In coronavirus lockdown, Gulf residents urge end to voice-call bans

DUBAI (Reuters) - Residents in the United Arab Emirates and other Gulf states are urging telecom firms to further ease restrictions on free internet calls as coronavirus separates families and forces people to work and study from home.

FILE PHOTO: A woman walks in an almost empty mall amid the outbreak of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Dubai, United Arab Emirates March 22, 2020. REUTERS/Rula Rouhana/File Photo

The UAE’s two telecommunications firms Etisalat and Du said they recently enabled Microsoft Teams over both wifi and mobile data connections as well as Blackboard, Zoom and CloudTalk -- but appear to continue to block more popular applications.

“Please just listen to us. Unblock Skype, WhatsApp, FaceTime, even if it’s just temporary. 80% of the country is away from their homes,” urged Twitter user @danielmarcevans.

“If not now during the spread of the virus to allow us to communicate with our families, then when?” user Basem Saif tweeted on Sunday.

Applications that use Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) services — free Internet-to-Internet voice and video calls - are restricted to varying degrees in the UAE, Oman, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, but not in Bahrain or Kuwait.

Expatriates make up the majority in many Gulf states, particularly the UAE, the region’s business and tourism hub.

The UAE’s Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA)declined to comment on VoIP availability. State-controlled Etisalat and DU directed Reuters questions to the TRA.

Virgin Mobile, part of Du, did not respond to comment requests, but told one customer complaining about VoIP restrictions on Twitter it was “working” on the issue.

Oman, while still blocking WhatsApp - owned by Facebook Inc - said Skype for Business, Google Meet, Zoom and WebEx were now useable. Its Telecommunications Regulatory Authority said the move was to help business continuity and communication.

In Qatar, where VoIP applications must also be authorized, a Vodafone Qatar customer helpline said Whatsapp and Skype are restricted, but Zoom and WebEx are available on mobile data.

“Please please please unblock VoIP apps, it’s really hard to work and teach remotely when we have to use a VPN,” university worker Shaima Sherif tweeted at Qatar’s telecoms regulator and firms, referring to the virtual private networks (VPN) used by many to by-pass state internet restrictions.

“In this time of fear, when everyone is being price sensitive, it is ridiculous to have to use a VPN,” said a Dubai-based consultant who pays $10-20 a month for VPN, and who declined to be identified due to sensitivities.

Qatar’s communications regulatory authority did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

SMEX, a Lebanon-based digital rights advocacy group, urged all countries to remove VoIP bans during the coronavirus crisis.

The UAE likely blocks the apps to support its telecoms firms and for national security reasons, SMEX Executive Director Mohamad Najem told Reuters, saying pushing specific VoIP programs helps “control data and the flow of information”.

Sultan al-Qassimi, a writer and member of the ruling family of the UAE Sharjah emirate, also supports lifting restrictions.

“The benefit to the entire economy outweighs the benefit to a single firm,” he said in a Twitter post.

Reporting by Lisa Barrington and Ghaida Ghantous; Writing by Lisa Barrington; Editing by Ghaida Ghantous, William Maclean