Who hasn’t dreamed of visiting or even living in the United Arab Emirates, the country where new skyscrapers seem to grow out of the ground with every passing year? The state that is so rich its citizens don’t even have to pay taxes? It’s like the fabled Agrabah, only bigger and more lavish.
Sadly, all that glitters is not gold, since the Arabian country also applies heavy restrictions on the internet. Certain sites have been banned from the very beginning, while others like Skype – the world’s most popular and best-known VoIP app – were able to survive the wrath of the local Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA). However, the TRA celebrated the beginning of 2018 with a nasty surprise, completely banning Skype.
Pulling the Plug on Foreign VoIP
Looking back, the signs were quite obvious – and not just because Skype was already banned once.
In the UAE, all popular VoIP apps like WhatsApp, FaceTime, Viber and the like are blocked, deemed as illegal by the TRA. Skype was basically the only alternative to Botim and C’Me, the only VoIP applications that have an official license from the national authorities. The reason behind that is quite simple: Skype provided VoIP calls for UAE users for free, while the apps preferred by Etisalat and du – the only available ISPs in the United Arab Emirates – require users to pay at least AED50 (approximately $13.61) per month to be able to place and receive calls over the internet.
However, following disruptions to the service back in December 2017, the TRA decided to put Skype out of its misery by adding it to the list of banned programs. To make the situation even more outrageous, neighboring country – and one of the most restrictive countries when it comes to the internet – Saudi Arabia even decided to lift its own ban on Skype, allowing its citizens to do the very thing Skype was intended for: unlimited internet-based calls.
VoIP: A National Pariah
Banning Skype and forcing users to download and pay for one of two government-supported apps is already a major blow to VoIP in the UAE but, actually, the situation is even more miserable than it might first seem. TRA didn’t only attack Skype and programs similar to it, but waged war against VoIP altogether. This means that placing and even receiving calls using a VoIP application is not just simply illegal, but it is deemed a federal crime – unless, of course, the VoIP service provider makes a deal with the state.
Since the majority of internet telephony companies refuse to do as UAE bids, it’s virtually impossible to make VoIP calls from and into the country. As a matter of fact, calling another VoIP user based in the country without taking the necessary countermeasures might result in the receiver being put into jail.
When Even VPN Can’t Help
In normal cases we would recommend the use of a VPN without a second thought, but in the case of the UAE it would be akin to shooting ourselves in the foot on the starting line. Although VPNs are not completely banned since they are allowed to be used for enhancing online privacy or the internet connection, any other use of these programs is strictly outlawed. Translate this to the world of VoIP, and if a VPN is used with apps like Skype, then the ‘offender’ could face anything from a fine that could be as high as the equivalent of $540,000 to incarceration.
So, are we really stuck with calling landline UAE numbers for $0.15-$0.20 per minute or more? Actually, there is an alternative that is free of charge and only needs a verified mobile phone number: Google Duo.
This is a VoIP application available for Android and iOS devices that, for the time being, fully complies with the abnormal laws of the United Arab Emirates.
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