When I came to Saudi Arabia 11 years back, I never expected that telecommunication facilities in this oil-rich kingdom to be so bad. The only phone company those days was the state-owned PTT. International calls per minute were charged at an atrocious SR13/minute. Owning a phone was a status symbol. The few mobile phones which were available, were owned by Saudis who used to flaunt them. People used to queue around public booths waiting for their turn. With international calling rates at ridiculously high levels, keeping in touch back home even once a week was a luxury for expatriates. Thankfully, all that has changed :)
PTT has now been privatized and has become Saudi Telecom Company. In fact, there are now 3 companies in the kingdom - STC, Mobily and the recently launched Zain. All of them offer both prepaid as well as post-paid services, but most expatriates usually prefer the prepaid service. By virtue of being the oldest telecom company, STC has more towers in the kingdom and hence the coverage is better, particularly for mobile services. Mobily is fast picking up and there is quite a competition between them to attract / retain subscribers. Zain is still not popular and is yet to establish itself as a preferred choice for expatriates.
The days of long queues in the telephone booths are definitely over. Almost everyone has a mobile phone in his hand which is a real liberating force. You are now no longer tied down to a particular place or time. Most expatriates prefer the prepaid mobile SIM cards from STC ("SAWA cards") or from Mobily. Post-paid cards are not so popular among expatriates due to the paperwork and hassles involved.
International calling rates are still quite high, in relative terms. Calls between 12am to 6 am carry a 40% discount in STC, which results in a huge rush of outgoing calls between 5.30 to 6 am. Howver, most expatriates with an eye on the budget follow a simple way out. They just send a missed call to their homes or sms their families back home, asking them to call back. This works out to be much cheaper!
Internet connectivity is still not very advanced. You must keep in mind that internet was available in Saudi Arabia only in the year 2000, much after countries like Bangladesh had got the same. For several years later, only dial up connection was available. Recently, DSL services have been given a big boost, though downloading still takes quite a while. Areas which do not have a fiber-optic connection still have to rely on dial up connection, which is really quite a pain. Internet censorship is strictly in place and you might find several sites banned. This, however, should not be a concern for the normal user.
Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) services are still not legal in Saudi Arabia. We do have quite a few prepaid cards available and are sold clandestinely. Once in a while, shops selling these cards are raided by the police and there is a temporary shortage of these highly popular internet cards. The reason? They are so cheap compared to the services offered by STC and the voice quality is also good. I would personally rate a card called KSAFone which has a good bandwidth, easy to download dialpad, clear voice connectivity without echo and quite cheap. The only downside with these cards is that one needs a pc at home. If you have a DSL connection, the voice clarity is more and with less breaks. Services such as Skype are also available, but are more popular among western expatriates.
At the end of the day, the bottom line is that one has to choose a service or a company which would help the expatriate save money - afterall, all of us have come here to make money, isn't it?