Update on 30 March 2020 [15:00 – GMT+3]: What could be viewed as a sign of relief but yet more to be done, the UAE’s TRA has officially announced an additional set of apps with Internet calling functionality due to the extended rules put in place for people to work/study from home.
Reported by Bloomberg and Arabian Business (as well as officially bounced on the official account of the UAE’s TRA), the new additional apps are: Slack, Cisco WebEx, Avaya Spaces, Google Hangouts Meet (on mobile carriers), and Bluejeans. Microsoft Teams, Skype for Business, and Zoom were already unblocked from before.
Additional apps for distance learning@TheUAETRA announced the availability of an additional set of applications on all of the UAE’s networks, on an exceptional basis and until further notice— هيئة تنظيم الاتصالات 🇦🇪 (@TheUAETRA) March 30, 2020
In coordination with @etisalat @dutweets pic.twitter.com/riyrk7wIhh
Update on 25 March 2020 [18:45 – GMT +3]: After doing a bit more digging, turns out that people in Kuwait and Bahrain can already use VOIP Internet calling apps since it’s been widely embraced there for many years. Likely to the presence of more than one telco, which adds competition and choice for consumers.
As for the UAE, Etisalat had already announced on March 20 that they’ve unblocked Microsoft Teams and Zoom for remote working.
Given the current Coronavirus epidemic, the Middle East isn’t the only region that has remained untouched. Respective governments have ordered the majority of businesses and public institutions to enact work from home practises a first in the region where the concept is an accepted standard in other countries.
First Oman; hopefully, the Middle East
First reported by Bloomberg, Oman has lifted the restrictions to help businesses work from home and for schools to teach students. The announcement was also made from the official account of the country’s TRA.
As for the UAE, Bloomberg has reported that there’s been some relief on a case-by-case basis but no official announcement has been made. Given Dubai’s standing as the regional hub for tech companies, it goes against what the city espouses to be on the global stage yet taking steps back for something so frivolous.
Many of the countries in the Middle East justify blocking such apps on security grounds. However, people have seen that the local incumbent telecom operators view them as a competitor. Rest of the world has moved forward seeing the benefits, and that leaves the region lagging behind.
Until August 2017, WhatsApp calling and Facetime Audio calling were working without any issues in Qatar (I know because I was there). However, the illegal blockade on the country reversed that privilege.
With tighter enforcements being put to minimize public gatherings and maintaining social distancing, it’s inevitable that the Middle East region has to embrace Internet calling apps. If telecom operators claim that this will tax their network bandwidth for their 4G/LTE infrastructure, there’s also Wi-Fi (home and work) and now 5G which should help alleviate most of the problems.
Amazon, Google, and Microsoft are already setting up cloud infrastructure in the Middle East. It serves as a testament that there should be no issues when it comes to Internet bandwidth. It’s a win-win and puts the entire region on par with the world to facilitate business, sets the foundation for distance learning, and makes work-from-home a new trend.