Dissidents Tap the 'Net' to Nettle Arab Sheikdom

UNTIL recently, if you had a problem with the government in Saudi Arabia, you had two options: keep quiet or languish for years behind bars.

But political activists opposed to this oil-rich monarchy have discovered a way of evading the wrath of Saudi authorities while spreading the word to their supporters - the worldwide computer network called Internet.

In the comfort of their own homes in Western capitals, such as London, oppositionists can tap out messages to activists in Saudi Arabia who, by downloading via Internet in their own homes, no longer have to fear a knock on the door in the middle of the night.

''People in Saudi Arabia can now receive our weekly newsletter via computer,'' says Mohammed al-Masaari, head of the London-based Committee for the Defense of Legitimate Rights.

''We've found that it's the easiest, cheapest way to send and receive information,'' the former physics professor at King Fahd University in the capital, Riyadh, adds.

But the gale of uncontrolled information available on-line is causing the ministry of information to fret.

The ministry's all-male employees now do nothing but sit in rooms and tear out news articles critical of the leadership and ink out pictures of nudity in fashion magazines. But they don't know how to control the Internet.

And until recently, the ministry's employees have been largely successful at keeping newsletters of the Committee for the Defense of Legitimate Rights out of the country. Made up of mostly university professors and religious leaders, CDLR is the largest, most vocal opposition to the government of Saudi Arabia. They call for change without violence, and advocate an even stricter Islamic state.

But it's not just well-known dissidents like Mr. Masaari causing Saudi Arabia's autocratic rulers to take notice. Every taboo subject from politics to pornography is spreading through anonymous electronic messages far beyond the government's iron grip.

''The Internet is the most dangerous new technology for autocratic regimes,'' says an expert on the Gulf region, ''because they have no say over what goes in or out on it.''

But banning the Internet is not possible without removing all computers and telephone lines. And authorities here are scrambling to find ways to police the global network before allowing companies that provide access to set up business.

Since the Saudi authorities have not allowed local Internet service providers to operate in the country, those who want to hook up must do so via companies like CompuServe outside the kingdom, an expensive and slow alternative since Saudi telephone lines are so antiquated.

But a multibillion dollar deal with AT&T to increase line capacity will allow for faster and cheaper data communications by the end of next year.

Though Saudi authorities are fearful of the Internet, they realize it can provide vital up-to-date information to universities and hospitals.

But Saudi officials have vowed to control the usage of the Internet when it's made available to the universities next year.

''Here in the kingdom, with our strict rules and regulations, we will see the Internet being accessed only for constructive objectives,'' Mohammed Benten, a dean at King Fahd University for Petroleum and Minerals in Dhahran in eastern Saudi Arabia told a local newspaper.

But university students are growing increasingly fascinated with the freedom that comes with high-tech chats, and some have already gotten a glimpse of life outside the country.

''A lot of my friends and I communicate with university students all over the world to see how they live,'' says Mishary al-Ayed. ''We've made friends with both male and female students in the States, and we correspond daily sometimes.''

Mr. Ayed says he and his cyberpals mostly talk about how university students in different cultures live.

But religion is one of the hottest topics debated on-line, says Hassan Faris, who edits a page on the Internet for the Saudi magazine ASharq al-Awsat. Many Saudis find themselves discussing religion openly for the first time. Atheists and fundamentalists regularly slug it out in Saudi cyberspace, a novelty in a country where the punishment for apostasy is death.

''We discuss religion in a manner that was unthinkable before,'' says a young Saudi technician whose group of friends are currently debating the existence of God with a Canadian atheist.

RELIGION, a temper-raising subject in this region, has found a natural home in cool cyberspace. Internet's anonymity is giving many unprecedented courage to speak their minds without facing any consequences.

''If people made some of these comments face-to-face and not from behind a computer screen,'' says Faris of some of the religious rhetoric, ''they would have hit each other.''

Though many in this conservative kingdom acknowledge the advantages of getting on the information superhighway, some fear an erosion of traditional values.

Local newspapers have underlined the authorities' fear of pornography spreading on computer screens. And viewing it is risky business in the kingdom - anyone caught selling adult magazines and videotapes is imprisoned.

Businessmen, students, and journalists say it's time for the government to catch up with the electronic revolution. Internet has already landed in Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates. And Bahrain has announced plans to begin the service this fall.

''We must not bury our heads in the sand,'' wrote leading Saudi columnist Khaled al-Maeena recently. ''We should be travelers on the information superhighway and not standing on the wayside watching the world go by.''

Fundamentalists and atheists now slug it out in cyberspace - a novelty in a country where apostasy carries the death penalty.

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