Censorship in the UAE: How to Get Around it

Internet Censorship In The United Arab Emirates

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UAE Internet Censorship and How to Bypass it

The United Arab Emirates has a censorship infrastructure to block a wide array of content, in accordance with its laws. They ban things like:

  • VoIP calling (although the measures against VoIP calls have been adapted to allow people to still keep in touch with their loved ones after Covid hit)
  • Dating websites
  • Pornographic websites
  • Gambling websites
  • LGBT Content
  • Content critical of Islam, or the UAE government

The methods for censorship aren’t that complex. UAE blocks online content with:

  • The legal mandate given by the anti-terrorism law
  • The sweeping power of the TRA, a censorship agency
  • The two major ISPs in UAE, which the state owns

However, citizens of UAE and tourists to the country can bypass regulation and enjoy a free internet with the help of a VPN.

 


The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is one of the world’s most connected countries. As of 2019, 99.2% of the population has access to the internet.

Despite being one of the more permissive and liberal of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, internet access and internet content are heavily restricted in the UEA. This has led Freedom House to award them a “not free” rating for press and internet freedom.

Increased Restrictions

The passage of a 2017 law designed to curb cybercrime and terrorism has resulted in a significant crackdown on internet content and freedom of expression for those commenting or posting online. The government of the UAE has taken steps to reduce coverage of foreign and domestic events and has prosecuted those who have criticized the state online.

Academic Nasser Bin Ghaith was accused of posting several tweets deemed to ridicule, criticize, or defame the government and received a 10-year prison sentence. Similarly, human rights activist Ahmed Mansour was arrested for “spreading sectarian hatred” on social media.

Faced with such harsh restrictions on internet content and usage, UAE visitors and citizens can be concerned about accessing the internet freely. They will want to know what content is blocked and understand how they can access the internet freely.

In this article, we will look at how and why the UAE censors the internet and what methods there are for accessing blocked content.

Why is the Internet in the UAE so Heavily Censored?

Censored eye on laptop screenThe UEA censors the internet heavily because of its complex political system. The UEA is actually a conglomerate, comprising seven smaller emirates, like Abu Dhabi, Dubai, and Sharjah.

While the UAE has a president and a prime minister, each individual emirate is also an absolute monarchy that keeps complete control over itself. The seven monarchs form the Federal Supreme Council, which chooses the president and prime minister.

Censorship in the UAE is used to support the rule of these seven absolute monarchies, preventing the citizens of the UAE from accessing content that is critical of the current rulership, Islam (the official state religion), the government, or is pro-democracy.

The Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA) targets content that “offends against, is objectionable to, or is contrary to the public interest, public morality, public order, public, and national security [of the UAE]”, often using these wide-ranging powers to censor political content and attack journalists who are critical of the state.

What Content is Censored in the UAE?

The TRA and the majority state-owned internet service providers (ISPs) block access to a wide range of content, from social media platforms and news agencies to dating and pornographic websites. Below are some of the most commonly restricted content and services

Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) calling

The UAE block nearly all VoIP services. Both WhatsApp and Snapchat’s video calling functions are blocked to comply with the TRA’s VoIP regulations. Moreover, they also block access to Skype video calling. While they do not ban VoIP services, TRA regulations require VoIP providers to register with the state-owned ISPs, Etisalat and Du. If you want to find out more about circumventing VoIP bans, and using Skype freely, you can read our article about accessing Skype abroad.

Registering with the state-owned ISPs would require the VoIP providers to agree to censor specific content and allow UAE security services access to monitor user’s conversations. While no major VoIP service has yet agreed to do this, Apple has removed their Facetime app from iPhones sold in the UAE in order to comply with the TRA.

During 2018-2019, news broke regularly about Skype being banned, implying that it was accessible before. Then, in the wake of the Covid pandemic of 2020, the UAE loosened regulations around VoIP calling to let people stay in touch with their loved ones during lockdown.

Dating websites

All forms of dating websites are blocked by both Etisalat and Du; however, matrimonial sites, through which you attempt to find a husband or wife, aren’t restricted.

Pornographic websites

The production and distribution of pornography is illegal in the UAE, with TRA regulations preventing ISPs from granting access to it. The TRA’s definition of pornographic also includes magazines that show nudity, such as Maxim or FHM, and those that discuss female sexuality, such as Cosmopolitan.

Gambling

As with many Islamic countries, the UAE bans gambling, with Dubai acting as a hub for the small amount of gambling that is legally available. Many forms of gambling are still classified as illegal even in Dubai. Even cruise liners that moor there are obliged to cease all gambling activities.

Illegal gambling, including accessing online casinos, carries a sentence of up to two years in prison and a potential fine of up to 20,000Dh ($5,444).

Content critical of Islam

The UAE prevents users from accessing any website that is critical of Islam. ISPs in the UAE also block access to content that criticizes any religion, not just Islam.

Content critical of the UAE government

Regulators in the UAE have a long history of blocking news media websites that present a negative view of the UAE leadership and its actions. Following a diplomatic crisis between the UAE and Qatar, the TRA blocked several Qatari-owned news sites reporting on the crisis, claiming that the websites were promoting a banned Islamist organization, The Society of the Muslim Brothers.

In 2009, The Sunday Times was banned in Dubai for a short period after running a story on the emirate’s mounting debt that featured an image of Sheikh Mohammed apparently drowning in a sea of debt.

LGBT content

Under the Federal Penal Code of the UEA, which follows Sharia Law, all sexual relations, outside of heterosexual marriage, are a crime. Punishments for homosexual conduct range from jail time, fines, floggings, beatings, torture or even death, depending on which emirate you are in.

The TRA and ISPs block access to any website that features LGBT content. They also monitor chat rooms, instant messages, and blogs. While prosecutions for online behavior are rare, there are examples of individuals being arrested or harassed for visiting or posting on LGBT forums and websites.

How is the Internet Censored in the UAE?

From a technological standpoint, the government of the UAE uses a Secure Computing Corporation filtering system similar to that used by Iran and Saudi Arabia.

From a regulatory standpoint, the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority uses the state-owned ISPs Etisalat and Du to enforce its regulations and wide-ranging anti-terrorism laws to prosecute individuals who breach those regulations.

State-owned ISPs

Telecom BuildingThe ISPs that provide internet access for all the UAE, Etisalat and Du, are directly or indirectly owned by the state. The UAE government holds a controlling 60% stake in Etisalat through its sovereign wealth fund, the Emirates Investment Authority. Du is 39.5% owned by the Emirates Investment Authority, and much of the rest of the company is owned by various state companies.

Etisalat and Du are also the primary mobile phone operators in the UAE. The only other majority operator, Virgin Mobile, is entirely owned by Du’s parent company, the Emirates Integrated Telecommunications Company (EITC).

By owning the major telecommunications companies and ISPs in the UEA, the government of the UAE can ensure that they abide by the regulations of the TRA, making sure ISPs adhere to their policy on internet censorship.

Regulation

The Telecommunications Regulatory Authority was established in 2003 to oversee “every aspect of the telecommunications and information technology industries in the UAE.” The TRA regulates the state-owned ISPs, Etisalat and Du, blacklisting websites and issuing takedown notices for content.

The TRA can remove online content without judicial oversight, often issuing takedown notices or enacting website blocking before reporting any criminal cases to the police.

Anti-terrorism laws

A lot of TRA’s activity has a legal foundation in the 2014 and 2017 anti-terrorism laws. These were supposedly designed to prevent citizens of the UEA from viewing content posted by terrorist groups and to monitor social media channels for terrorist activity. But the laws use a wide range of non-specific language and have an extensive scope.

Under the 2017 laws, “undermining national unity,” or “publicly declaring one’s animosity to the regime” are criminal offenses. This allows the TRA to censor political content. Websites can be targeted if the TRA deems them to “prompt riot, hatred, racism, sectarianism, or damage the national unity or social peace or prejudice the public order and public morals.”

Other laws, which appear to be in place to protect freedom of expression, have also been used to justify censorship. An example is the 2013 anti-hate speech law. This law allows for the prosecution of individuals posting content deemed to insult religious symbols or discriminatory to certain identities. If convicted, the content creator could face up to 10 years in prison. The law has been used regularly to prosecute and censor those who are critical of Islam.

Can you Access a Free Internet in the UAE?

If you live in the UAE, whether you can access the internet will depend a lot on the emirate you live in. Dubai, for example, is more relaxed than other emirates. There’s a higher chance you’ll be able to navigate the internet freely there. However, we still recommend taking extra safety measures when browsing the internet in the UAE, regardless of the emirate you’re in.

The best ways to remain anonymous online in the UAE are to:

However, we want to emphasize that we are not giving you legal advice. We’re just trying to help everyone enjoy a free internet. With that in mind, exercise caution if you get a VPN. Remember to check the laws of the emirate you live in, or intend to travel to.

Is Using a VPN Illegal in the UAE?

VPN ShieldIf you are in the UAE and want to browse the web freely, you can use a VPN to hide your IP and navigate the internet anonymously.

ISPs in the UAE block websites offering VPN services and a 2016 amendment to the laws governing cybercrime made it a criminal offense to use a fraudulent IP address in order to “commit a crime or prevent its discovery.”

Some wonder if this was an attempt to criminalize virtual private network (VPN) usage. As of yet, nobody has been prosecuted for the use of a VPN in the UAE. However, the use of VPN, in combination with other illegal acts, would lead to additional charges.

What are the Best VPNs to Use in the UAE?

We made a list of the best VPNs to use in the UAE that you’ll find below. However, there are efforts to block access to VPN sites. Depending on your ISP in the UAE, you might not be able to access these websites.

If that’s the case, try using a free VPN, or a browser with built-in anonymity features, like Tor or Opera.

ExpressVPN

ExpressVPN’s super stable service is ideal if you are traveling and want to keep your communications secure and have full access to all the content you are used to.

With over 2000 servers worldwide and military grade encryption, ExpressVPN is precisely what you need to circumvent local content restrictions and make sure that cybercriminals can’t access your information online. If you’re not entirely happy with their service, Express VPN also offer a 30-day money-back guarantee.

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If you are looking for a VPN to ensure your anonymity online, then look no further than NordVPN. With P2P-support for downloading torrents, servers in 54 countries, and encrypted chatting services, you don’t have to worry about anyone watching, regardless of where you are or what you are doing. NordVPN also has a “no log record” policy, meaning you actions are as anonymous as they can be.

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CyberGhost

CyberGhost has easy to use, easy to install software, combined with a user-friendly interface, to make your VPN experience simple and enjoyable. Their VPN connection supports download via torrents, and they have a wide range of servers worldwide. With a 45-day money-back guarantee, you can try CyberGhost without committing, to make sure they are the right VPN for you.

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Final Thoughts

The UAE, and in particular Dubai, has a reputation for being progressive and increasingly westernized in its outlook. However, the government of the UEA censors internet activity and content just like its more conservative neighbors, Iran and Saudi Arabia.

By making use of a central regulatory authority that has control over state-owned ISPs, the government of the UAE is able to tightly control what content its citizens can access. Moreover, they can monitor their online communications, in much the same way as Turkey does.

Political commentators, those critical of Islam and even those unbiasedly covering news events risk being arrested under new anti-terrorism laws. They run the risk of being prosecuted for poorly defined crimes, such as “undermining national unity.”

VPN usage, while not explicitly a crime, is certainly frowned upon. The state-owned ISPs go to great lengths to block access to websites offering VPN services. The 2016 changes to the cybercrime laws that criminalized the use of the VPN to “commit a crime or prevent its discovery” could be seen as a precursor to the country banning the use of VPNs altogether.

Thus, despite its progressive image, internet censorship is widespread in the UAE. Restrictions on content and freedom of speech on the internet look set to increase in the future.

Frequently Asked Questions About UAE Censorship

Below, you’ll find an FAQ with detailed answers to our readers’ most asked questions about UAE censorship.

The United Arab Emirates censor the internet to reinforce its nationalistic narrative, and to silence political opposition. This is why content that criticizes the government, or allegedly threatens Islamic values, is banned on a regular basis in the UAE. You can still access this content though. Read our article on censorship in the UAE to find out how.

The TRA (Telecommunications Regulatory Agency) is the main government body that issues bans or site takedowns, as well as charge individuals of crimes committed against UAE’s censorship efforts. Besides that, the government owns the two major Internet Service Providers in the country, using them to block access to different websites.

If you live in the UAE, or plan to travel there, you can enjoy the internet freely, despite the government’s efforts to limit online freedom. For that, you’ll need to use a VPN (Virtual Private Network) which hides your IP and lets you browse the web anonymously. The best VPN for people in the UAE is ExpressVPN, as it provides a seamless, stable and fun experience on the web.

Tech writer
Theodor is a content writer passionate about the newest tech developments and content marketing strategies. He likes privacy-friendly software, SEO tools, and when he's not writing, he's trying to convince people they should uninstall TikTok.