Throughout the Middle-East, VoIP services are heavily regulated. In many countries, they are simply illegal. Countries like Oman, for example, previously outlawed many VoIP services because of a state monopolized communication structure for the country. The Omani company, Omantel, is a government sponsored communication company which provides everything from land-line to cellular and internet services. At the end of last year, the Oman government finally eased some restrictions on the usage of VoIP services. Other countries, including the United Arab Emirates, are beginning to follow suit as well.
In the UAE, the first legal VoIP service was approved in 2010, serviced by the company Etisalat. It was limited to large enterprises as a tool solely intended to assist businesses in managing their voice networks. While it has been illegal for the every-day citizen to use VoIP for years, that hasn’t stopped people from using obscure services out of view of the authorities. The technology has enabled citizens to keep in touch with expatriates as well as establish communications with those in other parts of the world for business purposes. This “problem” is now being addressed by the government in a productive manner, and the UAE has begun to loosen restrictions on VoIP services.
Etisalat is now providing low cost VoIP calling services to citizens via a prepaid card which is inconspicuously available from several retail locations around the country. This is an effort to compete with an Emirates Integrated Telecommunications (EITC) calling card called “Hello!” The Hello! card has been available to consumers for just over two years, but oddly enough, very few people know of its existence. Like the new card from Etisalat, Hello! had a low profile launch that did not draw much attention to the service.
More than likely, UAE policy will continue to parallel that of other middle-eastern countries vis a vis VoIP. Aside from the ability to video chat, one of the biggest perks to most VoIP services is that they are not low cost but free to use. The UAE government has allowed these services because of an agreement where these companies are taxed for the services they provide. Services like Skype simply will not be accepted until some sort of contract can be established between the provider and the government. Skype would need to apply for a license to operate as a telecom provider, which is against their policy at this point in time, so it likely will remain illegal to use this service for some time.