Friday, September 02, 2005

Call Cabins

This article on The Emirates Economist reminded me of something long buried in the mists of time. I'm referring to the bit about 'call cabins' losing revenue due to the Saudi Telecoms Company (STC) beginning to provide a better level of service.

Before I came to Dubai, I worked in Riyadh for a year. Calling home was always a difficult exercise. I couldn't call from the office, and I couldn't get a phone installed in my apartment because the waiting list ran to several centuries at that time. So I had two alternatives;
1) Use a payphone.
2) Use a call cabin.

The problem with option 1 was that payphones would only take 'old' ten-halala coins. A smaller version of this coin had been introduced previously, but STC had never got around to converting their payphones to use it, so you had to find the obsolete version of the coin if you wanted to make an international call. Well, these coins were no longer in general circulation, because some canny old men had spotted a niche market and were exploiting it ruthlessly. They would somehow manage to collect all available old 10 halala coins, and they would hang around clusters of phone booths and sell a bag of nine coins for ten riyals. It was always a challenge to find one of these geezers when you needed coins, but there's nothing much else to do in Riyadh of an evening so I didn't mind all the wasted time too much.

After a few months of doing this somebody told me about option 2, call cabins. These are basically Portacabins equipped with maybe a dozen telephones. And a big queue. When you arrive you give your passport or iqama (ID card) to the operator. This is placed at the bottom of a pile of dozens of others. When it gets to the top, usually several hours later, you can make your call. When you are done, you pay for it using any Saudi coins or notes you care to, retrieve your ID and go on your merry way to spend another night of unbearable excitement in downtown Riyadh.