Saudi Arabia ends ban on phone calls made through messaging apps

21 Sep 2017

Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Image: Fedor Selivanov/Shutterstock

Saudi Arabia enforced the ban in 2013, citing wariness of secure internet communication.

The government in Saudi Arabia has today (21 September) announced it is to lift a ban on calls made through online apps, although monitoring and censorship will still apply, according to Reuters.

The lifting of the ban will hit the country’s three main telecoms firms, which had been enjoying the revenue from the millions of international calls made by the large immigrant community in Saudi Arabia.

People in Saudi Arabia will instead turn to WhatsApp or Skype, which are free to use and meet the country’s regulatory requirements.

Policing secure messaging apps

The original ban was enforced in 2013 as the government expressed wariness of secure communications protocols in apps such as WhatsApp, as they are extremely difficult to police or monitor.

“Digital transformation is one of the key kick-starters for the Saudi economy, as it will incentivise the growth of internet-based businesses, especially in the media and entertainment industries,” a statement from the information ministry said.

“Access to VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) will reduce operational costs and spur digital entrepreneurship – that’s why it is such an important step in the kingdom’s internet regulation.

“This decision comes in line with the recent trends in the ICT sector; the reliance on data revenues (internet delivery) and added services is the global trend that operators in the kingdom should take.”

It added: “The authority is working with all stakeholders to provide all the telecom subscribers in the kingdom of the finest services that meet their aspirations and satisfy their needs.”

Although the country is oil-rich, authorities are looking for other revenue streams. It hopes that the lifting of the ban could attract more digital business into Saudi Arabia, diversifying its economy.

While the use of these new apps will certainly surge, Saudi residents will continue to have a relatively limited scope when it comes to their online freedom.

Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Image: Fedor Selivanov/Shutterstock

Ellen Tannam was a journalist with Silicon Republic, covering all manner of business and tech subjects