UAE residents call for end to WhatsApp, Skype ban

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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Calls for the UAE to lift its ban on internet calling platforms like Whatsapp and Facetime are growing louder by the day as residents hunker down in their homes amid the coronavirus lockdown, unable to travel, meet or go outdoors. 

“Given the pandemic, can you lift the Skype and WhatsApp video ban please? Would love to speak to relatives in the rest of the world without the extra hurdles the ban causes right now,” Matt Watson-Power, a British designer working in Dubai, posted in a tweet addressed to the UAE’s Ministry of Human Resources on Tuesday.

The UAE announced Tuesday that it was lifting its ban on two VoIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol) platforms: Microsoft’s Skype for Business and Google Hangouts. It also has made video calling platform Zoom available, which is widely used by the millions now working remotely around the world, teachers carrying out online classes, and friends and family unable to physically get together. 

But the UAE’s longstanding ban on nearly all VoIP calling has frustrated many expats and locals alike, preventing people from making free calls to their loved ones overseas and complicating efforts to carry out conference calls and business operations. 

A signboard show that the beach is temporarily closed is seen on March 22, 2020 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Authorities announced that all beaches in Dubai will be closed until further notice to slow the spread of COVID-19.

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Popular services like WhatsApp, Facetime and Skype (but not Skype for Business, as of Tuesday) remain blocked for voice and video calls, meaning residents typically have to use fee-based services from one of the state’s telecoms providers, Etisalat and Du. Some try to use virtual private networks, or VPNs, to access VoIP platforms, but those are often quickly dismantled by the state and can carry heavy legal penalties including fines and even jail time. 

Now that the majority of the country of 9.4 million — and its more than 80% expat population — has to work from home and travel is forbidden, some calls by residents have grown increasingly desperate.

“JUST. LET. US. USE. THE. APPS. THE. REST. OF. THE. WORLD. USES.,” Dubai resident Nick Regos tweeted last week, in response to Du announcing it’s offering of free internet calling for its customers on a new app called Voico.

Nearly all the replies to the Du tweet were critical, with people lamenting having to ask all their contacts overseas to download an app just for them and the difficulty of getting their elderly family members to use a new and unfamiliar product.

“No one uses Voico or whatever it is called. You want me to ask my 85 year old father to download this onto his phone do you and set it all up? Ridiculous,” tweeted user James Raff. 

Du did not reply to CNBC requests for comment. 

‘A time that requires radical changes’

High-profile Emiratis have been among those calling for access to VoIP services, notably Sultan al Qassemi, an academic and member of the UAE emirate of Sharjah’s ruling family. 

“The excuse that Etisalat contributes several billion dollars to the federal budget — which is the excuse that we’ve heard many times, and that’s why the VoIP is not allowed in the UAE — is an understandable reason,” he said. “But we are in a time that requires radical changes, and so I really hope that the UAE federal government reconsiders this, even if it’s a temporary lifting of the restrictions for the next few weeks or months.”

“Banning VoIP to protect the telephone industry is akin to banning the fax machine to protect the carrier pigeons,” al Qassemi added. “It’s completely irrational.” 

Abu Dhabi city skyline, United Arab Emirates.

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Mahmoud Adi, founding partner of Abu Dhabi-based venture capital firm Shorooq Partners, shared the sentiment. “The productivity gained from having VoIP, in my humble opinion, is significantly more rewarding for our local economies than the revenue generated for the government from international calls,” he told CNBC.

“That is the critical point here — how much connectivity is lost when we don’t have VoIP, how much productivity is gained when we have VoIP available for all those businesses, and how we reinforce our position as a city, as a country that we are leaders in trade, in business, leaders in connectivity as well.”

Etisalat and the UAE’s Telecoms Regulatory Authority also did not reply to requests for comment.  

State security concerns

The VoIP ban also has to do with state security concerns and the ability to monitor communications, something that digital rights advocates say explains why the UAE government favors state telecoms platforms that it can control, rather than encrypted services like Whatsapp.

But al Qassemi pointed out that highly security-oriented states like Singapore allow VoIP calling, as well as Saudi Arabia, which ended its VoIP ban in 2017. Last week, neighboring Oman lifted its ban on Skype for Business, Webex, Zoom and Google Hangouts.

“We have to make sure that the security procedures also take into account the economic dimension of the country,” al Qassemi said. “And I believe that there is a possibility for them both to coexist.”

The government’s move this week to loosen some VoIP restrictions drew praise, and have raised hopes for a full end to the ban. 

“The government’s lifting of the ban this week is a very promising move,” Tala al Jaber, a Saudi national and venture capital investor based in Abu Dhabi, told CNBC. “From the perspective of a tech VC, a permanent lift of the ban can go a long way in promoting the UAE as a destination for disruptive firms who almost always need to transact with teams across borders. Indeed it would be a win-win.”

Zoom Video’s stock is in fact one of the few companies seeing wild success during mass shutdown of businesses around the world: its stock price has skyrocketed 112% year-to-date.

Confirmed cases in the UAE more than doubled over the last week to 333, with two deaths, according to national health authorities.

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