- Microsoft and Apple are in talks with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) government to lift its ban on Skype and FaceTime, which have been illegal in the Gulf country for years.
- The talks come as Microsoft rolls out plans to build two data centers in Abu Dhabi and Dubai next year.
- Lifting the ban would significantly help small and medium-sized enterprises.
UAE Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA) Director General Hamad Obaid Al Mansouri confirmed the talks this week, according to local news reports, citing Microsoft and Apple's growing investment plans in the UAE and the desire to forge closer relationships with tech companies as primary reasons.
Skype and FaceTime, as well as other Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) services like Whatsapp and Viber that allow free calling via an internet connection, are banned in the UAE, though their messaging platforms are not. Several other Middle Eastern countries including Qatar and Oman have Skype and FaceTime calling bans in place. Saudi Arabia lifted its ban on VoIP calling services last September.
In the UAE's case, the ban is in place because of the country's telecoms laws, which essentially allow a monopoly of the sector by its largest telecommunications companies, Etisalat and Emirates Integrated Telecommunications (also know as Du).
Residents have to pay to use their calling services instead of being able to use the free internet ones, and often complain about high prices. Despite the bans, people are still sometimes able to use Skype and FaceTime, but frequently deal with glitches.
Many users and large businesses use VPNs to access the services. Analysts say lifting the ban will significantly help small and medium-sized enterprises.
Only at the start of 2018 did the government take more robust steps to fully block Skype. Apple's FaceTime is not available on iPhones sold in the UAE, but the app is said to generally work if used on phones purchased abroad. The talks will come as welcome news to many residents put off by steep calling costs.
"We have been working closely with the local authorities towards gaining a better understanding of the local requirements in an effort to get Skype unblocked," a Microsoft spokesperson said in a statement. "We are passionate about the benefits that Skype offers to our users around the world by facilitating communication and enabling collaboration."
An Apple spokesperson was not immediately available for comment.
The UAE government, like many other Gulf states, often monitors its citizens' communications, and will likely try to access the information transmitted over the VoIP platforms if the bans are lifted. Encryption used in these platforms has been cited as a reason behind the ban, and January's crackdown on Skype came after Microsoft announced it would offer users end-to-end encryption.
The talks come as Microsoft rolls out plans to build two data centers in Abu Dhabi and Dubai next year. They would be the software giant's first data centers in the Middle East. Company representatives told Gulf media outlets that Skype in the UAE could become a reality once the centers are built. Apple is also expanding its stores in UAE shopping malls.
First launched by a team of Swedes and Estonians in 2003, Skype was initially bought by Ebay in 2005 for $2.6 billion. Microsoft acquired the video calling service in 2011 for $8.5 billion.