Low fees lure Kuwait expats to make illegal international calls

November 11, 2011

Maria, an Eastern European expat in her 40s, sits huddled in a small cubicle at one of Kuwait’s few illegal phone centres.

She dials the number of her family back home and then spends two-hours chatting. After hanging up, she takes two one-dinar notes from her purse and pays for her call before leaving.

Maria is just one of many expats who keep in regular contact with their families at home at these illegal phone centres.

Forty per cent international calls from Kuwait ‘illegal’

Recent statistic shows that some 40 per cent of international calls from Kuwait are made illegally.

According to some expat residents, the cost per call makes the use of these centres far more attractive than the alternative.

At ten fils per minute to India, 15 fils to Bangladesh and Sri Lanka and 100 fils to Philippines and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, the costs currently charged at these centres or by individuals offering the same service are far lower than using a mobile phone, with charges for overseas calls via a mobile starting at 250 fils per minute, Kuwaiti daily Kuwait Times reports.

How does the business of illegal phone centres work?

All the vendors need to do is to purchase a card for KD28.5 for 600 minutes of telephone credit. “The telephone card is only KD23, but you have to pay KD5 for the internet connection,” a call vendor named Madhu told the daily.

The 600 minutes of call time will then be sold on at a mark-up to customers, most of whom are Filipinos and Indians. “Filipinos and Indians are my customers, but I like Filipino most because we charge them [more] so 100 fils for [each minute of] the 600 minutes credit means KD60 in profit,” he said.

Prepaid cards

Madhu also moonlights as a vendor of individual prepaid cards, which ensures that regular customers get a phone card to talk to their families.

This black market income is one way in which Kuwait’s phone network is illegally used and abused on a daily basis, according to the Ministry of Communication (MOC). At more than 250 fils per minute for overseas calls, the MoC’s call charges are the highest among the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states.

This has led many of the country’s expatriate minorities to turn to the illegal phone centres. “Why spend dinars where you can pay a few fils for each call?” one customer asked. “It is cheaper to call back home in India than to call my family and friends here in Kuwait.”

Costing the economy

However, according to an article in local daily Al Qabas, the centres cost the Kuwaiti economy dearly, with the MoC losing an estimated KD630 million between 1992 and 2006 in revenue due to over a million expatriates opting to use the illegal centers to stay in contact with loved ones back home.

One source told Kuwait Times that some providers are fully aware of and even involved in such phone call centres. Another communications insider backed up this claim, suggesting that internet providers in Kuwait as well as some MoC employees cooperate with the ‘gangs’ that run offices or individual vendors in exchange for profit.

“I got the pre-paid card for calls from a source. It is not available at the store,” a Bangladeshi janitor said. Speaking on condition of anonymity, the janitor said that he has a number of regular customers for the telephone calls, especially among Filipinos and Indians.

Word of mouth

“I have a good number of customers who know about my telephone connection and I do not need to go out and offer services; people who they [regular customers] know will hear about my services and they will come to meet me or sometimes I will go to them to offer my services,” he said, quoted by the daily.

He said that he receives a monthly salary of KD60 for his regular job, but the additional income from providing the international call is much better.


“The salary for me is just like a small bonus in my pocket. I am earning lots in this illegal telephone call business,” he said. “If a person cannot pay because maybe they are broke, I do not really mind at all. Can you call without paying in the call centers? What about using the services of giant telecom companies? You have to pay first before you can get their services, but I sometimes offer people services for free.”

One operator at a call centre-cum-internet cafe in Kuwait City said that the illegal international calls were mostly carried out by expatriates.

“I have been doing this for months now and ever since I have not had any problems at all,” he said. However, he says he takes one additional security measure. “I offer these services only to people whom I know. I don’t offer it to Arabs.”

A senior MoC official said that while the ministry was “working relentlessly on tackling the problem,” its capabilities are limited whilst those who are using high-tech devices through which they can make online calls can import them into Kuwait without problems.





About the author

Born August 3, 1960 in Monastir, Tunisia
Media career:
  • ABC News (Tunisia)
  • Bahrain Tribune
  • Gulf News
  • Bahrain Television News
Teaching career:
  • Monastir (Tunisia)
  • University of Bahrain
  • MA  Mass Communications, University of Leicester
  • BA  in English & US literature and studies, University of Tunis

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