How Saudi Arabia is redrawing the map of the future with fibre-optic cables
Modern life depends on the internet and hundreds of underwater fiber optic cables that crisscross the globe, carrying essential digital services from country to country in milliseconds.
Egypt has long played a leading role as part of this network: an estimated 17 to 30 percent of global internet connectivity runs through the Red Sea and across Egypt, connecting Europe to Asia. Imagine a more visible digital version of the Suez Canal, which is owned by Egypt and is responsible for 30 percent of all global container traffic.
But, just as a ship will land in a canal delays, as happened with the Ever Given in March 2021, so Egypt is considered a choke point for the fiber optic cable industry due to the lack of alternative routes across geo – as a strategically vital part of the world.
Egypt has been able to benefit from this high-tech clutter for years: a fiber optic cable consultant told MEE, on condition of anonymity for business reasons, that state-owned Telecom Egypt (TE) charges operators the same fees. transit the territory of Egypt as other companies charge their clients to go much further from Singapore to the Mediterranean.
Paul Brodsky, senior analyst at telecommunications research firm TeleGeography in Washington, says: “It has long been a complaint that Egypt is a single point of failure for cables running between Europe and Asia, the Middle East and East Africa.
“The operator has a monopoly because of the lack of commercial diversity in cable channels. He was the white whale of the submarine cable business. Is there a way to escape this dependency?”
Many industry observers believe the answer, increasingly, is yes.
In September 2020, the Abraham Accords normalized relations between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain, suggesting a possible new route for the cables from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean to bypass Egypt. But such a plan would require the cooperation and participation of Saudi Arabia, which is not a signatory to the measure.
And so, on both sides of the agreements, two cable projects were announced that ran through Israel to Jordan and then, separately, to Saudi Arabia.
These new projects will not overwhelm Cairo and its dominance in the market: 16 cables run across Egypt, with five more on the drawing board. But the fiber optic map of the Middle East is being redrawn, with the support of powerful regional and global players.
Google cable to increase capacity
Google’s $400m Blue-Raman project is the first way to conquer Egypt. It will use two adjacent but separate cables, so it is unlikely that Israel and Saudi Arabia will be connected.
The Blue cable, due to open next year, runs from Europe to Tel Aviv in Israel, then crosses land to Jordan. It meets Google’s Raman cable, which connects Jordan to Saudi Arabia.
“Raman is in many senses a typical submarine system, from Oman around the Arabian peninsula, up through Bab al-Mandab and the Red Sea, as all cables do,” says Brodsky.
But the trick, he says, is that it will land in a few places. The first is Duba, on the Red Sea coast of Saudi Arabia, and just 25km from the $500bn megalopolis project Neom. From there, the cable goes 400km further north to the Jordanian port of Aqaba, where it will meet the Blue cable on the Israeli side.
Google’s motivation for the cable is to secure its own route to its three cloud data centers in Israel, while also connecting to three data centers under development in Saudi Arabia, and three in Qatar. “Google needs sufficient bandwidth for their cloud data center,” says Brodsky. “Even if there is currently sufficient bandwidth, such requirements are encouraging more investments in submarine cables.”
Saudi Arabia needs more bandwidth for its Vision 2030 strategy of economic diversification, and is investing heavily to become a digital hub in the Middle East.
In 2022, the state-owned Saudi Telecom Company (STC) announced a $1bn investment to develop the MENA Hub to strengthen its digitization plans and become one of the largest telecommunications players in the region.
STC is developing the kingdom’s first domestic cable, the Saudi Vision Cable (SVC), which runs along the kingdom’s west coast from Jeddah north to Neom, and is being touted as the “first ever high-capacity submarine cable” in the Sea Red region.
“The SVC is useful to have, but in the scheme of things it’s not going to be a hub for you,” says Julian Rawle, a US-based submarine fiber optic cable consultant. “If they want to attract the hyperscalers, like Google, Meta and Microsoft, and set up data centers, they will need much more connectivity than they have today. The UK has over fifty cable connections.”
STC will use the MENA Hub to run the East to Med Data Corridor (EMC), which will include six new data centers and four new submarine cables. Rawle says: “EMC is kind of an umbrella name for what they’re doing in the subsea space. It is a very important part of Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030, but they are trying to update that program and other cables are moving forward.
“But bringing in third-party cables and providing a hub for interconnecting different cable systems is a new idea.”
Six new cables are due to land in Saudi Arabia over the next three years, including Raman and SVC, adding to the 15 already in place, according to TeleGeography data. Meta’s 45,000-km 2 Africa cable will also land at Jeddah, Yanbu and Duba. “This is the cable to land all cables, with its networks landing everywhere. There are a lot of cable landings on the Saudi side,” says Brodsky.
Why terrestrial cable is revolutionary
And then there is the seventh and most revolutionary cable planned for Saudi Arabia – the Trans-European Asia System (TEAS).
Privately developed, the cable will run from Europe to India, bypassing Egypt. But unlike most other cables, part of its route will be across the ground.
Like Google’s Blue-Raman project, it will also be split into two: the northern cable will run from Europe under the Mediterranean Sea to Israel, then cross to Amman by land. From there it will travel east across Saudi Arabia to Ras al-Khair in the Persian Gulf.
Meanwhile the route goes south through Israel, then south to Aqaba, down through the Red Sea, through the Gulf of Aden and finally, like the other cable, land in Mumbai, India.
“The SOUTH northern cable is a revolutionary approach because it will cross Saudi Arabia on land, and avoid the Red Sea entirely,” says Rawle.
Cable going over land is unusual: operators usually use underwater routes which are considered safer. It is also technically more complex to cross land, where operators must take into account the presence of populations as well as a more diverse climate.
As Cinturion, the company behind TEAS, noted in an article in the Submarine Telecoms Forum magazine, cables “installed in the harsh desert environments of the Middle East” require special manufacturing and installation requirements.
Terrestrial cable also requires many more splices, connecting them together. For submarine cables, they are only required every 60 to 70km, compared to six to 10km on land. But land cables can sometimes follow a more direct route than their submarine counterparts – and for the northern half of TEAS, that means going straight across land rather than a much more circuitous route around the Arabian Peninsula.
Rawle adds: “The route is mostly through the desert, and the population is very small. They are using the rights of way of the GCC Interconnection Authority, the regional power transmission body, to bury the fiber optic cables. In terms of maintenance issues, this is a less risky land route than most, and it’s really just about having the resources available for maintenance to make repairs when needed.”
The project is being financed by investors from Israel, the US, the UK and the Gulf, with little publicity at the moment.
Rachel Ziembaa senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security in Washington, says the reasons for the lack of announcements are understandable.
“There is an element of background here because Saudi Arabia has not signed the Abraham Accords but it is clear that there are discussions and security partnerships. There may be different activists who don’t want politics to trump what they see as good economic ideas.”
But while the TEAS project is developing rapidly – an agreement was signed with Bahrain’s Alliance Networks as a cable landing partner in March – some in the cable industry are skeptical that it will come to fruition. It is not yet listed on the TeleGeography submarine cable map, which is considered an industry reference source for existing and proposed connections.
“With Cinturion being a private start-up, the TEAS project took a long time to develop and there are still some big hurdles to overcome,” says Rawle, “although Google can open doors much easier. The market sees Blue-Raman as almost a certainty, but TEAS is even more uncertain.”
Avoiding the mistakes of Egypt
If Saudi Arabia is to become a major force in the cable operations market, it must avoid some of the mistakes Egypt made, including not making the market worse by overcharging, or the an opportunity to become a hub of wasted data.
What the Internet looks like: Underwater cables in the Middle East
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“A good reminder for the Saudis, if they want to be a regional hub, they have to make it attractive enough,” says Rawle. “Egypt chose to use its location as much as possible to generate income without investing to become a hub.”
Egypt, he says, has put an end to a conduit between the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean rather than taking a longer-term view, as Saudi Arabia appears to be doing.
“They provide an alternative to Egypt, and they can be a hub for the region where all the hyperscalers bring content and manage it out of the country.”
The ongoing push between the UAE and Saudi Arabia to become the economic and digital hub of the Gulf is also expected to tip Riyadh’s hand.
James Shires, senior research fellow at Chatham House and author of The Politics of Cybersecurity in the Middle East, says that unless the UAE’s economic situation comes under threat, there will always be more free market competition between the UAE and Saudi Arabia. favorable to business.
“That level of competition will prevent the Saudis from putting undue economic pressure on this type of cable traffic.”
Meanwhile, Cairo has recognized the growing diversity of the MENA cable sector and has reportedly eased the carriage fees it charges operators.
“If all these new cables play out, there will be a new balance in the regional cable market,” says Rawle. “There will be no winners or losers, but there will be greater resilience in the entire web that connects East to West.”