Thursday, December 16, 2010

It's all in the cards

I've been conducting a little experimental observation the past week.

It started with simple curiousity about all the pre-paid phone cards one sees lying around on the ground but it's really about the larger issue of littering in KSA. I got the idea from reading Susie of Arabia's article about the clean up effort on the corniche in Jeddah. As I opined at the time to Susie, I heartily endorsed the idea but felt confident that anything they cleaned up would be back in duplicate the next week.

So here's what I did

For the admittedly arbitrary period of 4 days, I stopped and picked up every single pre-paid plastic phone card on the ground in my path between my apartment and my workplace, a distance of about one km. I stopped after 4 days because I had gone over the slightly varying routes 8 times (round trip) and found that the average number of cards was decreasing only slightly. I figured the first couple days I was picking up cards from several previous weeks but by the third day it was mostly new cards.

My hypotheses going in were (1) that the assortment of cards would reflect the market shares of the three local providers: STC, Mobily and Zain, in that order, (2) that the value of the cards would be evenly distributed among 10s, 20s, 30s and so on. [Note: 10 SR=$2.67 US]

I was also simply curious about how many cards there really were. I asked a few colleagues who hazarded guesses of 7-10 cards per day.

The actual average was 41.75, with slightly higher numbers on the first and second days.

Here's what my collection looked like after 3 days:

The sharp-eyed among you will note that my initial two hypotheses were gloriously disconfirmed.

While STC dominates the market for phone cards in the Malaz district, Zain clearly trumps Mobily, which is actually the market's second-in-command for overall telecoms market share.

Why is that? Well, as a colleague mentioned, it seems that Mobily has better deals for post-paid service, leaving STC and Zain as the price-leaders for pre-paid service. I can't vouch for that but it's certainly suggested by the numbers:

STC: 68%
Zain: 20%
Mobily: 12%

I was also wrong about the distribution of phone card values which were completely dominated by the 10 and 20SR cards:

SR 10: 77%
SR 20: 17%
SR30: 2%
SR 50: 3%
SR 60: 0.5%
SR 100: 0.5%

Essentially 10 and 20 SR cards comprised 87% of the pre-paid cards left on the ground.

It's important to remember that these figures represent cards carelessly or deliberately left on the ground, not the total number of cards purchased, some of which are undoubtedly dropped in the trash. So it may well be that the numbers tell us more about how the mixture of the army of foreign blue-collar or subsistence workers and middle-class native Saudis dispose of trash than the population as a whole.

In other words, this doesn't say anything about what percentage of cards are put in trash versus dropped, or what the true distribution of card values is.

Be that as it may, it's clear that residents and passers-by in Malaz buy the cheapest cards available and, from what I can personally observe, think no more about dropping a card once it's been scratched than they think about a fly once it's shooed from their arm. Once a card has been scratched and used, it is no longer in the customer's attention span and seems to simply fall from his hand like so much lint.

In fact, I asked one gent, with as much politeness as I could muster, why he dropped his card instead of throwing it in the trash. He replied quite matter of factly, "That's how we do it here."

I asked another guy whom I found buying a 10SR card at the bakalla (mini mart) why he bought that value instead of something higher. He said, "It's how I control my phone calls. If I got more, I'd just use more."

It's a bit tricky to calculate how many minutes one gets from a given phone card given that different providers have different rates and SMS charges are different from voice calls, not to mention the variety of services like prayer time notifications, but I'd venture to say that a 10SR card (worth, as noted, about $2.70 US) yields about 18-20 minutes of telephoning or 40 text messages.

Of course many of the dropped cards can be found in the immediate vicinity of the bakallas but a surprising number are found up and down the neighborhood streets. The reason for this, as I observed, is that a customer buys a card and then walks down the street scratching to get the code and re-charging his phone and then drops it when he's done, which may be a block and a half away.

As I was discussing this with a colleague, he ventured a further opinion about phone usage in the kingdom. According to his theory, Indians are the big texters, Pakistanis won't text but will call, and Bangladeshis use a sort of missed-call system to convey information like "on my way home," thus avoiding call charges. I can't vouch for any of this; just tellin' what I hear. Americans simply lose their phones a lot. And of course Saudi students usually have two phones -- one that the family knows about and one for...other uses.

Ecologically, however, I'd say the cards are a disaster, considering the amount of plastic involved for a useful life of 20 seconds, not including the resources needed to create the cards and truck them to the points of sale. And don't forget the plastic sheaths each card is wrapped in. Once the number has been scratched, the card becomes useful as...nothing.

One thing that some vendors do is provide a register receipt with the re-charge number instead of a plastic card. I'm sure the customers drop the register paper just as freely as the plastic, but the paper is a bit more biodegradeable.


Here's a typical Zain card

At least the folks at Mobily give you a collectors' motive for not tossing out the cards.

And finally: a glimpse of the rare 100 SR (about $27 US) STC card!



  1. Interesting post. I'm glad you were able to prove and disprove your hypotheses. My final analysis is that (a) you have excessive time on your hands here and (b) your level of boredom must be in the 80-100% range.
    Here in Jeddah, there are new signs all over that announce a new 150 SR fine for littering! I think it should be higher myself. But at least it's a step in the right direction.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Well, considering the glaring lack of activities there is here, I think you're being very creative with your time management!

  4. Mobily do this stupid recharge thing using some machine and your phone. I hate it because I only have a Mobily SIM for my internet so I don't carry it with me (or know the number) when I'm buying a recharge. Then when you can find a place that sells cards their denominations are ridiculous; 10SR & 90SR for 100SR, 60SR & 240SR for 300SR. Yet their plans are sold in the 100's! I just don't understand it.

  5. Susie: I find that I do a lot of things here that I would never consider back in Arizona -- watching a polo match, playing rugby (still sore from that!), bowling, caroling in the middle of the desert, group grocery shopping, attending chorales at an embassy -- whatever diverse things I can find to make up for lack of ordinary socialization opportunities. I also like to count things. Thankfully I haven't started counting the tiles in my apartment.

    Regarding the corniche clean up: Have you noticed any difference? Will you be doing a follow up story on that?

  6. One thing that some vendors do is provide a register receipt with the re-charge number instead of a plastic card is great idea.
    Plastic card
    Plastic card
    Hank Hendricks

  7. I want to know how to make international calls from multiple registered numbers without using lengthy pin, password and calling cards numbers, Just SimpleCall Direct. It would be help full for me.

  8. Interesting post.