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Expat Indians to benefit as Saudi lifts ban on Skype, WhatsApp calling amid opening up of economy

The Saudi government has lifted a ban on calls made through apps such as Skype and WhatsApp, in a move that would be welcomed by the large Indian expatriate community in the country.

Published: 22nd September 2017 07:27 PM  |   Last Updated: 22nd September 2017 08:15 PM   |  A+A-

Image used for representational purpose only

By Online Desk

The Saudi government has lifted a ban on calls made through apps such as Skype and WhatsApp, in a move that would be welcomed by the large Indian expatriate community in the country. The announcement made by the kingdom’s telecom department makes the country more attractive for business opportunities in the digital sphere.

Skype, Facebook, WhatsApp and Viber are applications that are set to become accessible in the Kingdom. But though the ban has been lifted, calls made through these apps would be closely monitored and even censored to block content that violate the kingdom’s laws.

Calling apps were blocked in 2013 by the kingdom during the rise of the Arab Spring movement in the West Asian region in 2011, as the country was worried about the spread of activism through these mass market apps.

It was unclear how the apps would be monitored, as companies like WhatsApp claim that they have implemented end-to-end encryption, meaning the company cannot read customers’ messages even if approached by law enforcement agencies.

It is estimated that about 4,100,000 Indians currently live in Saudi Arabia, most of whom are domestic workers and labourers in low-paying sectors such as construction and transportation. Visas for such jobs do not permit people to bring along their families to Saudi Arabia, which means hundreds of thousands of workers live for years apart from their families. The lifting of the ban on internet calling services would be welcomed by them as it would help them keep in touch with their families easily.

The decision to make calling apps accessible could negatively impact Saudi’s three main telecom operators, which earn the bulk of their revenue from international phone calls made by millions of expatriates living in the kingdom. But at the same time, it would open up new opportunities for investments in the digital space as the country, which is now heavily dependent on oil dollars, looks to diversify its sources of revenue. The kingdom’s new crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, launched the Vision 2030 strategy after he took over, which focuses on opening up the telecom, tourism and entertainment sectors.

"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," the statement which was quoted by The Telegraph website said.

In recent times, the most popular offering in the app sphere has been Sarahah, launched by a Saudi developer Zain al-Abidin Tawfiq. Sarahah, which lets people give anonymous feedback about people within the network, topped the most downloaded free apps charts in both Google Play Store and Apple’s App Store. According to a report in theverge.com, venture capitalists are looking to invest in similar startups.

Saudi Arabia also has one the largest per-capita rates of social media use in the world as the country has a large youth population. The market for apps is also thus large and ripe for a boom in the digital business.



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