Dubai: Residents were pleasantly surprised on Thursday as WhatsApp voice- and video-calling features suddenly became available in the UAE.
Following reports that free local and international online calling was available on WhatsApp, the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA) issued a statement. Neither confirming nor denying that the service was now enabled, the TRA said that nothing had changed in their policy.
“There is no change in the UAE’s Voice over Internet Protocol [VoIP] policy,” said the telecom regulator in an emailed statement, adding: “The TRA reconfirms that any applications or services of this type must comply with the applicable regulatory framework in the country.”
VoIP refers to the technology used to make telephone calls over the internet.
Du and etisalat both declined to comment on the situation.
Arabic newspaper Emarat Al Youm reported yesterday that the change was a result of a global update rollout by the Facebook-owned app, and that the block would resume later in the day.
The Dubai-based paper cited an unnamed source in the story.
At the time of writing, the service appeared to still be working.
In January 2015, the Facebook-owned company rolled out its voice-calling service, but mobile phone users in the UAE could not access the feature due to the regulation prohibiting VoIP.
In a statement last year, du said that “voice calls through WhatsApp are blocked in compliance with the UAE’s telecommunication regulations that allow VoIP services to be provided in the country only by licensed telecom operators”.
A number of other similar services have been blocked in the past, including Apple’s FaceTime, Viber, Skype, and Facebook Chat.
There is some precedent for etisalat and du to change their position on such services. Almost a decade after Skype first hit the market, the state-owned telecommunications providers unblocked the service in 2013.
At the time of writing, Signal, a San Francisco-based messaging application, appears to have its voice- and video-calling features unblocked as well. It is unclear if this is related to the unblocking of WhatsApp calls.
The app’s users took to social media to express their happiness that the long-awaited WhatsApp service had finally arrived in the UAE.
Warning on Snapchat
Separately, the TRA warned on Thursday of the risks of Snapchat’s latest update, noting the risks of automatically providing a map of the users’ location “without their knowledge”.
In a statement, the regulator said that such disclosures “may lead to unaccounted consequences and breaches that harm the privacy of individuals as well as other negative consequences of automatic detection of users’ locations in time of using the application”.
VoIP in fits and starts
In March this year, etisalat blocked the popular internet chat service Discord, used by thousands of video game players in the UAE. The platform joined the ranks of many previous services that had come and gone in the UAE, including Viber, FaceTime, Viber, and at one point, Skype. Facebook Chat, another service that allows users to call one another, works intermittently, with many users reporting issues.
Skype was unblocked in 2013, but the overall policy of the UAE is to bar any usage of VoIP applications until they are licensed, according to statements from etisalat. A Gulf News reader also claims he was recently told by videoconferencing application TeamTalk that the service was now banned in the UAE.