Will Skype In Facebook Mean The Loss Of A Major Arab Country… And Another Revolution?

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This is a guest post by David George-Cosh, a freelance journalist based in Toronto, Ontario, who is the former technology correspondent for a national newspaper based in Abu Dhabi.

If there’s one place in the world that may be fretting over Facebook’s announcement it had partnered with Skype to launch video chatting for its users, it may be the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

The UAE is one of four countries in the world that has opted to block access to Skype’s services or website, primarily because its state-run telecoms operators stand to lose millions of dollars each year on long-distance charges.

The issue lies with the fact that the TRA, the UAE government’s telecoms regulator, feels that Skype is an actual telecom operator and needs to buy a pricy licence in the country to run legally. Skype, as it always has maintained – and rightly so – is a software company that runs over the web.

This impasse hasn’t really changed in a few years. And Skype isn’t the only video-chatting service that is blocked in the UAE – the iPhone’s FaceTime feature isn’t available on officially sold phones there (although the grey market versions are fine), and Google Voice will likely never be available for many of the same reasons listed above. I suppose one could directly ask the TRA their plans but personal experience reminds me it is akin to a Arabic version of Waiting for Godot.

Indeed, it is not impossible to access Skype in the UAE. A quick check on Google finds that there are more than 168,000 hits on “how to unblock Skype in the UAE”. Access through Skype’s ports is not blocked although there have been cases where Skype-to-phone calls cannot be made. The Skype app is available on the local iTunes Store (I can personally attest that it was downloaded by Mohammed Omran, the chairman of Etisalat, UAE’s largest telco) and calls can be made, even though it is illegal if rarely enforced.

But despite the establishment of Skype regional office in Bahrain and numerous lobbying attempts by senior executives (I witnessed former CEO Josh Silverman briefly spoke to Mohammed al Ghanim, the head of the TRA, at the Abu Dhabi Media Summit in 2010), the program is still frowned upon in the UAE.

Still, much hubbub has been made about the fact that Skype, one of the world’s most used communication platforms, is absent in one of the most technologically advanced countries in the Middle East. Leave it to Facebook to fan the flames of this debate even more.

Now that Facebook has integrated Skype into its chatting feature, serious questions are likely being asked at UAE regulator and telcos if Facebook will be blocked in the country as well.

It would not be the first time that this small, oil-rich federation has made global waves on its communications restrictions. Just last July, the UAE made worldwide headlines when it famously announced it would suspend BlackBerry services unless it was granted the ability to snoop on local BlackBerry users. A deal was struck between RIM and the UAE prior to the October deadline, but questions on the country’s regulation of telecom services remains.

However, the potential loss of Facebook in the UAE may be too much for the country to bear. From the ruler of Dubai to the many expatriates who call the UAE home, over half of the country’s 8 million-odd population is on Facebook and a suspension of services could bring a very unwanted outcry from its residents.

And unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past year, online public discontent is, to put it mildly, a sensitive topic in the Middle East.

There have been some budding evidence of a growing relationship between Facebook and the UAE. Last October, Randi Zuckerberg gave the keynote address at the annual Gitex technology show in Dubai. While Egyptian firm Connect Ads has been managing Facebook’s small-yet-growing advertising in the region and could be a force to be reckoned with in the Middle Eastern advertising industry.

Whatever the case, Facebook is currently hiring a Director of Policy for the Middle East in its London office.

Whoever lands that job may have a touchy road ahead of them.