x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Exploitation claim over Oman's text mesages of faith

Telecom experts accuse mobile phone providers of exploiting consumers' religious beliefs to boost profits - but firms deny it.

MUSCAT // Mobile telephone providers have been accused of exploiting religious sentiment by sending automated religious text messages asking customers to forward the messages to other users in a bid to increase profits, according to Omani telecommunications experts. Telecom companies, however, have strongly denied any involvement in the messages. Anonymous texts such as "Remember to do good to all your fellow Muslims today and you will be blessed with eternal good fortune", are received by subscribers at least once a week. The messages then end with the words: "Forward this message to 10 people to earn the rewards of afterlife."

"These kinds of messages that exploit the religious sentiments of people are sent by telephone operators to boost their profits," said Ahmed Abry, a 31-year-old IT engineer who works as a government consultant for telecommunication network expansions. On average, a text message costs .001 Omani Rials (Dh.001). Mr Abry claims that phone companies set pre-arranged automatic messages that are sent out to random subscribers, though he does not say which telecom operator may be responsible. "The clever thing is that phone companies mask the sender of these messages and no one is able to trace the original text," he said.

In 2006, the government ended the monopoly of state-run Omantel as a sole provider of telecommunications services in Oman when a Qatari majority-owned firm, Nawras, was awarded a licence to be the second telephone company in Oman. The move has since opened up intense competition with six operators vying for three million mobile phone subscribers. All telephone companies in Oman, when contacted, denied the accusations of sending the messages. A spokesperson for Omantel described the accusation as "ridiculous" while a Nawras official said: "It is absurd to suggest telecom companies in Oman are involved in such a scam."

Bu Hamed Farsy, a 52-year-old electronics technician who has made several complaints to Oman's telecom companies, does not believe them and says they are exploiting the piety of Omanis. "The majority of Omanis, especially those living in the smaller towns, are deeply religious. They don't think twice to forward these questionable messages to other people, said Mr Farsy. "For them, it is part of 'Daw'ah' that helps propagate the words of God to all." Da'wah in Arabic means to invite to do something. When it is used in conjunction with Islam it is understood to mean "Inviting to the way of submission and surrender to Allah", according to some Islamic texts.

But Mr Farsy said some messages go a step further and beyond the "border of decency". "They put the fear of God in you to make sure you forward them immediately with a threatening last line," he said. The last line of one message, according to Mr Farsy, reads, "If you do not forward this message then something bad will happen to you". But not all the recipients of such messages take them seriously.

"I know it is a scam," Haneefa Ramadhan, a 26-year-old banker, said. "I just delete the message and I tell everybody not to respond. I also think the government should investigate but I guess it is hard to pin it to the telecom companies. You will not expect them to admit it." Some Muslim clerics, concerned about the religious text messages, have cautioned the public not to connect them with Da'wah.

"Since we now have a reasonable doubt about the motives of these text messages, then those who consider them as Da'wah must stop thinking that way. And telecom companies must be ashamed of themselves if this is their idea of making money from exploiting people's faith," Sheikh Salim al Amry, Imam of the Al Hail mosque in Muscat said. Sheikh Salim called for the government to investigate and punish offenders.

"This cannot go on. If the phone companies are responsible then they should not be above the law. Religion cannot be exploited without consequences and it must be stopped immediately," he said. Oman's telecom watchdog, the state-run Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA), said it was investigating the alleged scam. "We have received some complaints about it and we are taking them seriously. The TRA is looking into it," a TRA official said.

One analyst said the subscriber base in Oman was not big enough to support all six operators and some of them are expected to struggle in the next few years. "Three million subscribers is never enough for six companies when you consider that the biggest two, Omantel and Nawras, control most of the market for being there first. The rest, which are much smaller companies, will have to employ different techniques to stay afloat," Nitish Kaushik, a telecommunications consultant with Muscat Technology, said.

foreign.desk@thenational.ae