An Intruder In The Kingdom

When a young Saudi named Ramzi and his friends decided to dip their toes in the Internet last year, they vowed to avoid three risky topics in Saudi Arabia--sex, religion, and politics. But in a land where women are veiled from head to toe and unmarried couples may be arrested by baton-wielding religious police, curiosity prevailed. "Every single one of us has downloaded adult pictures on the Internet, and religion is one of the hottest subjects," Ramzi says. "People discuss religion in an open way that was unthinkable before."

The Internet is sparking an intense debate in Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries. The Saudis have always wanted the latest technological innovations, but the freewheeling communications possible on the Net are a different story. The authorities worry that they will lose their tight grip on political dialogue and public mores. But business executives and others argue that they need access to the latest information to build a competitive society. "We must not bury our heads in the sand," wrote leading Saudi columnist Khaled A. Al-Maeena in the daily Asharq Al Awsat recently. "We should be travelers on the Information Superhighway and not standing by the wayside watching the world go by."

VIRTUAL GRAFFITI. Thousands of Saudi hackers have already figured out how to dial into the Internet through neighboring countries or by dialing the U.S. directly. They are debating every taboo subject, from atheism to pornography, on electronic billboards beyond the reach of the authorities. Saudi fundamentalists slug it out with Western atheists in cyberspace. The Net doesn't take Arabic script, but those who aren't fluent in English transliterate Arabic words using the Western alphabet.

Almost anything can turn up--from hot news about the Saudis' failing to meet municipal payrolls to debates about whether Kuwaiti women should be permitted to vote. "Because Gulf societies are so closed, the idea of a free exchange of ideas and information is very appealing to their nationals," says a media analyst. "The political graffiti you don't find on the walls you see all over the Internet."

Local Internet access is already available in neighboring Kuwait, where about 400 subscribers pay $200 a month for government-owned GulfNet. The United Arab Emirates has just come on the Internet, and Bahrain is not far behind.

The Saudis realize that they can't completely lock out the Internet without removing all computers and phone lines. So they have decided to grant some access to selected users, such as universities and hospitals. Businesses can apply to the Posts, Telegraphs & Telecommunications Ministry to go online through a service called Alwaseet that links up with CompuServe Inc. in the U.S. and other carriers. Alwaseet has 6,000 subscribers. But local Net service is not yet available. And companies that do provide Net access are told to keep a low profile and not advertise.

Saudi Business Machines, the IBM dealer owned by the wealthy Juffali merchant family, has been negotiating for three years with the PTT to set up a local computer node, which would be much less expensive to use, but has been denied permission. "The entire system is in place," says Hassan Barraj, assistant general manager for Saudi Business Machines. "We're just waiting for a green light." Without such a system, hooking up to the Net is slow and costly, and Saudi phone lines are relatively slow. "It's like the rest of the world has 12-lane highways, and we're still driving on a road with two lanes," says Barraj.

But a new multibillion-dollar phone upgrade from AT&T will allow for faster and cheaper data communications by the end of next year. Such a scenario makes the authorities nervous. Saudi officials have vowed to crack down on any hanky-panky when the universities get on the Net next year. "Here in the Kingdom, with our strict rules and regulations, the Internet will be used only for constructive objectives," Muhammad Benten, a dean at King Fahd University for Petroleum & Minerals, told a local paper.

But university students are growing increasingly fascinated with the freedom that comes with high-tech communications, and some have already gotten a glimpse of life outside the Kingdom. "A lot of my friends and I communicate with students all over the world to see how they live," says a 19-year-old named Mishary. "We've made friends with both male and female students in the States, and we correspond daily." Others use their computers to download Playboy centerfolds for $55. All this is an abomination to the religious authorities, but there isn't much they can do.

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