FaceTime hasn’t been available in the United Arab Emirates since Apple launched the technology in 2010, but that policy might have eased — at least for a brief while. The AP reports FaceTime calls were suddenly working in the UAE as of October 10th, letting those with the app (not available on Apple gear sold in the UAE) make high-quality video and voice calls. The feature worked when speaking to people both inside and outside of the country.
It’s not certain if this is a permanent or intentional change. Dubai kicked off Expo 2020 (yes, the city knows it’s 2021) on October 1st, and will keep it running until the end of March 2022 — a gesture like this could encourage visitors who want to keep in touch and show what they’ve seen. The UAE’s Telecommunications and Digital Government Regulatory Authority has so far been silent about the apparent change, however, and restrictions appear to largely be intact for rival services like Skype and WhatsApp outside of the fairgrounds.
Officials have never formally explained the ban. Some have suspected it was a simple effort to protect state-run telecoms’ profits, particularly in early years when FaceTime would have consumed a disproportionately large amount of bandwidth. Others, meanwhile, have suspected security concerns. The UAE is believed to have hacked dissidents’ iPhones to spy on their activities, and live video chats might make that surveillance difficult.
We wouldn’t count on this reprieve lasting long as a result. If this does represent a policy change, though, it could represent either an acknowledgment of changing times or simply a matter of practical necessity. Video calls have often been the only way to see friends and family during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the UAE ban hasn’t helped matters.