Riyadh's War with the Web

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"Dueling for Da‘wa: State vs. Society on the Saudi Internet" by Joshua Teitelbaum, in The Middle East Journal (Spring 2002), 1761 N St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20036–2882.

Ever since its founding in 1902, the modern Saudi state has struggled to "bring its traditional, tribal, and decentralized society under its cultural, ideological, and religious hegemony." Now it confronts an especially insidious foe: the Internet.

The Saudi government offered public Internet access only in 1999, reports Teitelbaum, a senior research fellow at Tel Aviv University’s Moshe Dayan Center. Service is expensive and slow; all Saudi Internet traffic is routed through a single server in Riyadh that is equipped with web filtering technology. Early in 2001, when less than seven percent of the Saudi public had access to the Internet, some 200,000 websites were on the proscribed list and 250 were being added every day.

But censorship is an impossible task. Political dissidents such as the exiled London surgeon Sa‘d al-Faqih have set up websites abroad; his Movement for Islamic Reform in Arabia website (www.islah.org) offers users technical tips on how to get around Saudi censors. And one need not be a computer wizard to get through. Some Saudis use illegal satellite hookups or simply dial up Internet service providers outside the kingdom.

Like people everywhere, Saudis use the Internet mostly for dating and entertainment, but this can be just as subversive as political dissent in a puritanical land where young men and women are supposed to be introduced by their parents. At Saudi shopping malls, Teitelbaum says, young women discreetly invite suitors to slip them their e-mail addresses and cell phone numbers, for unchaperoned conversations. Internet chatrooms, many of them apparently uncensored, allow the young to talk about matters of the heart and to debate the many restrictions on women.

The Saudi government also exploits the Internet for its own purposes, notably to promote its Wahhabi version of Islam around the world, but the electronically assisted forces of nature promise the Saudis a pitched battle.

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