UAE may lift ban on WhatsApp calls, head of country's cybersecurity authority says

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The UAE may soon lift its ban on WhatsApp calls, the head of the country's digital security authority told CNBC.

Speaking to CNBC's "Capital Connection," on Tuesday, Mohamed Al Kuwaiti, executive director of the UAE's National Electronic Security Authority, said the UAE had increased its collaborations with big tech platforms — particularly Facebook-owned WhatsApp — on national security initiatives.

"The collaboration with WhatsApp has actually increased, and in many of those (projects) we saw a very good understanding (from them) of the concept we have," he said, referring to the Gulf country's approach to telecoms regulation.

"There might be a lift of that ban for (WhatsApp) voice calls… and this is going to happen soon, this is what we know and understand from the telecommunication authority here in the UAE."

UAE 'may lift' ban on WhatsApp calls, cybersecurity chief says
UAE 'may lift' ban on WhatsApp calls, cybersecurity chief says

Most Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) services – including Skype, FaceTime and WhatsApp – which enable free voice and video calls via the internet, are illegal in the UAE. Messaging platforms attached to the platforms are legal and accessible, however, and residents and businesses in the Gulf state have been known to use virtual private networks (VPNs) to access prohibited communications systems.

Encryption and the UAE's "regulatory framework" have previously been cited as some of the reasons behind the ban. The blocks also benefit the domestic telecoms sector, which is monopolized by state-controlled firms, as residents are forced to pay high prices for phone calls instead of making them for free via an internet connection.

Other Gulf nations have softened their stance on VoIP providers in recent years. Saudi Arabia lifted its ban on WhatsApp calls in 2017, while Qatar now allows the use of VoIP services through licensed telecoms operators.

Reports emerged last year that Microsoft and Apple were in talks with the UAE's government about lifting the ban on Skype and FaceTime. However, their video and audio calling services are still blocked.

In August, an alternative VoIP service, Yzer, became available in the Gulf country, according to local news outlet Gulf Business. The UAE also permits locally authorized VoIP apps Botim, C'Me and HiU Messenger to be used.

Al Kuwaiti acknowledged that enabling more connectivity in the country meant tackling a "whole ecosystem," suggesting that it would potentially call for the government to reconsider how tech access is balanced with national security.

A spokesperson for the UAE's Telecommunications Regulatory Authority was not immediately available for comment when contacted by CNBC.

— CNBC's Natasha Turak contributed to this article.