UAE may lift WhatsApp calls ban 'soon', says top cyber security official

Talks are ongoing with owner Facebook and officials are hopeful of an agreement soon

FILE PHOTO: A man poses with a smartphone in front of displayed Whatsapp logo in this illustration picture September 14, 2017. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/File Photo
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The UAE may lift the ban on WhatsApp calls soon, a top cyber security official said.

Mohamed Al Kuwaiti, executive director of the UAE’s National Electronic Security Authority, said talks are ongoing with Facebook-owned WhatsApp.

"The collaboration with WhatsApp has actually increased, and in many of those [projects] we saw a very good understanding [from them] of the concept we have," he told CNBC's Capital Connection programme.

“There might be a lift of that ban for [WhatsApp] voice calls … and this is going to happen soon, this is what we know and understand from the telecommunication authority here in the UAE.”

WhatsApp voice calls were banned in the Emirates shortly after the service became available.

The difficulty to monitor such services for security reasons and the country's "regulatory framework" - in which government-owned companies are licensed to operate mobile and broadband services - has been cited in the past.

Internet calling services such as Skype also remain blocked to the frustration of residents who use the free app to make calls overseas and to businesses reliant on expensive mobile calls.

Many residents and businesses use virtual private networks (VPNs) to use VoIP services. The authorities do not take action over such use unless it is to access illegal materials, though the issue remains a grey area.

Saudi lifted a ban on internet calls in 2017 to "reduce operational costs and spur digital entrepreneurship", the country's information ministry said at the time.

The UAE has licensed the use of paid-for VoIP services including Yzer, Botim, C’Me and HiU Messenger.

The country remains one of the most expensive places in the world for home broadband, though the connection is faster than much of the surrounding region.