Connections and conversations matter all year round, so it is easy to understand why some people became frustrated after learning that Skype had been blocked in the UAE. The move, made a fortnight ago, is the second time the service has been suspended and follows a period of confusion over the regulations. Etisalat has said the service was blocked because it was providing an unlicensed Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) service and has pointed phone users in the direction of its own licensed service, which – like that operated by du – is available for a monthly fee. As our postbag shows, this has prompted plenty of discussion among our readership.
Calling services provided by social media platforms such as WhatsApp, Viber, Snapchat and Facebook are currently unavailable in the UAE, which meant Skype, which has 70 million users worldwide, was frequently used both for individual and business purposes. If it wasn’t the only choice, it was certainly a very popular option for many people.
International communications are central to a knowledge-based economy. Smartphones have, in a short space of time, reinvented the way we live our lives. In a country where internet usage exceeds 90 per cent of the population, being part of a global conversation means being connected. While there are obvious revenue benefits to introducing a monthly charge for VoIP services, there are also drawbacks. This week, Younis Haji Al Khoori, Ministry of Finance under-secretary, extolled the virtues of VAT – recently implemented in the UAE – for increasing productivity and attracting highly-qualified labour. The economic boon that Skype offers is analogous. It is for this reason – to improve business confidence and spur digital innovation – that Saudi Arabia lifted its own ban on video calling apps in September last year.
The UAE is already making good on its plans to become a global nucleus of innovation. The wheels are already in motion for the UAE Centennial Plan 2071. Global start-ups have begun signing up to Dubai’s Area 2071, buoyed by a $275m investment fund. A UAE space probe is expected to reach Mars in 2021, when this country celebrates its 50th birthday. After the World Economic Forum ranked Dubai among the world’s top data-driven cities, the creative Dubai Design District hub is trialling advanced smart city technologies. Appointed to the UAE cabinet late last year, Omar Al Olama, 27, is the world’s first Minister of Artificial Intelligence.
Technological solutions will propel the UAE’s shift to a post-oil, knowledge-based economy, creating jobs, wealth and prosperity. To fully reap the rewards, following the introduction of VAT – not only to fund local projects, but to spur widespread development –seamless connectivity is vital. Open and smart communication channels will be a vital factor in building smarter cities. While developing our own applications and software is welcome, we must also champion the free movement of information and expertise.