Saudi Arabia is a nationalistic, deeply religious state. While there have been improvements in the quality of life, and human rights, for Saudi Arabia’s citizens, internet censorship is still a harsh reality. The Kingdom polices content and websites by:
- Forbidding VoIP calling
- Silencing political opposition
- Taking down content critical of Islam
- Blocking gambling sites
But citizens of Saudi Arabia, and tourists, can circumvent the bans imposed by the Kingdom with the help of a VPN.
In 2014, the free press advocacy group, Reporters Without Borders, described the actions of the government of Saudi Arabia as “relentless in its censorship of the Saudi media and the Internet.”
Since that time, the Saudi government has taken major steps towards increasing civil rights within the kingdom, reducing restrictive male guardianship laws, and giving women the right to drive.
However, despite these positive actions, free speech restrictions for internet users still exist. In this article, we will look at why and how the government of Saudi Arabia censors the internet, what content is restricted, and how those restrictions might be bypassed.
Increased Access and Increased Restriction
Part of Saudi Arabia’s “Vision 2030” plan to improve the Kingdom’s international competitiveness, attract foreign investment, and diversify the government’s non-oil-based revenue included ambitious connectivity targets.
These plans included increasing fixed-line broadband penetration in urban areas from 44% to 80% and improving wireless broadband penetration in rural areas from 12% to 70%.
Despite committing to massively increasing Saudi Arabia’s overall connectivity, the Saudi government has instituted harsh crackdowns on internet-based free speech, blocking tens of thousands of websites and handing down harsh sentences to those who criticize the Kingdom’s leadership.
After the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, the number of websites being censored in Saudi Arabia almost doubled.
Foreign news services such as Fox News, the Times, the New York Post, the Los Angeles Times, and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation were suddenly blocked, as were local English-language news services, such as arabnews.com.
Individuals have been targeted as well. Human rights activists Issa al-Hamid and Abdulaziz al-Shubaily, and liberal blogger Raif Badawi, were handed lengthy prison sentences, and multi-year bans on using social media for their online activism.
Why Does Saudi Arabia Censor the Internet?
Censorship of the internet is part of a more comprehensive program of censorship and free-speech restrictions designed to solidify the hold of the House of Saud, the current Saudi royal family, on social, political, and religious power.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia does not have a constitution and operates as a totalitarian monarchy, with the King combining legislative, executive, and judicial powers. Royal decrees form the basis of the country’s legislation.
The House of Saud’s vast numbers of male members, estimated to be around 7000, allow it to control most of the Kingdom’s critical governmental posts and to have a presence at all levels of government.
Saudi Arabia gives the ulema, a body of Islamic religious leaders and jurists, a direct role in government. The Saudi ulema has historically been led by the country’s leading religious family, the Al ash-Sheikh, that cooperates with the House of Saud to rule the country.
Overall, internet censorship is used by the ulema and the Saudi government to suppress civil and gender rights activists, maintain political and religious control and counter outside influences that are considered a threat.
What Content is Restricted in Saudi Arabia?
Criticism of Islam and the reporting and depicting of radical Islam are restricted in Saudi Arabia. Moreover, Saudi Arabia uses censorship to silence political opposition, and they also restrict access to software that can help protestors coordinate, like VoIP calling.
VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) Calling
Saudi telecommunication companies have traditionally imposed harsh restrictions on free or low-cost VoIP call services. These restrictions are justified by suggesting that VoIP calling threatens standard mobile call operators, circumvents the regulatory environment, and can bypass the state’s surveillance systems.
As of 2013, all Saudi internet providers have blocked VoIP over Viber, WhatsApp, and Facebook Messenger. In order to sell iPhones in the Kingdom, Apple agreed to remove the Facetime app. The VoIP function of the messaging apps Signal and Telegram are still operational, but the apps themselves suffer from severe connection throttling, often making them unusable.
If you want to find out more about how to circumvent similar bans, you can read our article about accessing Skype abroad.
Article 39 of the Saudi Basic Law of Governance states that: “Mass media and all other vehicles of expression shall employ civil and polite language, contribute towards the education of the nation and strengthen unity.”
The government of Saudi Arabia uses vaguely worded laws such as this, and more recent anti-terrorism laws to prosecute political activists who post their views online.
The websites and social media pages of both the Arab Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) and the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Organization (ACPRA) are also currently blocked.
Criticism of Islam
The influence of the ulema on the Saudi Government has led to the country restricting access to any content that seems to promote atheism or criticize Islam and the Wahhabi form of Sunni Islam that dominates religious life in Saudi Arabia.
The government also takes steps to censor the reporting and depicting of radical Islam, often censoring or blocking both western and local news websites reporting on terrorist attacks or the so-called Islamic State (IS).
Nudity and Pornography
As a conservative Islamic country, Saudi Arabia has strict laws on depictions of nudity or sexuality. Public displays of affection, such as hugging or kissing, are often removed from print and online media.
This can even extend to the showing of uncovered arms and legs of women and men, as the government’s version of Islamic morality prohibits the publishing of anything deemed to promote “sexual immorality.”
Homosexuality remains illegal in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (CPVPV) has the power to arrest and detain people who violate the traditional teachings of Islam. This includes any act of homosexuality, cross-dressing, the consumption of alcohol, and the practice of magic.
Gambling and the Consumption of Alcohol
Under the Sharia law that forms the basis of much of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s laws, gambling and the consumption of alcohol are both illegal. This has resulted in the government blocking access to online gambling sites and censoring content that shows the consumption of alcohol, even to the extent of editing scenes of drinking out of films.
How Does Saudi Arabia Censor the Internet?
Saudi Arabia censors the internet by blocking websites, prosecuting persons of interest, and throttling internet connections. Because the government owns most Internet Service Providers (ISPs) operating in Saudi Arabia, it’s easy for them to put these restrictions into place.
Blocking and Filtering
The Communications and Information Technology Commission (CITC), a department of the Saudi Ministry of the Interior, filters the internet and blacklists websites that are considered “harmful,” “illegal,” “anti-Islamic,” or “offensive.”
ISPs in the Kingdom must block all sites banned by the CITC. Failure to do so can cause a fine of up to $1.33 million, according to Article 38 of the Telecommunications Act.
Social media is also monitored and regulated, with gatekeepers regularly removing posts and content while the government issues takedown requests to Facebook, Twitter, and Google.
In 2017, a message was widely circulated through local Saudi WhatsApp groups, threatening those who criticize the Saudi government on the platform with a one-year prison sentence and a $133,000 fine. The message also appeared in state-owned newspapers alongside citations from lawyers who seemed to confirm its legal basis.
In 2007 the Saudi Government introduced the Anti-Cyber Crime Law that criminalized “producing something that harms public order, religious values, public morals, the sanctity of private life, or authoring, sending, or storing it via an information network.” Anyone caught in violation of this rather vaguely worded law might face five years in prison and a fine of $800,000.
A more recent anti-terrorism law, passed in 2014, defined terrorist activity in vague terms such as “insulting the reputation of the state,” “harming public order,” or “shaking the security of the state.” Article 1 of the 2014 anti-terrorism law also defines “calling for atheist thought in any form” as terrorism.
By using vaguely worded laws and imposing harsh penalties, the Saudi government is able to effectively criminalize and censor a wide range of political, religious, and social speech and content.
Saudi Arabia has two government-owned service providers. The mobile and broadband market is dominated by Saudi Telecom Company (STC), owned by Etisalat of the United Arab Emirates, and the Kuwaiti company Zain.
The Saudi Telecom Company is majority state-owned, while both Mobily and Zain are at least partially owned by the government of the UAE and Kuwait, both of whom operate similar censorship programs as the Saudi government.
By entering significant control over the companies that provide internet access, the Saudi government can ensure that it can censor any content that can be accessed from within the Kingdom.
How to Circumvent Saudi Arabia’s Censorship
Tourists in Saudi Arabia, and citizens that live there, can circumvent the bans we outlined above by masking their IP and navigating the web under a pseudonym. For the first, you can use a VPN (Virtual Private Network). A VPN will change your IP and make you anonymous. To navigate under a pseudonym safely, we would advise you to use a secure email provider such as ProtonMail.
Is Using a VPN Illegal in Saudi Arabia?
Saudi Arabia does not have a fully established legal code. Their current legal system is based on Sharia law and supplemented by royal decrees.
While the use of a virtual private network (VPN) is not explicitly illegal, some laws used to criminalize online activity are so vaguely worded that they could conceivably be applied to almost anything.
While there has yet to be a publicized case of an individual being prosecuted for the use of a VPN, the websites of many similar tools, such as Tor and the major VPN providers, remain blocked by the government.
The threat of prosecution has not stopped many Saudis from using VPN services, the Tor Project, and other methods of bypassing content restrictions, with many unblocking services continuing to receive high levels of traffic from within the Kingdom.
What is the Best VPN to Use in Saudi Arabia?
Before choosing a VPN, you should first see what you can access. A VPN’s site may not be blocked if you try to reach it with a proxy, or using the Tor browser. That being said, it’ll all depend on your ISP, so we’ll tell you our recommended picks for the best VPNs to use in Saudi Arabia, but do your own research if these tools aren’t available.
If you are looking for a VPN with a speedy and stable connection, then look no further than ExpressVPN. ExpressVPN offers you a massive selection of thousands of servers worldwide, and their vast network allows you to bypass geo-blocking, and even anonymously download through torrent networks.
You can install ExpressVPN’s user-friendly application onto all your devices, as it works on Android, iOS, Windows, and macOS. Even better, you can get an exclusive deal of 3 free months if you sign up for a year’s plan with ExpressVPN using our link.
- Very easy to use VPN
- Perfect for anonymous browsing, downloading, and streaming (i.e. Netflix)
- 3000+ servers in 94 countries
NordVPN is one of the premier VPN service providers, offering advanced encryption, a reliable, speedy service, and a vast range of servers in countries all over the world. NordVPN operates a “no logging” policy and, as they are based in Panama, they are under no obligation to keep records of your online activities, offering you complete anonymity.
If you want to enjoy streaming services around the world, then NordVPN is the service for you, enabling you to bypass restrictions on streaming services like Hulu and Netflix. They also offer a 30-day money-back guarantee, so you can try their services for a month without committing. NordVPN can also help you avoid censorship in countries like Ukraine.
- Excellent protection and a large network of servers
- Nice and pleasing application
- No logs
One of the major benefits of picking CyberGhost as your VPN provider is that their easy-to-use software can be installed on up to 7 devices, allowing you to surf anonymously on whichever device you are using.
The CyberGhost software is also compatible with Windows, macOS, iOS, Android, and Linux, meaning you don’t have to choose between your iPad and your Android phone. CyberGhost’s 45-day money-back guarantee means that if you aren’t entirely happy with their service, you can reclaim your subscription cost with no questions asked. The fact that it has servers close to Saudi Arabia also makes this one a good choice for anyone living or traveling there.
- Very user-friendly
- High quality for a low price
- Torrents and Netflix possible
While the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has taken some recent steps forward in increasing its citizen’s civil rights, particularly regarding women’s rights issues, censorship and restrictions on free speech are still strongly imposed by the Saudi government.
A combination of vaguely worded laws, state-controlled ISPs, and heavy-handed prosecutions for crimes such as “insulting the reputation of the state,” has allowed the Saudi government to criminalize elements of internet-based free speech and actively restrict access to content that the secular and religious authorities do not want their citizens gaining access too.
Despite these restrictions, many Saudis are making use of services, such as VPNs, to bypass content restrictions and access the internet without fear.
While researching censorship in Saudi Arabia, we came across a few frequently asked questions about the topic. Click on any of these questions for our answer.
As an authoritarian and deeply religious state, Saudi Arabia censors the internet to maintain a ruling elite, and impose a religious narrative, under the guise of protecting the peace, morality, and stability of the Kingdom.
It’s a harsh, yet common practice in countries like Saudi Arabia. Independent press institutions, bloggers, and political opposition can undermine an authoritarian state. If you want to find out more, you can read our article on censorship in Saudi Arabia.
The main tool for internet censorship in Saudi Arabia is blocking and filtering content. Besides that, they also do other things, like:
- Forcing ISPs to throttle connections
- Owning some of the ISPs operating in Saudi Arabia
- Passing vague regulation to enforce content censorship
Like in any country, a VPN (Virtual Private Network) will help you mask your IP and navigate the internet anonymously. However, just a VPN won’t cut it. You also need to sign-up for services and browse the web under a pseudonym, to avoid legal repercussions. A ProtonMail account can help you with that.