Saudi Arabia ranks extremely poorly on internet freedoms with a litany of sites and social media apps blocked for residents throughout the country. Bloggers have also been arrested and incarcerated for speaking out against the government and its authoritarian policies.
Advocacy body Freedom House says the internet landscape in the country is “not free”, with authorities constantly striving to stifle online commentary as well as access to content. That’s probably one of the reasons more than 30 percent of Saudi netizens use a Virtual Private Network (VPN) to access the web in the Middle Eastern country.
If you don’t want to read the rest of this article, here’s our list of the best VPNs for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA):
Using a VPN keeps you safe and secure on the web. The software masks your true location by encrypting all the traffic to and from your device and routing it via an intermediary server outside your current location. That means it’s very difficult for hackers or surveillance agencies to pry.
A VPN is also an excellent choice for foreign expatriates living in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia wishing to access local content from back home like BBC iPlayer, Netflix, Hulu, Sky Sports, or BeIN sports.
Our list of the best VPNs for Saudi Arabia is based on the following factors:
- Speed and stability of service
- Large network of servers across the world for expatriates to unblock content
- Strong encryption parameters to maintain privacy and anonymity
- Ease of use
- Apps for Android and iOS
ExpressVPN is a speedy, easy-to-use VPN that’s consistently ranked as one of our top services in this space. The design is neat and intuitive. It doesn’t compromise on encryption protocols, either, which are among the toughest in the industry. Users can select servers manually, from a list of recommended ones according to their location, or with a ‘smart location’ option that tells you which server it thinks best suits you. There are tons of options without the feeling of being overwhelmed.
The server network itself is robust with over 1500 spread across 94 countries including locations in the Middle East, Asia Pacific, and Europe. Foreign expatriates living in Saudi Arabia will notice that ExpressVPN gives them many options to stay in touch with local content from back home.
Privacy and anonymity are important factors while choosing to use a VPN in Saudi Arabia. Users should rest assured that ExpressVPN has their back because it has a transparent policy of not storing any user data. There is only a sliver of metadata retention that analyzes the time users connect to the service, the servers they prefer, and total bandwidth utilized. Your individual IP address won’t be logged. The company says it retains this bare minimum data to improve service levels – and so far we haven’t come across any complaints of privacy infractions.
If you’re still feeling queasy, it’s possible to register for the service via a burner email account and pay with Bitcoin. The already low threat of privacy invasion will be further reduced.
As mentioned earlier in this article, ExpressVPN’s encryption protocols are tough. It uses 256-bit AES-CBC with the utilization of both HMAC authentication and perfect forward secrecy. An internet kill switch temporarily halts all web traffic if the connection drops unexpectedly, keeping your connection secure.
The service unlocks geo-restricted content on Netflix without breaking a sweat and is similarly compatible with both Hulu and BBC iPlayer. It supports torrents.
There are apps for Android and iOS as well as desktop support for Windows and MacOS.
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Read our review of ExpressVPN.
NordVPN has been in existence for over a decade and has used its experience to build up a loyal legion of fans across the globe. The app may come across as clunky and cumbersome, but that doesn’t reflect on its core product – which provides impeccable speeds and security parameters. Long term users of NordVPN swear by it.
NordVPN continues the trend of adopting a zero-logs policy. This means it simply does not have any information about user sessions, traffic, or timestamps.
The company has received official requests for user data by government surveillance agencies. But the policy meant it couldn’t comply and user information remained hidden. Servers were confiscated in one instance for agents to scrub them thoroughly, but they were unable to glean any information. Privacy advocates will be pleased. NordVPN is also incorporated in Panama, meaning it’s out of the reach of any data retention laws – so the policy is unlikely to change.
The company operates 1081 servers in 61 countries making it a handy option for the entire gamut of web activity. It’s one of the few VPN providers that sorts servers for specific requirements such as anti-DDoS, video streaming, double VPN, Tor over VPN, or dedicated IP.
NordVPN works most online streaming services including Netflix, Hulu, and BBC iPlayer. It supports torrenting.
The company encrypts internet traffic via the 256-bit AES protocol by default and uses 2,048-bit SSL keys. DNS leak protection is enabled. The specifications propel it into the top-tier of VPN services so you should rest easy if you’re worried about privacy or anonymity.
Apps for Windows, MacOS, iOS, and Android are available.
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Here’s our review of NordVPN.
IPVanish is a well-known name in the VPN industry because it delivers blazing speeds coupled with sturdy encryption standards. It won’t break the bank either, with prices firmly in the mid-range segment.
The company is registered in the US which might be unsettling for some users, but it simply declines to store any user information. The only modicum of data it stores is when an account is registered for the very first time. After that all web activity is hidden and even inaccessible to system administrators – this includes session history, choice of servers, and bandwidth utilized.
Encryption standards are rigid. IPVanish deploys 256-bit encryption on the OpenVPN protocol by default, SHA512 authentication, and a DHE-RSA 2,048 key exchange with perfect forward secrecy. The latter feature means that in the unlikely scenario that hackers gain access to your account, all your past sessions will remain encrypted and secure. It’s simply not possible to decode the traffic to provide a snapshot of what you’ve been up to on the internet.
The service includes an internet kill switch which adds an additional layer of security. This feature results in a temporary freeze of your web traffic if the connection to a server drops out of the blue.
IPVanish also offers a plentiful range of server locations. Over 850 are spread across 60 countries, including a large variety in Asia, Europe, and North America. Hence if you’re a foreign citizen living in Saudi Arabia, finding a suitable connection to unlock local content shouldn’t be a problem.
IPVanish doesn’t unlock content on Netflix or Hulu but does work with BBC iPlayer. It also permits torrenting on all servers.
There are apps for both iOS and Android as well as desktop support for Windows and MacOS.
Some people find it to be an excellent option for Kodi because it allows them to download the Android APK directly to their device. The interface is also remote control friendly for Kodi devices that lack a keyboard and mouse.
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Read our review of IPVanish.
Cyberghost Pro will appeal to beginner users who want a plug-and-play option that won’t break the bank. Granted it may not have a diverse range of server locations or a plethora of customizable options, but not all users are looking for that in the first place. Speeds are quick, encryption parameters are strong, and the company does its job well.
Cyberghost Pro is incorporated in Romania which means it isn’t subjected to any mandatory data retention laws. It adds that there’s an internal policy of not storing any user data anyway. However, it is important to note that the company was recently sold to an Israeli firm headquartered in the UK and it’s too early to say whether the policy will remain as is or not. We’ll keep you posted if there are any further developments.
CyberGhost is no flash in the pan. Over 850 servers spread across 27 countries offer enough options for a stable and secure connection. Locations include countries in Asia Pacific, Europe, and North America. The company adds that new servers are being added constantly and it’s possible that there will be an influx of further capital after the acquisition to strengthen the offerings even further. Apps are available for both Android and iOS as well as desktop support for Windows and MacOS.
As we mentioned before there really isn’t any problem with the kind of encryption standards Cyberghost Pro uses. In fact, they’re considered to be on the top rung. The company deploys 256-bit AES encryption on the OpenVPN protocol by default along with 2,048-bit RSA keys and MD5 HMAC authentication. There’s an internet kill switch included, too.
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Here’s our full review of Cyberghost Pro.
VyprVPN is a favorite with people who value privacy and security as its proprietary tech is world-class. The company itself has been around for over seven years, making it a mature service that skirts government blockades at will.
It does, however, having a logging policy – specifically “the user’s source IP address, the VyprVPN IP address used by the user, connection start and stop time and total number of bytes used.” Some users might be concerned by that. But the company insists all data is kept on servers for a period of 30 days and is used for troubleshooting. The content of communications is not logged.
Your private data is unlikely to ever be exposed or exploited by hackers. As we mentioned earlier, VyprVPN’s encryption standards are incredible – it’s popular in China where it easily unblocks the Great Firewall. This means that the company has the ability to outwit thousands of state-appointed government engineers that work around the clock to keep sites out of the reach of people accessing the web in China. That’s impressive.
A premium version of the package will allow access to the Chameleon™ protocol. This feature scrambles OpenVPN metadata so deep packet inspection cannot recognize it.
It maintains its servers with a great degree of caution too. VyprVPN is one of the few services that runs entire data centers. This stands in contrast to other services that mainly outsource or rent. It’s in control of all the traffic flowing through the system, ensuring stringent privacy, minimal downtime, and great speeds.
VyprVPN uses the OpenVPN protocol, 256-bit AES encryption, 2,048-bit RSA keys without perfect forward secrecy, and SHA256 authentication. There’s an internet kill switch included. It’s also able to unlock content on Netflix, Hulu, and BBC iPlayer.
There are over 700 VyprVPN servers spread across the world.
Apps are available for both Android and iOS as well as desktop support for Windows and MacOS.
Read our full review of VyprVPN.
What about a free VPN?
It’s tempting to opt for a free VPN because you don’t have to sign up with a credit card and there usually isn’t any cash transaction at all. But forget about receiving the same speeds, encryption standards, or customer service.
Free VPNs are in the business of making money. They’re registered companies that have to pay for staff salaries, office space, server maintenance, and other overheads. So when the product itself is free, you end up becoming the product.
There have been multiple instances of free VPNs transgressing their power by tracking and stealing your data, selling it to 3rd-party advertisers, and bombarding you with invasive advertisements. Because you’re connected to a weak network, there is also the threat of a malware infection. Your device can also be unwittingly used as a pawn in a massive botnet army (more on this later).
If you’re unsure about whether you need a VPN, check out our list of the best VPNs with a free trial. It’ll help you test out the service for a few days and analyze whether the software works for you or not. But we recommend you avoid the random ones that exist on the interwebs. There’s more than what meets the eye.
Some VPNs to avoid
One of the reasons people opt for a VPN is so that their privacy and anonymity are guaranteed. We’ve discussed this at length throughout the article – VPN providers have a similar commitment that they respect the wishes of their users and don’t try to pull a fast one. Unfortunately, some companies have a history of not caring at all. In this section, we’ll tell you about three VPN services that willingly sold or handed over user data. We believe that’s a major ethical violation and a red flag to avoid them in the future.
There’s evidence to suggest that VPN provider PureVPN collaborated with law enforcement agencies to help identify one of its users.
PureVPN and the FBI joined forces after an unnamed 24-year-old woman filed a complaint about falling prey to an online blackmailing plot. She suspected her roommate, Ryan Lin, to be culpable.
The FBI traced the activity back to PureVPN, who then used its logs to identify the culprit. Ryan was arrested. PureVPN insists that it didn’t record the content of communications, but it did have a ‘no-logs’ policy in place. There’s a real question mark on how ethical they might have behaved.
Israel-based Hola, which developed and operated a popular VPN extension for the Chrome browser, built up its user base to a staggering 50 million. Unfortunately, it wasn’t content with further engendering the community. Instead, it chose to decimate its image and goodwill by unethically leveraging the user base by making them pawns in a massive botnet army.
What this meant was that Hola users, without their knowledge or consent, had a part of their internet bandwidth siphoned off for coordinated attacks on other sites, illegal promotion of copyrighted content, and possible distribution of pornography.
We’ll leave the rest to you.
3. Hotspot Shield
On the basis of anecdotal evidence, Hotspot Shield definitely ranks as one of the more popular free VPN providers out there. No one suspected it of wrongdoing until recently.
Last month, the VPN industry was shocked by claims of a privacy advocacy group which said that Hotspot Shield forcefully inserted tracking cookies in user devices, scraped the data, and sold it to advertisers. It’s also been accused of diverting ecommerce traffic to partner domains – what this means is that when HotSpot Shield users typed in requests for sites like macys.com, they were navigated to other ecommerce sites instead. It’s likely that the VPN company earned commissions via this arrangement. That’s probably illegal and definitely unethical.
The Federal Trade Commission is investigating the matter and will likely reach a decision in the coming months. We can’t say for sure whether the VPN company did commit these alleged transgressions, but they do follow a similar tale when compared to other services. We recommend you avoid Hotspot Shield until the future is clearer.
It’s important to note that under no circumstances do we condone the use of VPNs to commit acts expressly forbidden by a country’s laws. However, we maintain that VPN providers need to be open and transparent with users. If it tracks user data, even under certain circumstances, it needs to be open and upfront about it. Violating this trust, handing over data, or hijacking HTTP requests is unacceptable.
How do I blog anonymously in Saudi Arabia?
Liberal Saudi blogger Raif Badawi was arrested five years ago for promoting free speech and questioning the direction his country was taking. He remains behind bars to this day with his wife and child now in Canada.
In another case, Abu Sin, a teenage vlogger, was arrested after videos of him chatting online with a female friend in California went viral. Local police said the behavior “was unethical”, and stated that to be the reason behind his arrest.
Law enforcement agencies in Saudi Arabia don’t take kindly to chatter that deviates from state sanctioned policies. Any supposed transgressions from the devout Islamic way of life are also looked down upon. We recommend you use a VPN and protect your identity if looking to start a blog in Saudi Arabia.
Please note that Comparitech does not condone the violation of local laws, whether by using a VPN or not. Please research the possible ramifications of your behavior before deciding to continue on this path. If necessary consult a lawyer who might be able to provide in-depth advice.
Will the internet ever be free in Saudi Arabia?
More than 70 percent of Saudi residents are connected to the web in the country. That’s an impressive number, catapulting it into one of the most digitally connected countries of the world.
Unfortunately, locals can only access a mere fraction of the web. The Guardian says Saudi Arabia leads the region in internet censorship with sophisticated filters in place to block content and keep tabs on online behavior.
Freedom House adds that sites which are deemed to contain “harmful”, “illegal”, “anti-Islamic”, or “offensive” material are likely to be blocked. Other parameters include web pages promoting extremist ideologies or criticism of the Saudi royal family.
A new anti terrorism law passed in 2014 has resulted in a greater caution for online activity as well. Citizens can be censured for merely liking or commenting on posts that might be construed as damaging to the state.
Pro government websites and publications are routinely patronized by the state – with generous assistance provided to such journalists. On the flip side, any hint of criticism is meant with severe financial pressures with the government doing its best to restrict the publication’s source of revenue.
To browse the web safely and securely in Saudi Arabia, we recommend you use a VPN.