January 15, 2004

Saudi open source conference opens minds

Author: Robin 'Roblimo' Miller

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia -- It was a small, one-day conference aimed at government and industry IT heads. I counted a maximum of 127 men in the auditorium. A few women attended, but in accordance with Saudi tradition they were in a separate room, watching through closed-circuit TV. Two easily-identified Microsoft trolls were also in the main auditorium audience, asking the same questions Microsoft hirelings ask at open source conferences all over the world, but they didn't make much headway.This was the fourth in a series of government-sponsored discussions that are supposed to help develop a national IT plan for Saudi Arabia. I was invited to speak by Dr. Khaled A. Al-Ghoneim, CEO of Al-Elm Information Security, president of the Saudi Computer Society, and co-founder of the Saudi Linux User Group, which is part of the Computer Society.

These computer groups are much more formal (and influential) than their U.S. counterparts. They are essentially academic organizations associated with King Saud University, and a higher percentage of members have advanced degrees than you'll find in, for instance, the Suncoast Linux Users Group, to which I belong, even though it shares the acronym/nickname SLUG with the Saudi group.

Another difference is that when the Florida SLUG is part of a conference or trade show, there is little ceremony and no attendance by government dignitaries, while the Jan. 13 conference in Riyadh was opened with words from Mohammad Jameel bin Ahmad Mulla, Minister of Telecommunications and Information Technology, whose entrance was over a red carpet laid in the lobby of the Riyadh Intercontinental Hotel especially for his arrival (it was removed as soon as he left), and preceded by two gentlemen carrying pots full of fragant, burning incense. The Minister himself seemed more like a senior engineering manager (which he once was) than a ceremonial official in a medieval-style monarchy, and his speech was much the same as speeches given everywhere by officials in similar positions. He spoke of the future, economic opportunities, his gratitude toward the event's organizers, and how he hoped these talks would be productive and lead to many new ideas that would enlighten the lives of future generation.

In Arabic it may have been pure poetry; in English translation it was nothing special. But in Saudi Arabia, the point is not what the Minister said, but that he graced the assemblage with his presence -- and you must admit, having open source anointed by a gentleman with a fancy title wearing flowing, beautifully fringed robes can't hurt, especially since the conference was also titularly sponsored (in absentia) by Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz, Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia (and for all practical purposes the country's ruler at this point).

When AbdulRahmen Aljahadi talks, people listen

Dr. Aljahadi is Chairman of the Saudi Linux Group, so when he presented facts and figures about Linux and open source after all the buildup, he had an attentive audience. Most of what he said is old hat to NewsForge readers, but not many government officials in Saudi Arabia knew, for instance, that open source Apache was a clear leader in the Web-serving software realm until he told them. Introducing open source to government and industry leaders here was what the conference was all about, so it's nice that he got such a fine reception.

Rudolph Simmer, IBM's Linux sales manager for central Europe, the Mideast, and Africa, gave a short presentation that could have been titled, "Go, Linux! We're with you all the way!" Simmer carried a ThinkPad running Windows 2000, but his speech was still heartening. In private he said he uses Windows instead of Linux only "because I'm not a techie." Okay.

Dr. Suliman Mirdad of the Saudi Communications and IT Commission spoke of how open source is being adopted by many countries "at the public level to have the freedom in the technology of the digital age."

Saeed Alzahrani of Saudi Aramco spoke of how he and others at the company have built a 2,000-node Linux cluster themselves, rather than buying supercomputers from companies in other countries as they had in the past. He boasted happily about the high percentage of Saudis employed on the project, which was a hit with this audience since one of the main worries aired on newspaper editorial pages here is dependence on foreign workers while unemployment among Saudi men is 20% according to official figures -- and as high as 30% by some unofficial estimates.

Mahmoud Mudhaffar of the Zahid Tractor Company spoke of his company's gradual move to Linux. He (and later his boss, Nasser Jamil Byram, in a private conversation), pointed out that one of Zahid's major successes was getting their MCSEs retrained in Linux so easily and happily that "none of them want to use Windows anymore. They want to run everything on Linux now."

The morning session was closed by Dr. AbdulRahman Alsanad of Al-Iman University, who explained open source licensing in detail -- or at least as much detail as you can in less than one hour. (Dr. Alsanad has degrees in both IT and Islamic law, and has written a treatise on how the GPL and Islamic law fit together. We hope to run a translation of it on NewsForge at some point.)

After a break for prayers and coffee, Khaled and I spoke. I went first, with examples of how companies in other countries were making substantial profits with open source software, and how their business models might be applied in Saudi Arabia. Khaled spoke about how the government could help spur open source development in Saudi Arabia, and how the government could help the country build a home-grown software industry. The two of us had gotten together in advance and decided who would speak about what. Yes, it was a conspiracy. But it was a conspiracy between someone (Khaled) who has been using Linux since he first heard about it in 1992, and someone (me) who writes more articles about open source business successes than almost anyone else in the world, so it was a conspiracy for a worthy cause. (At least, that's what Khaled and I like to think.)

Then came open discussion. The Microsoft trolls apparently were gone by this time. They had asked a few feeble questions in the morning, and were answered courteously but in a rather offhand, "you aren't really very important," manner and were otherwise ignored. In the afternoon the only likely Microsoft "plant" was a comment/question about "Microsoft's open source" to which I responded by explaining -- very briefly -- the difference between Microsoft's "shared source" and real open source.

The rest of the comments and questions were more meaningful. Possibly the most important debate that popped up was whether it was better to "Arabize" existing projects or to develop new projects from scratch in Arabic. There was general agreement that one big advantage of open source is that if you see a program you'd like to use for which there is no Arabic version available, it is good that you can make your own Arabic version instead of waiting/hoping for a proprietary software vendor to produce it. On the other hand, if Saudi Arabia is going to have a vital software industry, a focus on translating software produced elsewhere isn 't going to help local developers improve their skills, so isn't it better to make an Arabic equivalent to SourceForge.net and build "native" projects from scratch?

This dovetailed with another big debate that is taking place not only within the IT industry but throughout the country's entire business community: Saudization. There seems to be near-total agreement that Saudi Arabia has become too dependent on foreign workers. By some estimates, one-third of all current Saudi residents are "guest workers," and we're not only talking about hotel servitors and cab drivers, but doctors, bankers, and computer professionals.

The debate centers around how best to change things, not whether they need to be changed. For example, even though Khaled's company is almost entirely Saudi -- a rarity among IT companies here -- he is now talking about looking beyond Saudi borders for help with Linux development and security consulting, because he can't find anyone local with the skills he needs. He is not saying he can't find local help in the same way as U.S. employers, whose cries of "we can't find qualified U.S. residents" really mean "we can't find qualified U.S. residents willing to work 100 hours per week for less than a living wage." Khalid is not trying to cheap-shot workers either domestic or foreign; if anything, hiring a foreigner may cost him more than hiring a local; workers coming to Saudia Arabia usually demand (and get) premium salaries. Even the bellmen at the Sheraton (where I'm staying) talk about how they "put up with" living in Riyadh 10 months of the year because they get paid so much more than they would back home in Pakistan or Indonesia that it's worth the separation from their families. Many British and American professional-level expat workers say the same thing: They're here for the money, not for the amenities, and if the money wasn't lots better than at home they wouldn't consider being here even temporarily.

At the same time, the family structure here allows young men to stay with their families well into their 30s without working, to -- as one young working Saudi put it to me -- "hang around in the coffee house all day, drinking coffee and smoking weed." (I went briefly to one of these coffeehouses, and if there was ever a fertile ground for recruiting terrorists, this was certainly it: A bunch of bored young men with no girlfriends, no jobs, and essentially meaningless lives. And, we hear, it's even worse for unmarried women. Most of them stay home 90% of the time, go to the mall once in a while with family members, and that's about it.)

More on page 2...Can a strong IT industry solve Saudi Arabia's problems?

I mention societal problems and their relationship to technological development here not because I'm an American who believes my country's way of life is superior and everyone should adopt it, but because the topic is brought up over and over by Saudis. The Saudi government is sponsoring IT development in large part to provide employment opportunities and reduce its economic dependence on oil, which will either run out or be replaced
by other forms of energy within the lifetimes of most Saudis, especially since the median age here (according to the CIA World Factbook) is 20.9 years for males and 16.8 years for females. Not only that, Saudi Arabia's population is growing rapidly -- over 3% per year -- which means that even if oil revenue keeps coming in at its current rate, every year it must feed more people.

The Hajj -- Muslim pilgrimages to Mecca -- were once a major source of external revenue, but now the consensus is that they are a money-loser by the time you add up all the extra security and other government expenses associated with them. Tourism here, other than the pilgrimages, is nearly nonexistant. Hotels -- even the amazingly luxurious Al Faisaliah, topped by the stunning Globe Restaurant where the post-conference Saudi Computer Society (private) banquet was held, cater almost entirely to business travelers.

(Note: The Globe's prices were not high by world "Five Star Hotel" standards, but eating there was still a "once in a lifetime" event for most Computer Society people, who live on typical "IT person" salaries and are not rich. Khaled, for example, does not own his own home. He, his wife, and their five children live in a low-cost "academic housing" apartment complex associated with King Saud University, where he is still a professor even though he no longer teaches full-time.)

One advantage the IT industry has over most other businesses on the economic development front, in the context of Saudi society, is that much of its work can be done by telecommuters working from home. This means it can offer opportunities to women without raising the ire of Islamic fundamentalists who tend to get testy (to the point of rock-throwing and rioting) if they see women acting in ways they do not feel are in accordance with their interpretation of Islamic law.

The idea of giving employment opportunties to -- and tapping the talents of -- Saudi women is attractive to many social liberals here. And make no mistake about it: There are plenty of people here who are working actively for social reform. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is not a monolithic culture where everyone thinks the same, and while the press here is nowhere near as free as it is in the U.S. or Europe, it is not nearly as locked-down as in many other non-democratic states. Within the government -- and even more within Saudi society in general -- there no longer seems to be a true consensus on how firmly Islamic law should be applied in the modern world.

A recent editorial in the (Arabic language) newspaper Okaz condemned a teacher who has been infecting students with the old "tafkeer" ideology that says it's good to wage constant war against all non-Muslims, up to and including terror attacks and suicide bombings. This editorial probably would not have been written a few years ago, but now there is a strong movement to remove or at least modernize religious teaching in public schools. There is debate now over whether the current laws that keep women from driving cars are in accordance with Islamic teachings, since women have always been allowed to ride camels, and even the degree of covering that females should be forced to endure in public is being questioned, especially by a growing number of western-educated Saudi professional women who point out that a head scarf and generally modest clothing is all that should be required, and reject the belief held by many (male) Muslim extremists that women are all temptresses who must be totally hidden from men lest they work their wiles on them and lead them into sin and sensuality.

Saudi Arabia is often called a "conservative kingdom," and the word "conservative" can be underlined in bold red. Societal change here is coming, nevertheless, partially because what Osama Bin Laden and other Islamic radicals fear most has already happened: "Infection" by western, secular ideas. And some of the most virulent carriers of these ideas are the western-educated technocrats who believe in cooperative, cross-border software development and might just be amenable to hiring work-at-home women as programmers even if they are not quite ready -- here's where the word "conservative" comes in -- to deal with women working alongside men in office environments.

Moving from software consumption to software production

During a chance encounter unrelated to the National IT Plan Conference, Computer Associates' Saudi Arabia mainframe products marketing manager Luke Kabamba spoke glowingly to me about the "fertile market for software" here. Khaled and his Saudi Computer Society cohorts are opposed to this mentality. Khaled calls Computer Associates and other foreign companies that come to Saudi Arabia to sell their products and services instead of working with local developers, "shipping companies and travel agencies," and wants to see more Saudi participation in the software industry both locally and globally.

This is a fine goal from a Saudi point of view. The government certainly supports it, and at least some factions within the government see open source as a major part of their effort to develop a local software industry.

The problem is, Saudi Arabia is not the only Mideastern country that wants to create a strong software industry. In December 2002, I spoke at a similar open source conference in Jordan, a country that has no oil and a burning need to come up with something -- anything -- it can export in order to feed its population, and is working hard -- by command of King Abdullah II -- to become the dominant "software power" in the Arabic world.

Bahrain, Abu Dhabi, and Dubai are also working to grow their local software industries, and they are considered among the most liberal Arabic-speaking Muslim countries. This might give them a competitive edge in a business that depends on creativity and creative people to function. But we'll save that thought for the final article in this series, in which I'll try to look more closely at some the cultural and political dynamics that help shape software development in the Mideast -- and in the rest of the world, too.


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