January 12, 2004

Saudi Arabia: Linux advocates in white robes

Author: Robin 'Roblimo' Miller

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia -- The U.S. popular image of Saudi Arabia has gone downhill over the last 50 years, from one of romantic horsemen riding free over the desert to one of oil-bloated sheiks who use their wealth to support terrorists. The reality here is, of course, as different from that stereotype image as the reality of the U.S. is from the stereotype the rest of the world gets from TV. You never see mainstream TV programs talking about U.S. Linux developers, for example. You never see Arabian Linux developers on TV, either, but they are here, wearing white robes and headdresses, proudly showing off their new (GPL) software to visitors, lobbying the government to adopt more Linux, and working to build businesses based on open source.I'm typing this in the Riyadh Sheraton. I am here primarily to speak at a National IT Plan conference, as a guest of the Saudi Linux Users Group and the Saudi Computer Society. I will be speaking about how to make money with open source and free software, a popular topic in a country whose de facto ruler, Prince Abdullah, has decreed that the IT sector will become an important economic factor within the next decade.

We'll explore specifics of the country's IT plans -- and how Linux and open source fit into them -- over the next few days. This article is a bit of an "introduction to Saudi Arabian society" based on conversations with local Linux developers and advocates. Their names have been left out to keep any of them from getting in trouble with the local law; despite recent liberalizations this is still a country where a man caught driving his sister's friend home can be sentenced to receive a public whipping.

Indeed, this actually happened to one local Linux developer. The police caught him giving his sister's friend a ride and assumed they were dating, which violates religious statutes here. While we hear that it's not uncommon for young Saudi males to spend their evenings riding around in their cars, trying to pick up young Saudi females -- who sometimes allow themselves to be picked up (not necessarily for sex, but as a way to meet boys), even though this activity is illegal for both parties.

Our Linux developer managed to escape his lashing due to intervention by a liberal local politician, but he is still wary whenever he comes to one of the many government checkpoints that stop traffic all over this city to search for terrorists -- and keep an eye out for any other lawbreaking, too.

This is a "tight" country by world standards, even if not everyone sentenced to a lashing actually has the sentence carried out. There is (officially) no premarital or extramarital sex, no music, no dating, no alcohol, and no pornography. Indeed, if you click on a link in a piece of porn spam, even if you are a foreigner staying in a Sheraton, you get this message in both Arabic and English: "Access to the requested URL is not allowed! Please, fill out the form below if you believe the requested page should not be blocked."

What else is there to do here but become a great Linux hacker?

We won't answer that question today. Perhaps we will later this week.

Geeks are Geeks

It's the same the whole world over: There is a crowd that has glommed onto the idea of free software and feels obliged to promote it. That crowd is here in Riyadh, just as it is in the U.S., France, Malaysia, Mexico, Trinidad, India, China, and almost everywhere else.

Saudi Linux Society co-founder Khaled Alghoneim at work

Here, of course, Linux developers wear long, flowing robes in their workplaces; it's a tradition, just as suits and ties might be traditional business attire somewhere else. And for those of you who have noticed that men's flowing robes in this part of the world come in different colors, our local informants tell us these colors are purely personal style and do not signify rank or have a group association. In other words, if you switch from Linux to *BSD on your personal desktop, you don't need to go out and replace your favorite red and white checked headgear with green or beige.

Conversations with geeks in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia are similar to conversations with geeks anywhere, and most of the ones I have met so far are smart, young, single men who are addicted to the problem-solving aspect of programming. Put them in the same clothes as the average U.S. programmer, send them to LinuxWorld in New York, and you wouldn't notice them in the crowd.

That's my basic message today: That while Saudi Arabia has enough terrorists and potential terrorists that the hotel where I'm staying is ringed with concrete barriers designed to thwart car bombs, and there are security checkpoints manned by armed soldiers scattered throughout the city and the surrounding countryside, there are also plenty of people here who worry about poor Mozilla support for javascript in Arabic (and other right-to-left languages), how to get more government agencies to use Linux, and other "geek-only" concerns. And no matter what you think of the Saudi government or some of this society's fringe members, if you met the local Linux geeks you would find them entirely likeable -- and just as smart as their counterparts in the rest of the world.


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