Skype banned, WhatsApp blocked: What's Middle East's problem with messenger apps?

Some Middle Eastern countries seem to have a difficult relationship with VoIP services and messenger apps

In late September, Saudi Arabia's telecommunications regulatory authority CITC announced it was finally the "lifting of the ban on all applications that provide voice and video communications over the internet".

The move was welcomed by consumers, who previously had found services like TimeTime, Snapchat, Skype, Line, Telegram, and Tango blocked in the Kingdom.

A troubled history

This situation isn't necessarily unique to Saudi Arabia. Over the summer, residents in neighboring Qatar reported that they were struggling to use VoIP services.

In a nation with large numbers of expatriate workers -- Qataris make up just 12.1 percent of the population -- such services are a communication lifeline for many residents. That is especially true for lower-salaried workers from nations such as India, Nepal, Bangladesh, and the Philippines. Residents from these countries alone make up nearly 60 percent of Qatar's population.

The Qatar move sparked confusion, discussions about workarounds, and a negative reaction from some social-media users.

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Qatar's VoIP problems sparked a backlash on social media.

Image: Amish Danish/Twitter

Like Qatar, nearby United Arab Emirates, which is also home to a large expat population, has had a similarly troubled relationship with these types of service. WhatsApp and Snapchat calls have historically been blocked, along with FaceTime.

Other states in the region have also adopted comparable policies, restricting access to VoIP and social-media providers, either in the short or long term.

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.

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Microsoft's Skype support pages reflected the problems users in the region have accessing services.

Image: Microsoft

Murky regulatory waters

Broadly speaking, the root causes for these dynamics typically fall into one or more of three categories: licensing, freedom of expression, and money.

Saudi Arabia's telecom regulatory authority said it was lifting the ban on services "that meet the regulatory requirements in the Kingdom", suggesting that they previously had not.

In countries like the UAE and Qatar, regulatory requirements can 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."

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That said, it notes that: "The Telecommunications Law 34 of 2006 does, however, make it illegal for any person to provide telecommunications services to the public for a direct or indirect fee without a license issued by ictQATAR for that purpose."

"Currently the only two entities licensed by ictQATAR to provide such voice services to the public in Qatar are Qatar Telecom, or QTel, and Vodafone Qatar."

Although it says that Qatar is "committed to encouraging the availability of the latest technology to Qatari citizens and residents", it adds these rules nonetheless mean that: "no person or business within the State of Qatar may sell VoIP calls or services to the public or businesses without a license issued by ictQATAR."

Similar arguments about licensing, often accompanied by a sometimes seemingly contradictory aspiration to promote access to digital tools and platforms, have been used in other countries across the region.

Protectionism?

Licensing issues aside, financial considerations are also suspected of playing a role here. There's also a strong argument to suggest that many Middle Eastern governments have a vested financial interest in ensuring that free voice and video-calling services remain blocked.

As long as these services are banned, then consumers must pay for international calls, generating more profits for the major telecom providers in the process. And who is the major shareholder in many of the leading telecoms providers? In many cases, it's the national government.

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.

Investment and security

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.

Looking ahead

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."

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The GSMA figures show how IP messaging apps are being used far more frequently than SMS in certain countries.

Image: GSMA

As Simon Kemp, founder of consultancy Kepios, told ZDNet earlier in this year, the popularity of over-the-top services like VoIP and mobile messaging apps "means [consumers] no longer need to maintain multiple mobile contracts to take advantage of intra-network deals".

The continued growth of these services, driven by the rise in smartphone adoption, makes it "a critical time for telcos to up their value propositions and put data-driven services at the core of their offerings," Kemp said.

That's a sentiment that will remain true for mobile providers in the region for some time to come, irrespective of the evolving regulatory backdrop in which they operate.

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