From telegrams to digital services: IT has traveled a long way in Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia established a wireless network in 1925. (SPA)
Updated 23 September 2018
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From telegrams to digital services: IT has traveled a long way in Saudi Arabia

  • Telecommunication system has always been vital for the country, and will continue to play a key role in future

JEDDAH: The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has always paid great attention to the communications and information technology (IT) sector, which is one of the oldest governmental sectors. Since the era of founder King Abdul Aziz Al-Saud, the postal and telecommunication services have been an essential link between the Kingdom’s sprawling regions, separated by great distances. An order was issued in 1926 to establish the Directorate of Posts, Telegraph and Telephones (PTT), to take care of all the postal and telecommunication services. In 1934, 22 wireless stations were opened to link 22 cities and villages in the Kingdom through telegraph services.
King Salman also showed great interest in the sector and launched in 2016 the Kingdom’s Vision 2030, which was adopted by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The vision focuses on developing the sector in the Kingdom in accordance with international developments.
With the flourishing economy, Vision 2030 reflected the state’s concern to develop its digital infrastructure, as this is vital in building advanced industrial activities, attracting investors and improving the competitiveness of the national economy.
Therefore, communications and IT infrastructure will be developed through partnerships with the private sector, especially high-speed broadband technology, to increase coverage in cities and outskirts and optimize the quality of the calls. The Vision aims for a coverage of more than 90 percent of houses in densely populated cities and 66 percent in other areas.
The state will promote the governance of the digital transformation through a national council that supervises the process and will also support the transformation at the governmental level.
The communication and IT sector in the Kingdom has seen important changes, including the first negotiations with companies abroad to buy wireless devices and establishing a wireless network in 1925. The state then worked on expanding the international telegraph service through submarine cables across the Red Sea between Jeddah and Port Sudan, where the Port Sudan Conference was held in 1926 for this purpose.
Up until 1934, when the telephone service was first introduced to the country, the phone lines linked to the manual telephone exchanges in Riyadh, Makkah, Madinah, Jeddah and Taif did not exceed 854 in number.
During this era, the magnetic phone was used, which was dry-cell powered. This phone operated within the same neighborhood or city, through operators working around the clock to connect calls through a manual switchboard.
In 1984, a royal decree was issued to build an international wireless station in Jeddah. The state’s great interest in the sector led to the creation of the Communications Ministry, led by Prince Talal bin Abdul Aziz. The Directorate of Posts, Telegraph and Telephones (PTT) became part of the ministry in 1953. King Saud Al-Saud inaugurated the first phone calls between the Kingdom and Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and Bahrain in 1955.
King Al-Saud also introduced the first “telex” teleprinters, the Loren 2133 and the Siemens T37h with Arabic alphabets.
Telegraph remained the main means of communication until phone services were developed.
The state established the Ministry of Post, Telegraph, and Telephone (PTT) to handle the sectors of telegraph and communications in 1975, at a time when phone lines did not exceed 130,000, with revenues of SR250 million ($66.7 million).
In 1984, the first optical fiber cables were used, and call centers were established in all the regions of the Kingdom.
In 1987, King Fahd Satellite Telecommunications City was launched between Makkah and Jeddah. In 1995, mobile telephones were introduced in the Kingdom.
To provide trusted and developed services, the Communications Commission was established in 2001, to handle the organization of this sector and the issuance of licenses for companies. Information Technology was added to the commission’s missions and it became the Communications and Information Technology Commission (CITC) in 2003.
CITC has developed a strategic plan aiming to organize the sector to take it to high levels of competitiveness and ensure a suitable environment for investors. The Communications and IT Ministry is looking to extend the fiber optic system to 2.1 million houses in urban areas by 2020, to develop the infrastructure of communications, speed up the transfer toward the cognitive economy and match the goals of the National Transformation Program 2020.
The ministry has linked 400,000 houses with fiber-optic networks and 110 thousand houses with broadband wireless networks, and is also working on covering 70 percent of the remote houses with broadband wireless networks by 2020.

In 2016, more than SR130 billion ($34 billion) were spent on communications and IT services, where the sector’s contribution in the GDP reached 6 percent, and 10 percent in the non-oil domestic product.

The expenditure allocated for communications and IT is expected to increase due to big investments by the governmental and private sectors, and to become compatible with the National Transformation program 2020, as one of the main programs supporting the Vision 2030.


How ‘Absher’ app liberates Saudis from government bureaucracy

The Absher website also provides information on how to report wanted persons, or administrative or financial corruption. (Supplied)
Updated 17 February 2019
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How ‘Absher’ app liberates Saudis from government bureaucracy

  • Western media mistaken in portraying app as a tool of repression, leading female journalist says

JEDDAH: Absher, the “one-click” e-services app launched by the Interior Ministry in 2015, is now regarded as the leading government platform for Saudi citizens, freeing them from bureaucratic inefficiency and endless queuing for everyday services.
However, in a recent New York Times article, the app was criticized as a “tool of repression” following claims by Democratic Senator Ron Wyden and women’s rights groups.
Apple and Google were urged to remove the application from their devices over claims that it “enables abhorrent surveillance and control of women.”
In an official statement, the ministry rejected the allegations and said the Absher platform centralized more than 160 different services for all members of society, including women, the elderly and people with special needs.
The app makes electronic government services available for beneficiaries to access directly at any time and from any place in the Kingdom, the ministry said.
Absher allows residents of the Kingdom to make appointments, renew IDs, passports, driver’s licenses, car registration and other services with one click.
Many Saudis still recall having to queue at government agencies, such as passport control offices and civil affairs departments, for a variety of official procedures. Appointments could take weeks to arrange, with people relying on their green files, or “malaf allagi” — the 1980s and 1990s paper form of Absher that was known as the citizen’s “lifeline,” both figuratively and literally.
Hours would be spent as government departments ferried files back and forth, and if a form was lost, the whole transaction process would have to start again. As complicated as it was for men, women suffered more.
Muna Abu Sulayman, an award-winning strategy adviser and media personality, told Arab News the introduction of Absher had helped strengthen women’s rights.
Sulayman said she was disappointed at comments on the e-services platform being made abroad. “There are consequences that people don’t understand. It’s a very idealistic and naive way of understanding what is going on,” she said.
“The discussion on the guardianship law is internal and ongoing — it is something that has to be decided by our society and not as a result of outside pressure. We’re making strides toward equality and Absher is a step in the right direction,” she said.
“In a Twitter survey, I asked how many women have access to their guardian’s Absher. Most answered that they control their own fate. Men who don’t believe in controlling women gave them access to their Absher and that shows an increase in the participation of women in their own decision-making.”
Absher also provides services such as e-forms, dealing with Hajj eligibility, passport control, civil affairs, public services, traffic control, and medical appointments at government hospitals.
The platform is available to all men and women, and removes much of the bureaucracy and time wasting associated with nonautomated administrative systems.
On the issue of granting women travel permits, the law requires a male guardian to grant it through the portal, as well as for men under the age of 21.
Retired King Abdullah University professor Dr. Zainab M. Zain told Arab News: “I always had issues with my passport renewal as well as my children’s as they are both non-Saudi. For years it was risky not to follow up properly at passport control — you never knew what could happen, but now I can renew their permits by paying their fees online through Absher from the comfort of my home in Abu Dhabi.”
Ehsanul Haque, a Pakistani engineer who has lived in the Kingdom for more than 30 years, said: “Absher has helped tremendously with requests, such as exit and entry visas for my family and myself. I can receive approval within an hour whereas once it would’ve taken me days,” he said.
“The platform has eased many of my troubles.”
The Absher website also provides information on how to report wanted persons, or administrative or financial corruption.
In April, 2018, the ministry launched “Absher Business,” a technical initiative to transfer its business services to an interactive digital system.
With an annual fee of SR2,000 ($533), business owners such as Marwan Bukhary, owner of Gold Sushi Club Restaurant in Jeddah, used the portal to help manage his workers’ needs in his expanding business.
“There are many features in Absher that helps both individual and establishment owners,” he said. “I took advantage of the great features it provided, and it saved me a lot of time and trouble and also my restaurant workers. It’s a dramatic change. When Absher Business was launched last year, it organized how I needed to manage my workers’ work permits.
“Through the system, I could see the status of all my employees, renew their permits, grant their exit and entry visas, and have their permits delivered to my house or my business through the post after paying the fees. It saved business owners a lot of time and energy.
“I used to have to do everything manually myself or have my courier help. I believe it’s the government’s most advanced system yet with more features being added every now and then,” Bukhary said.
“Absher has eased our burden, unlike the old days when we needed to visit government offices and it would take four weeks just to get an appointment. One click is all it takes now.”