Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Paranoia or Greed?

Many foreign expat workers who come to Saudi Arabia endure, among other hardships, isolation, stressful living and working conditions, severe climate, and separation from their families, sometimes for years.  Saudi Arabia is now exploring yet another way to make these conditions even more difficult - by threatening to ban internet social communications platforms to make it harder for people to communicate with their loved ones outside the country.  On the chopping block are programs such as Skype, Whats App, and others.

Saudi Arabia ranks near the top on the worldwide list for usage of electronic technology, surpassing many other countries in the use of social media sites like Twitter, Facebook, and other such applications.  Saudis pride themselves on having state-of-the-art electronics and services.  

These past few months, there have been threats and warnings by the Saudi government issued to several communications platforms to comply with unclear and unspecified regulations - or be shut down.  It has been reported that local servers have apparently been requested from these companies so the Saudi government can monitor and censor activities of their users.  In 2010 under the threat of being closed down, Blackberry surrendered and provided the required servers rather than risk being banned.  

The first casualty of this censorship campaign is Viber, a company based out of Cyprus.  Viber was the easiest and most popular service used by Arab expats because of its Arabic formatted version and its compatibility with all computer operating systems and wireless networks.  There have been conflicting reports as to exactly why Viber was shut down.  According to reports, the suspension was put into effect because monitoring is difficult for the government and it robs licensed telecom companies of profits from international calls.  However Viber claims that the Saudi government agency in charge of this action made no prior request of the company.  

So is this just an act of desperate need for control by a paranoid Saudi government?  Or is this action motivated purely of greed?  It’s probably a combination of both.  With unrest wafting through the air since the Arab Spring, the Saudi government is no doubt on its guard.  Saudization, the government plan to replace foreign workers with Saudis, may also be a factor in this move, making it expensive for foreigners to call family back home when they have been able to do it for free for the past few years. 

Internet service and mobile phone costs in Saudi Arabia rank among the highest in the world.  With these applications providing users the ability to make free phone calls, exchange text messages, and photo file sharing, Saudi telecom providers are being deprived of potentially gargantuan revenues from these free services that, if controlled by Saudi telecom companies, could line their pockets with an exorbitant windfall.  
Considering how these applications are not only used by expats staying in touch with their families, but also by many Saudi students and travelers to maintain contact with their families, as well as by many businesses for basic communication needs, this move by the government is not welcomed by anyone other than the powerful and greedy Saudi telecommunications industry.   I’m convinced that the powers that be in Saudi Arabia just want to make simple things as difficult as they possibly can for the country’s residents.  The theory is that this type of thing is done to keep people’s focus on more trivial matters and keep the glare away from the government. 

At any rate, there will always be some other ingenuity used to circumvent these roadblocks put up by the Saudi government.  It’s just a pain in the meantime for those of us who aren’t that technologically astute to find a suitable detour.

More reading:

Arab News:  5 Expats arrested in crackdown against internet calls