As the Arab world watches on, is the clock ticking for TikTok?

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TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew testifies on the platform's consumer privacy and data security practices and impact on children during a hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Committee on March 23, 2023. (AP)
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TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew prepares to testify before the US House Energy and Commerce Committee in Washington, DC, on March 23, 2023. (Getty Images via AFP)
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Updated 25 March 2023

As the Arab world watches on, is the clock ticking for TikTok?

  • The impact and implications of TikTok’s growing influence in the MENA region are a global concern with more questions than answers after a congressional hearing with app CEO
  • TikTok CEO’s mounting woes as security concerns place him in the hotseat at a US congressional hearing with the world looking on for answers

DUBAI/LONDON: In yet another congressional hearing-turned-nail-biting drama, TikTok’s CEO was the latest global tech chief to take center stage before the US Committee on Energy and Commerce.

Shou Zi Chew, chief executive of perhaps the world’s most popular app, was in the same hot seat that previously hosted the likes of Meta’s Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter’s Jack Dorsey.

People from around the globe tuned in to see how Chew would justify and ensure US user data was safe and protected.

Rep. Kat Cammack (R-FL) question TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew as he testifies before the US House Energy and Commerce Committee on March 23, 2023. (Getty Images/AFP)

TikTok’s Chinese roots are not just an issue for US citizens; “it impacts the world,” Giles Crouch, a digital anthropologist, told Arab News.

“While the Chinese government doesn’t own a majority share in TikTok, they do own what’s called a ‘golden share,’ so they have a seat at the board,” he added.

India has already banned the app entirely, while Canada, Belgium, Denmark, New Zealand, Taiwan, the UK and the US have banned TikTok on government devices. However, the app still operates fully across the Middle East.

In Saudi Arabia alone, a country with a majority youth population, the app has 26.39 million users — the most in the region. Iraq and Egypt both have more than 23 million users, while the UAE has almost 6 million.

For five hours, bipartisan lawmakers grilled Chew over a range of topics, namely the claim that the Chinese Communist Party has access to TikTok user data, as well as fears over the platform’s algorithms and content that could have a potentially harmful impact on young people.

The questioning ended with a frustrated committee unsatisfied with Chew’s responses. The CEO, when given the chance to answer questions, often came across as evasive, resorting to “I’ll get back to you with specifics.”

Such hesitation and evasiveness has become a cause for concern among users and governments around the globe, with France taking the decision to ban the app on administrative phones just one day after the hearing.

“Our CEO, Shou Chew, came prepared to answer questions from Congress, but, unfortunately, the day was dominated by political grandstanding that failed to acknowledge the real solutions already underway through Project Texas or productively address industry-wide issues of youth safety,” a TikTok MENA spokesperson told Arab News, relaying the same response issued by the global company.

Last year, TikTok announced the $1.5 billion Project Texas initiative to protect the data of its US users. The plan, which is estimated to cost the company $700 million to $1 billion per year, hopes to address government concerns about user data privacy risks and content recommendations.

TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew testifies before the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Capitol Hill on March 23, 2023. (Getty Images/AFP)

During the hearing, the committee questioned Chew about Project Texas, with some members asking how the $1.5 billion would be allocated. Other members remained skeptical of the project, as well as TikTok’s ability to truly safeguard US data.

Many, if not all, committee members seemed to believe that TikTok is essentially an arm of the Chinese government. Although Chew said that he has not seen any “evidence that the Chinese government has access to that data; they have never asked us, we have not provided it,” several members openly voiced their disbelief.

“I find that actually preposterous,” said Congresswoman Anna Eshoo.

In a recent column, however, Al Arabiya News Channel’s Mamdouh Al-Muhaini claimed that “both arguments (of spying and propaganda spreading) are absurd and lack conclusive evidence. Rather, they are being used merely for political blackmail — to force China to make concessions amid international conflict between Beijing and Washington.

TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew testifies on the platform's consumer privacy and data security practices and impact on children during a hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Committee on March 23, 2023. (AP)

“The war on TikTok comes in the context of the race between America — and the West — and China. In a war for influence, brains and hearts, all weapons, accusations and pretexts can be used,” he said, adding that the app was “being used as a device in the (US-China) cold war.”

An FBI and Department of Justice investigation into TikTok’s ability to spy on US citizens also undermined Chew’s case. Last year, parent company ByteDance confirmed that its employees used TikTok to track and obtain the IP addresses of multiple US journalists covering the app.

Yet, when Congressman Neal Dunn asked Chew if ByteDance is spying on US citizens, the CEO shakily replied: “I don’t think that spying is the right way to describe it.”

The Chinese minister of foreign affairs held a press briefing the following day, with a spokesperson saying: “The Chinese government has never asked and will never ask any company or individual to collect or provide data, information or intelligence located abroad against local laws.

AFP illustration image

“The US government has provided no evidence or proof that TikTok threatens US national security, yet it has repeatedly suppressed and attacked the company based on the presumption of guilt.

Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Mao Ning added that the US should “respect the principles of a market economy and fair competition, stop suppressing foreign companies and provide an open, fair, just and non-discriminatory environment for foreign companies operating in the US.”

While a plethora of countries in the West chimed in on the debate, governments across the Middle East have largely stayed silent.

In a previous interview with Arab News, Saudi cybersecurity expert Abdullah Al-Jaber said that concerns over TikTok’s data security stemmed from the app’s country of origin as well as Chinese rules and regulations.

“If you use Facebook or Twitter, it’s not much different than using TikTok,” he said.

Apart from the focus on spying and data collection, members of congress also grilled the TikTok CEO over the platform’s algorithms for content suggestions and discovery, particularly among vulnerable audiences. Members asked why certain content is allowed to be published on the platform — unlike on China’s sister app Douyin, which is heavily censored.

“TikTok can be very good for kids but the way it’s used in China is very different from the way it’s used in the rest of the world — what kids are seeing in Riyadh or Dubai is very different from what they’re going to be seeing in Beijing,” said Crouch, the digital anthropologist.

Douyin features “very positive and uplifting content” that encourages “doing good for the community, helping one another and being very sociable,” he added.

But in other countries, “they (TikTok) literally use algorithms which manipulate young kids’ minds so they get served with content that is mindless, often negative, and can be disturbing to those minds,” Crouch said.

ikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew departs after testifying during a hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Committee on  March 23, 2023, in Washington. (AP Photo)

Chew attributed the contrast in content on TikTok and Douyin to the different laws in each country. That argument is true to some extent, because the Chinese government does have more control over content posted on domestic platforms.

“They put the controls in place in China to stop kids from being overly stimulated,” said Crouch. But “they just don’t care for the rest of the world because they’re out to make money.”

In some aspects, including dangerous content, TikTok is very much like any other social media company, many of which originated in Silicon Valley — a fact acknowledged by some members of the committee.

Senior executives from Meta, Twitter and Google have all appeared before US Congress in an attempt to allay concerns over data, privacy and moderation.

However, as Congressman Dan Crenshaw said in the hearing, all social media companies collect personal data and could use it to “influence narratives and trends, create misinformation campaigns, encourage self-destructive behavior, purposefully allow drug cartels to communicate freely and organize human and drug trafficking.”

But the difference is that “it’s only TikTok that is controlled by the Chinese Communist Party.”


Dubai’s Arab Media Forum wraps up with insights into AI-led future

Updated 27 September 2023

Dubai’s Arab Media Forum wraps up with insights into AI-led future

  • Forum had two key themes: impact of artificial intelligence and influence of film and drama

DUBAI: The 21st edition of the Arab Media Forum wrapped up in Dubai on Wednesday, with leading media figures, ministers, heads of local Arab and international media organizations, as well as intellectuals and writers coming together to discuss the future of the industry.  

The two-day forum had two key themes: the impact of artificial intelligence on the media, and the influence of film and drama as sources of soft power.  

Sheikha Latifa bint Mohammad Al-Maktoum highlighted the importance of culture in society, saying it is intertwined with creative economy, the basis for countries’ development.  

Anwar Gargash, diplomatic adviser to the UAE president, spoke of the importance of finding common ground in the region in order to coexist peacefully.  

”This pillar is stability. This stability is not just for the UAE but for the entire region as this cannot be achieved in isolation. There is a need to calm the region and not focus on disagreements. Confrontation leads to a high price for all parties. So, the first pillar is stability, and this is an established fact. The second pillar is geo-economic more than a geo-strategic. Economic growth is important,” he said.

Most of the attendees and panelists shared the view that AI can be beneficial in terms of solving problems in a cost-effective and timely manner. However, some journalists warned of its dangers in terms of spreading fake, unverified news, as well as its possible impact on job losses in the media sector.  

Bahraini Minister of Information, Ramzan Abdulla Al-Nuaimi, and H.E. Karam Gabr, head of Egypt’s Supreme Council for Media Regulation, discussed the differences between Arab media operations and their counterparts in West.

“Each country has a different set of laws, morals and culture; we Arabs have been stereotyped on how we handle our journalists and our media, but what the West fails to understand is that we live according to our values and not theirs,” Al-Nuaimi said.  

Both agreed there should be economic opportunities for the youth to express their creativity, and channel their opinions and frustrations in positive ways.  

Egyptian journalist warns of threat posed by AI to media sector

Updated 27 September 2023

Egyptian journalist warns of threat posed by AI to media sector

  • 'We now live in a fake news era; times have changed, so did copyright laws,' said Adib at the Arab media Forum

DUBAI: Egyptian businessman and journalist Imad Eddine Adib has issued an ominous warning about the potential threat posed by artificial intelligence to the media industry.

Speaking at the Arab Media Forum in Dubai, the self-confessed “crazy pessimist” predicted that the future for the sector looked neither promising nor safe.

The veteran writer told delegates at a session, titled “The Truth in the AI Era,” that his opinions were based on facts and data.

He said: “We can use technology to serve humanity, but we need to note that humanity also has a good and bad side.”

Reiterating the views of many speakers at the annual media industry gathering, Adib pointed out how AI could have major technological benefits for businesses, saving time and money. But he noted how tech had infiltrated the lives of most people.

“All those walking with smart phones in their pockets must be aware that they are being supervised, their privacies invaded, and there is no program or software you can get to defend or fight against this supervision.

“We now live in a fake news era; times have changed, so did copyright laws. You can now hear (Egyptian singer) Umm Kulthum singing a carnival song,” he added.

Adib highlighted an example of a deepfake video sent to him by friends that falsely claimed former US President Donald Trump had been given a new heart belonging to a Muslim man and had converted to Islam.

Addressing the session, Dr. Maitha Buhumaid, director of the Dubai Press Club, said: “There will be coordination and relationship between robots; given each serves a purpose they will be exchanging data to complete their missions. We need a ceiling on this.

“Imagine the disastrous outcome if let’s say mobsters or ISIS (Daesh) got their hands on robots. Imagine the infiltration of trade, numbers on the stock market, and economic well-being of countries. That’ll have disastrous implications. These are all possible scenarios for the future.”

Dubai Media launches new corporate identity at 21st Arab Media Forum

Updated 27 September 2023

Dubai Media launches new corporate identity at 21st Arab Media Forum

  • DMI aims to become the No. 1 media destination in the Middle East, says CEO Al-Mulla

LONDON: Dubai Media Inc. announced on Tuesday from Dubai the launch of its new corporate identity and strategy.

The announcement came on the sidelines of the 21st Arab Media Forum, during a dinner party held by DMI at Mina A’Salam Hotel to celebrate the strategy’s approval by Ahmed bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum, second deputy ruler of Dubai and chairman of the Dubai Media Council.

DMI CEO Mohammed Al-Mulla said his company aimed to become the No. 1 media destination in the Middle East in the next few years, stressing the importance of the media economy.

DMI’s new vision aims to revolutionize the press sector, enhance Dubai’s role as a global economic hub and major gateway to world trade, promote Emirati culture, focus on local affairs, and cover developments in all sectors.

The new strategy includes the launch of several initiatives that will improve DMI’s position as a prominent Arab media brand and contribute to the development of Arab media.

These initiatives include the launch of the Dubai Media Academy; the Dubai Media Studios, a modern production company operating on a commercial basis; the Media Services Initiative, which will service other production companies; and the Arts Events Company.

DMI, the government of Dubai’s official media organization, signed on Monday an agreement with the Dubai Electricity and Water Authority to collaborate ahead of the UN Climate Change Conference, COP28, in accelerating sustainable development and contributing to achieving net zero.

Saudi data chiefs launch new training initiative in latest AI push

Updated 27 September 2023

Saudi data chiefs launch new training initiative in latest AI push

  • Program will offer 32 training camps to 800 specialized tech graduates

LONDON: Saudi data chiefs have launched a series of technology training camps aimed at educating 800 graduates on the latest developments in the field of artificial intelligence.

Under the initiative, the Saudi Data and AI Authority will run 32 camps focused on large language model technology, a type of AI that can mimic human intelligence, Asharq Al-Awsat reported on Tuesday.

The training program — to be offered to recent graduates in technical specializations — has been designed to bolster the Kingdom’s efforts to nurture a new generation of LLM experts.

LLMs are AI systems with vast amounts of data that can generate human-like text, translate languages, write different kinds of creative content, and answer questions in an informative way.

The first camp will get underway on Oct. 8 and will be held virtually over four weeks, covering topics such as generative AI, neural networks, deep learning, and text data analysis.

At the end of each camp, trainees will be awarded certificates of completion and will be eligible to take professional certification exams related to LLMs.

Separately, the authority has also launched an Open Datathon competition for which registration closes on Sept. 30. Aimed at students, alumni, and entrepreneurs, it has been designed to develop skills in data science and stimulate innovation.

The datathon will be held over two days, and participants will be supervised by experts in the field of data science. On day three, competitors will present their solutions to a panel of judges.

Saudi-Iran rapprochement right move but still long way to go: Experts tell Arab Media Forum

Updated 27 September 2023

Saudi-Iran rapprochement right move but still long way to go: Experts tell Arab Media Forum

DUBAI: The recent Chinese-brokered rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran was the right move, but there is still a long way to go, experts told the Arab Media Forum on Tuesday. 

“Iran continues to support armed groups that Saudi opposes,” Afshin Molavi senior fellow at Foreign Policy Institute in John Hopkins University, pointed out. 

Molavi’s comments came during session titled “The Middle East – A Region of Opportunities or Conflicts” alongside Faisal Abbas, editor-in-chief of Arab News.

Wondering if whether or not the deal will succeed, Abbas pointed out that the Kingdom, due to its continuous leadership, has over 40 years of experience in dealing with Iran.

“The best case scenario will be both countries putting in the leverage and work to cooperate and try to solve conflicts in Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Lebanon, of course with involvement of the local players. 

The worst case scenario will be a missed opportunity to make that happen and relations remain the same.”  Abbas said.

Abbas also explained why China was a better suited broker for the rapprochement deal detailing how it has leverage over Iran by investing billions of dollars in projects and there is no risk of the negotiations restarting under a different ideology every 4 years due to elections as could be the case in America. 

In his view, Molavi said China brokering the deal “comes with a grain of salt” as Washington believes China is its enemy but he believes the rapprochement is the right move for the region.  

The Arab view on China differs from the west, however. 

A recent YouGov study done by Arab News on Palestine shows how Palestinians see China as a more honest broker to handle their issue rather than the US.

Abbas said colonial powers such as France, the UK and the wars US were involved in are viewed negatively in comparison to China where its political and economical involvement in the region has been mostly positive “the Chinese do not come with that baggage.” 

On the issue of America, Molavi notes there is a shift in power and while Washington remains a powerful country, the world is witnessing a rise in other powers such as China and India.  

“Today, countries are proving that we now live in the world of multi strategic alignment, and I think Washington is beginning to understand that; it is no longer you’re either with us or against us.” 

Molavi continues: “this can also be seen in the Abraham Accords where on one hand the UAE has this historical relationship and alliance with Israel but then joins BRICS.  

Abbas described how exciting the dynamics are and spoke of the Saudi position on the matter where he mentions how the Saudi hand has been extended for 20 years provided that there will be a solution for Palestinians.  

“Biden needs a foreign policy legacy and this will be a winning ticket for him for the upcoming election.”  



Both speakers also discussed and highlighted the positive changes that Saudi and UAE have been making.   

Abbas noted Saudi Arabia’s remarkable achievements and how these stories should be celebrated and shared such as the launching of the female Saudi astronaut among other things. 

“Actions speak louder than words, Facts are stubborn things. No amount of negative stories can take those achievements away, Saudi is the fastest growing G20 economy in the world.”