Born dead: The Internet in Saudi Arabia

Published May 21st, 2001 - 02:00 GMT

By Dr. Mohamed J. Al-Hassan 

King Saud University, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia 


It has been accepted for a while now that the Internet availability is not a luxury—it is a necessity. And if someone believes or even thinks that this statement is untrue, that person must be living in another world.  


The Internet is not for the elites alone; as a primary backbone for transmitting information, it is for the general public. The Internet is used for almost everything, not just chatting and emailing, but for distant learning, commerce, research, exchange of information, news, education etc. There is no limitation on its boundaries. As long as we continue working with it, we will discover more uses for it. 


It is estimated that the Internet is currently available to about 70 percent of all US citizens, and similar figures exist in other countries as well. But it is not just available, it is also fast, cheap and reliable—and, by “reliable,” I mean it works all the time.  


To properly take advantage of the Internet, you need a decent infrastructure. This means having good phone lines, and a good network for the passing back and forth of data to the international Internet backbone. This is not a problem in countries where Integrated Services Digital Networks (ISDN) and Digital Subscriber Lines (DSL) and Advanced DSL (ADSL), are available. Some of these nations are Saudi Arabia’s neighbors, such as the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait. Several other Arab countries are also well advanced in what they can offer. 


In Saudi Arabia, we lag behind the countries around us. The physical infrastructure is underdeveloped and the quality of service is not good. In fact when we talk about the Internet, we need to talk first about the availability of phone lines. It takes two or more years to obtain a line in many areas outside Riyadh, unless you know someone who can help move things along. The bottom line is that good Internet availability is impossible without fulfilling the needs of the people in search of phone lines. 


There also is the question of Internet speed. In Saudi Arabia, access to the Internet is via phone lines at a maximum rate of 33.6 kilobyte per second (kps). And then there is the issue of price. According to the Al-Riyadh newspaper, Internet connection in Saudi Arabia is the most expensive when compared to our gulf neighbors and other Arab countries. It costs three Saudi riyals per hour ($0.80), paid to the Saudi Telecom, and extra SR 180 a month ($48) to the local Internet Service Providers (ISP). 


If you use the Internet only three hours a day for one month, it will cost you about SR 450 ($120). This is not much unless we realize that the annual income per capita is about SR 22,500 ($6000) and or SR1,875 per month. SR 450 for what others may consider reasonable Internet usage is 24 percent of monthly income, which is a huge proportion.  


These obstacles have led to low Internet access in Saudi Arabia. According to Saudi Telecom, there are today about 400,000 people with Internet access in the country, which translates to around two percent of the 20 million strong population.  


And a two percent penetration rate may be optimistic. The Arab Advisors Group (AAG) estimates that there is only 0.75 percent Internet penetration in Saudi Arabia because of poor infrastructure, compared to eight percent penetration in the UAE and five percent in Lebanon. 


Reliability is another issue. Internet users in Saudi Arabia are used to being disconnected all the time, and downloading that is so slow that it makes people sick. But do they have any choice? Unfortunately not. They cannot get their money back and complaints mean nothing in the presence of a monopoly. There are no consumer advocacy groups and no place to go to voice grievance. The local newspapers are full of complaints but they all fall upon deaf ears. This has been going on since the introduction of the Internet three years ago. 


Is there a way to have good inexpensive Internet access? Maybe so. Advances in technology are making this possible and better connections will be available soon via satellite links. They already can be obtained on the black market, but the cost is high—reaching SR 14,000 at the minimum.  


Hopefully within a year or so, we will not need to reach the Saudi Telecom, nor will we get the Internet via King Abdullaziz City of Science and Technology (KACST). Lots of options will be available and we will be happy to say to them “Eat your own cooking, because we are sick of it. We don’t have to take it anymore.”  


This article reflects the views of the author and not necessarily those of MENA Report

© 2001 Mena Report (

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