Messenger in the Middle East – the Main Problem

VOIP messengers in Middle East countries face lots of problems. Many services are blocked in Gulf countries.

This year in September, telecommunications regulatory authority CITC in Saudi Arabia’s announced

“lifting of the ban on all applications that provide voice and video communications over the internet”.

That was a great announcement because previously services like TimeTime, Snapchat, Skype, Line, Telegram, and Tango were blocked in the Kingdom.

The same situation is in others gulf countries, like Oman, Qatar, UAE.

The problem is very important because in these countries there are lots of expatriates and they need to communicate with families.

WhatsApp, FaceTime and Snapchat calls are also blocked.

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The most countries restrict access to VoIP and social-media providers.

In March 2016, Morocco blocked Skype, Viber, Tango, WhatsApp, and Facebook Messenger, eventually lifting the ban eight months later. Meanwhile, Algeria temporarily closed multiple social networks and messaging services, during summer 2016, in a bid to stop students cheating in their exams.

In the  UAE, Qatar, and similar countries regulatory requirements make it difficult for VoIP providers to operate in the same way as they do elsewhere. As Qatar’s Communications Regulatory Authority (CRA) has noted:

“There are no laws or rules that prohibit the use of such technology within the State of Qatar.”

As far as Voip services are blocked, people must pay for expensive international calls, generating more profits for the major telecom providers in the countries. And as you realize, national governments are the major shareholder in most of the leading telecommunications providers?

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More than half of Ooredoo, the leading mobile network operator in Qatar, is owned by the State of Qatar; Etisalat is 60 percent owned by the Emirates Investment Authority, the sovereign wealth fund of the United Arab Emirates.

The Saudi Telecom Company (STC), the Kingdom’s leading telecoms provider, is majority-owned with a 70 percent share by the government through its Public Investment Fund.

One reason governments and operators can argue for the continued provision of these protections is that these higher income levels can be used to support the deployment of infrastructure projects, such as fiber to the home, and network upgrades like 4G and 5G.

Another consideration, cited in some instances by Middle Eastern governments, is security.

With many popular messaging apps offering encryption, and social-media users showing an increasing preference to moving previously open conversations to closed networks, monitoring these exchanges is becoming more difficult.

It’s in this context that at times of upheaval, such as last year’s attempted coup in Turkey — apparently hatched over WhatsApp — these networks have often been blocked.

But, as Northwestern University in Qatar has found: “nearly seven in 10 national internet users say they changed how they use social media due to privacy concerns”.

VPNs, which were outlawed in the UAE in 2016, are also popular in the region for similar reasons, given their ability to bypass the content restrictions and consumer concerns about ISP record keeping.

Navigating privacy concerns and consumer preferences is a challenge for governments in the region, and their motives for blocking services are clearly mixed. Reasons for blocks are often not clearly communicated, leading to further confusion about the rules and regulations, and the intentions behind them.

As 3G and 4G adoption across the region continues to rise, demand for these services is only likely to grow. This growth will increase pressures on the need for regulatory clarity, while also further challenging existing revenue models.

To some extent, this change is already happening. The GSMA’s annual analysis of the Middle East mobile market, found:

“In Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Israel, more than four-fifths of mobile phone owners use IP messaging apps more frequently than SMS, and in Algeria and Morocco, use of IP messaging is growing rapidly, with more than 55 percent of mobile-phone owners now using IP messaging apps more frequently than SMS.”