. However, these solutions do not come without a cost. This is specifically true in the context of the cities being developed in the MENA region. In countries where abuses of human rights stemming from surveillance and monitoring of the citizenry are already rampant, there is a real concern that a networked infrastructure in the control of the government will only exacerbate these fears. The NAC project in Egypt already clearly demonstrates the built-in exclusionary framework by which the city is populated, leaving little doubt as to how smart cities may act to further stratify society.