Saturday, December 20, 2008

Telecommunication in Saudi Arabia

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?

17 comments:

Anna said...

Dwar ExpatGuru,

Thanks for short write-up on communication facilities in KSA.

I read in your one of older posts that Saudi visa issued in Arabi, and dates follow Hijri calender. Recently I come across that issue date of work visa is mentioned in both Hijri and Gregorian calender.

Expatguru said...

Hello Anna,

The only recognized date is that of Hijri calendar. So, it is better to follow the official date just in case there is a mistake while writing the Gregorian date. You can use the date converter tool given on the left hand side of this blog.

Anonymous said...

hi,
how does one obtain a position in SA?
I currently live in the States?

Expatguru said...

Anonymous,

If you are looking for a job in Saudi Arabia, try any of the employment firms or ads which appear in newspapers and in the internet.

Micper said...

Dear ExpatGuru,
Thanks for your informative article, with reference to my earlier request (23rd Nov. under comments).
I would like to inform the readers that there are several much cheaper VIOP cards available in the market. FreeCall for instance, the outgoing rate to India is around 12 halala per minute (to mobile, and much cheaper to fixed lines). That too with very good sound clarity.
5, 10, 15 and 20 Euro cards are available for SR35, SR65, SR100, SR120 respectively. Further, there are several free destinations, by paying only 2.5 Euro per month.
Other similar VIOP services are SMSDiscount, InterVOIP, VOIPZoom, WebCall etc. Almost similar rates. Please check the respective websites (all of them with .com).

Expatguru said...

Micper,

Thanks for your input. This information has really added value to the post. I would certainly try them (hope they are available in all locations!)

Micper said...

With reference to the above reply:
They are available here in JD in almost all the cyber cafes. Little difficulty in Online purchase throught credit card, you can try and get the best rates.
I think one of the best way is to check the contact numbers of the local vendors in the website itself. Local individual vendors are available all over the kingdom.
If you have PC at both the ends of the robe, then there is no alternative to PC-PC voice and video chat, as far as the most economic way is concern.

pablo_honey said...

Hi, I'm interviewing for a position in Riyadh. I was curious about satellite phones or buying an open phone in the States, one where i can switch out the card to a local Saudi carrier. Can you help me with either of these?

Expatguru said...

Pablo_honey,

Use or possession of satellite phones by indiviuduals is illegal under Saudi Law. These phones are used by oil companies operating in the empty quarter under strict supervision and license from Saudi authorities.

Anonymous said...

Dear Sir,

I am MS telecommunication degree holer, came here with Visit consultant visa. Now company is asking me to go and come back from parkistan on Laundry Irom Man visa.
Is this visa is changeableto my actual profession, as i hold all my documents attested with me from all authorities.

Best Regards,

annoyed

Expatguru said...

Annoyed

It is impossible to convert a visit visa into an employment visa while you are still in the kingdom. You must necessarily go back and return on a fresh visa. However, I would advise you strongly against coming on a laundry iron man visa. Converting this into a visa with a supervisory category is an extremely difficult process. You are a qualified man, so should easily find a job suitable to your qualifications. Never ever undersell yourself! Good luck!

Micper said...

Dear EG & Readers,
Have you ever tried to send local & International SMS through STC website? If not then check this out
STC Online
The main page of STC.COM.SA also redirect you to the STC Online link.
If you are a SAWA / Al-Haif Customer then after Signing In you can send atleast 15 SMS per week. The limit exceeds depending on your existing plan.
On special Ocassions, usually the weekly limit extended upto 60 SMS per week.
Further, you avail the Free SMS facility of Rediff Bol (Rediff Messenger rediff.com for India only) and in Yahoo Messenger ( Most of the countries including India).
Hope the above information helpful, awaiting your comments.

Micper said...

Dear EG & Readers,
Refeence my above comments, have you tried calling through
FreeCall, VoipZoom, SMSDiscount, InterVoip Calling cards?

Expatguru said...

Micper,

Talking of STC, there is a scheme called 'Qitaf'. If you regularly pay your bills on time, points are added. Once it reaches 100 points, you can get quite a few discounts (like free local phone calls, etc). It is available for both SAWA cards as well as for landlines. Try this.

Sufiyan said...

Is selling of voip card still illegal in year 2012?

Expatguru said...

Sufiyan,

Yes, unfortunately it is. However, the more restrictions you put on a product, the more freely it is available under the table.

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