January 16, 2004

Linux and open source opportunities in the Mideast

Author: Robin 'Roblimo' Miller

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia -- Computers and the Internet are just starting to penetrate the Mideast, and since most residents of most countries here are dirt-poor, Linux and open source are "naturals" for the region. There is also a fast-growing market for Arabic-language commercial software (or software services based on open source applications), and it seems that half of the region's governments have decided their country should become "the" developer of Arabic-language software. Saudi Arabia, where I'm writing this, is pouring massive government funds into an effort to build a software industry. But it's possible that cultural and political factors may be more important than government aid in encouraging software development. If this is so, Saudi Arabia may be wasting its money, and should look at changing its society instead. Note: This is #5 in a series of five "Dispatches from Saudi Arabia." You may want to see #1, #2, #3, and #4 before you read this one.Richard Florida's "Creative Cities" philosophy

Society may have a bigger influence on the software industry than most people generally consider. Carnegie Mellon University professor Richard Florida is a best-selling author who has developed a whole set of theories that try to explain why one area becomes a vital "silicon valley" from which new inventions flow like grape juice from a vineyard, while another area that seems to have similar resources becomes a "silicon swamp" that produces the smell of decay from dying local businesses and neighborhoods. One of his more controversial methods of measuring a region's ability to build and attract creative people and businesses is by seeing how "gay friendly" it is. In a USAToday op-ed piece published April 30, 2003, he wrote, "...the big new-ideas and cutting-edge industries that lead to sustained prosperity are more likely to exist where gay people feel welcome."

Florida isn't saying that gay people do all the creating, but that the same kind of social tolerance that allows gay communities to flourish attracts people of all sexual persuasions who tend to think in new and original ways. He has spent more than 10 years looking at what kind of civic amenities attract the "creative class" of young and young-thinking people who build new technologies, new business strategies, new forms of art, and "new" in general. He sees conversation-oriented coffeehouses, art galleries, bookstores catering to a wide range of interests, "live music" nightclubs, and other culture-building amenities as being more important to a region's likely success in arts, sciences, and technology than government aid or other financial incentives.

By Florida's standards, Bahrain may be the Arabic-speaking country most likely to develop a sustainable software industry. It is a liberal, business-friendly state with a more active nightlife than its neighbors, and has for many years been "the" place both local residents and expatriate workers go to escape the stultifying behavior limitations imposed on them in other Persian Gulf states.

Saudi Arabia is the region's Linux leader

Saudi techno-geeks

In the tech world, acceptance of Linux and other open source software may be the equivalent of Florida's "gay index." Areas with strong reputations for creating new commercial software also tend to be major centers for open source development, and many committed volunteer free software developers earn their livings creating proprietary software. Creation of open source software has become an established job-seeking aid, too. Potential employers can look directly at code an applicant has written instead of relying on a bland resume statement like "contributed to development of [proprietary program]."

While the linux-egypt.org site seems to be down as I write this, Saudi Linux User Group chairman AbdulRahmen Aljahadi says Egypt's government is actively pushing Linux and open source, but that Saudis are doing more actual Arabic Linux development than Egyptians.

Bahrain has a LUG. Iraq has a LUG. Lebanon has one. So do Syria and Jordan. But Saudi Arabia -- not exactly the home of "free thinking," still seems to lead the rest, although they are working hard to catch up.

If Linux penetration is an indicator of a country's "tech-hipness"' and Florida's theses are also true, something doesn't add up here. I suspect it's the fact that Florida's research has focused almost entirely on the U.S. and other western secular democracies, and may not be relevant in Islamic states.

Internal life vs. external society

"There is nothing to do here," is the universal complaint I hear from Saudi "guest" workers I talk to. "Just work, eat, sleep, work, and pray, pray, pray. That is all the Saudis do," says a chauffeur from Sudan. "They have a boring life."

You could describe the life of a truly committed software developer (anywhere in the world) as "Just work, eat, sleep, work, and code, code, code." Hmm...

And now, a secret about Saudi Arabia (and probably other repressive Islamic societies): There is plenty of intellectual activity, but most of it is hidden from public view. Dissent is common. I had many Saudis tell me -- either in private or in small groups of friends -- about their displeasure with the government. I saw the same phenomenon when I visited Jordan last year: Despite a government that has been known to open fire on groups of non-violent protesters, Jordanians of all walks of life happily express disdain for King Abdullah II and the concept of a monarchy in general -- in private. No question; Saudia Arabia comes down hard on public dissent too, and when it comes to religious freedom... let's just say U.S. right-wingers who want America to be a "Christian nation" and have their beliefs become law ought to be forced to spend a month in Saudi Arabia so they can see how a real theocracy operates. I don't think they'd like it.

(Thinking of religions, there is no evidence that religious beliefs -- or a lack of them -- have any influence on code quality or even the impulses that lead to the creation of free software. I have personally met committed free software developers who believe firmly in almost every religion there is, and aside from a few short-lived and comparatively polite religious flame wars in various Internet forums, they manage to work toward common goals despite their differences.)

Repression or no, Saudis are irrepressible talkers. Arabic is a language that lends itself to flowery phrases and endless discussion. The lobby of a Sheraton in the U.S. is usually a sterile place with nothing going on, but every evening in the Riyadh Sheraton lobby there are groups of people sitting around drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes (or sharing puffs on a huge hookah), and talking, talking, talking. (There are private rooms for women and families; only men talk, talk, talk in the main lobby. But, I assure you, those private rooms have just as much talking going on in them as the public areas.)

Not even the most repressive government in the world has the resources to monitor these endless conversations, especially the private ones. In Saudi Arabia, the basic rule seems to be, "conform in public and nobody will bother you over private behavior."

Call this hypocrisy if you will, but this is the way things are here. Music in public is strictly forbidden, but there is plenty of music in private. (I even wonder if at least a few Saudi women don't wear headphones under their black-bag-with-eyeslits public outfits; some of them seem to be moving with suspicious rhythm, nearly bopping as they walk.)

Without getting into a book-length debate on the merits of Dionysian vs. Apollonian cultures, let's consider the possibility that a culture that is repressive on the surface but is full of private intellectual activity might be better at fostering advanced software development than one where the young people spend their evenings going to bars and flirting with each other.

Israel: the Mideast's dominant software power

Israel has a strong software industry and no shortage of active free and open source developers. Computers are more prevalent in Israel than in any other country in the area. Some of the recent work on software "Arabization" that is necessary to produce more Arabic software is building on "Hebrewization" efforts that have been going on for many years. Conversely, a popular text editor for Hebrew is reportedly based on one originally written in Arabic.

Individual developers in Israel and Arab countries routinely email each other. Why shouldn't they? Many of the problems they face in adapting -- for example -- KDE for their right-to-left languages are identical. Mozilla finally displays pages in both languages decently, and this is a result, I am told, of efforts by both Arabic-speaking and Hebrew-speaking programmers. Alliances between Arab and Israeli software people help both parties. The overwhelming majority of developers I have met in Jordan and Saudi Arabia -- the only two Mideast countries I have visited so far -- seem to believe this, and I've heard similar thoughts from Israeli developers via email and IRC.

Sometimes we need to separate regimes from people. Saudi Arabia officially hates Israel and still has some public school textbooks that demonize Jews, but I am a Jew (in culture if not practice) and the people who invited me to Saudi Arabia knew it. The only time religion has actively come up so far was a friendly invitation to join two guys at a local mosque for prayer one day after lunch. I declined, saying I had no idea how to perform the rituals, and one of them said, "Just do what the guy next to you does; they'll just think you're a foreigner -- they can tell that from your clothes anyway -- and won't mind if you don't know the words." I went back to the hotel and worked on some stories instead, but if I had been on a less ferocious deadline I might have joined them at the mosque. I'm sure I would have survived the experience -- and might even have enjoyed it.

The Saudis with whom I am spending my time are not religious zealots. Some pray at every call, and some don't. Yes, I know: they are liberal technocrats, not representative of Saudi society in general -- any more than the LUG members, artists, and writers who are the majority of my friends in the U.S. are representative of American society. If I visit Israel, I'm sure I'll meet similar people there, and hear similar complaints about the government and how its policies make it hard to collaborate with developers in Arab countries.

Among the Arab states that are vying for software leadership, I believe the most likely winner will be the one that first allies itself with Israel -- at least in software development -- up to and including free travel back and forth. Right now, the two likeliest Arab candidates for an Israeli software alliance seem to be Jordan and Egypt, which are both at least technically at peace with Israel. But Mideast politics are in flux. Things could change by next year. A Palestinian settlement could change attitudes tremendously, and produce more changes in some Arab countries than in others. Which ones? I can't say. I've only been in Saudi Arabia for five days, and my plane leaves in less than an hour. I'll leave this speculation to people with more time on their hands -- and more experience at analyzing Israeli-Arab political dynamics.


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