Expatriates are likely to find it more difficult to stay in contact with their loved ones at home with the banning of Viber by Saudi Arabia's telecommunications regulatory authority.
The Communications and Information Technology Commission (CITC) announced the ban on its website on Wednesday. The ban was introduced because monitoring is difficult for the state and it deprives licensed telecom companies of revenue from international calls and texts.
"The Viber application has been suspended ... and the (regulator) affirms it will take appropriate action against any other applications or services if they fail to comply with regulatory requirements and rules in force in the Kingdom," the CITC said in its statement on its website.
The CITC had announced earlier this year that it was watching Viber and other free Internet communications sites, including WhatsApp and Skype.
Attempts to use Viber on various smartphones yesterday were met with messages of “No Service” and “Blocked.” Cyprus-based Viber is a multi-platform instant messaging and Voice Over Internet Protocol (VoIP) application system that allows subscribers to make free calls, and exchange images, video, audio and text messages.
It is popular among Arab expatriates because it has an Arabic version and works on all operating systems and wireless networks.
CITC spokesperson Sultan Al-Maliki did not respond to several calls from Arab News on Wednesday.
Several Arabs are now using free VoIP software known as “Free PP” as a substitute for Viber.
Local media reported earlier this year that Saudi Arabia's three main operators Saudi Telecom Co., Etihad Etisalat (Mobily) and Zain Saudi had been asked to tell the CITC if they were able to monitor or block such applications, according to reports.
Mobile penetration in the Kingdom was 188 percent by the end of 2012, CITC data shows. Saudi Arabia now has 15.8 million Internet subscribers and the average user watches three times as many online videos per day compared to counterparts in the United States, according to YouTube.
Conventional international calls and texts are a lucrative earner for telecom operators in Saudi Arabia, which hosts around nine million expatriates. These foreign workers are increasingly using Internet-based applications such as Viber to communicate with relatives in other countries, analysts say.