Picture: 123RF / SCYTHER5
Picture: 123RF / SCYTHER5

Dubai — An order to shut schools to prevent the spread of coronavirus in the Middle East’s premier business and travel hub has reignited a debate about an existing ban on free voice calls over the internet, which complicates remote learning and working from home.

All public and private schools and higher education institutions will close in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) from March 8 for a month as officials attempt to curb infections, which currently stand at 27 in the country.

A pilot programme for distance education will be implemented during the period of closure, the education ministry said, without giving full details. Nurseries have been closed since March 1, leaving working parents grappling to find childcare at short notice.

The Gulf state, where 85% of the population are foreigners, blocks calls using applications such as Microsoft’s Skype, Facebook’s WhatsApp and Apple’s FaceTime. The banned video services are encrypted, making them difficult for security services to track. But the curbs have long been a grievance for expatriates who want to keep in touch with family and friends back home and work more flexibly.

“I highly recommend that the UAE now revisits its ban on VoIP video calls in light of the spread of the coronavirus. If we want people not to meet in person let them conduct their business online,” Emirati columnist Sultan Sooud al-Qassemi wrote on Twitter to his 490,000 followers on Wednesday. Global companies such as Twitter and JPMorgan are encouraging staff to log on from home.

One third of Gulf companies are planning work from home to combat the virus threat, online recruitment portal GulfTalent said in a survey of 1,600 executives in the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council released on Wednesday. And in a further sign of the outbreak’s effect on regional business, Abu Dhabi-based Etihad said it had asked cabin crew to bring forward leave amid passenger cancellations.

The UAE’s telecommunications regulatory authority, which governs and oversees the sector, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Using the banned video-calling services — part of virtual business life elsewhere in the world — is possible in the UAE through a virtual private network. But this is a cybercrime that can lead to a fine of between 500,000 ($136,000) and two-million dirhams, jail time, or both, a 2019 report by the US-based watchdog Freedom House said.

The encrypted services provide competition to the two main domestic telecommunications providers. Government-sanctioned applications are available for a subscription of about 50 dirhams a month. A free application, ToTok, was available in the UAE but removed from Google Play and Apple’s App stores after allegations it was a secret spying tool for the UAE. It reappeared in January and the company has said users should ignore a warning message on Google Play and install it anyway.

It’s not the first time the UAE ban has come under fire. Billionaire UAE businessperson Khalaf Al Habtoor, founder of the Al Habtoor Group conglomerate, reiterated a call in 2019 for the restrictions to be lifted in a video he posted on Twitter.

In a 2019 report, Oxford Business Group wrote that residents and businesses in Dubai would be likely to continue to press for change. It cited the example of Microsoft, which has held talks with authorities over unblocking Skype, and pointed out that neighbour Saudi Arabia scrapped its ban on internet calling applications in September 2017.

With assistance from Layan Odeh