Access to this site is currently blocked. The site falls under the Prohibited Content Categories of the UAE's Internet Access Management Policy.
The above text is what you're likely to see if you try to connect to a website carrying "questionable content" in the United Arab Emirates. It's a result of a long-standing Emirati law against online pornography, gambling and other blasphemous materials and the informal ban on any sort of media content that criticizes the Emirati government or any position that the government might hold or ever think of holding in the future. And it's the bane of every teenage boy in the UAE engrossed in a desperate search for even a single picture of a naked lady online.
A brief profile of Etisalat
The Emirates Telecommunications Corporation (better known by its abbreviated Arabic name Etisalat) is the largest ISP and mobile services provider in the UAE. A publicly traded company based in the Emirati capital of Abu Dhabi, Etisalat has a market value of around $20 billion as of 2013 and now provides telecom services to dozens of countries throughout the Middle East, Africa and Asia.1
Much like its home city of Abu Dhabi, Etisalat started small and grew quickly. The company was founded in 1976 as a local telecom service provider. Etisalat is now a behemoth, officially the most powerful corporation in the UAE and the third-largest in the Gulf Cooperation Council group of nations.
Etisalat and the UAE
For all practical purposes, Etisalat is the Internet in the UAE. The two terms were and are practically interchangeable. If you lived in the Emirates in the 90s and you wanted to connect to the Internet, you had no choice but to use Etisalat's service. (There's currently one exception, but more on that later.)
Which was kind of a shame, because Etisalat fully enforced, and still fully enforces, the Emirati government's policy of Internet censorship. Federal Legal Decree No. 5 for 2012 is the latest in a series of laws implemented by the federal government of the UAE banning online content and activities such as
and basically anything else that the government decides it doesn't like.2 (For the curious, these bans also extend to non-Internet content and materials. If you're traveling to the UAE, be sure to leave your poker chips, your political literature and/or your vibrator at home.)
In November of 2012, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, President of the UAE and hereditary ruler of Abu Dhabi, also passed a law "stipulating prison sentences for anyone found criticising the Gulf state’s rulers or government institutions online."3 Considering the results of the Arab Spring and the ongoing turmoil in the nearby Gulf island state of Bahrain, Sheikh Khalifa may be right to be nervous.
The human cost of Internet censorship and surveillance
As a 12 year-old American expatriate living in Abu Dhabi with my family in the late 90s, my primary concern with regard to the Internet was how to find jpegs of boobs. As the then-sole ISP in the UAE, Etisalat strictly enforced the government's position on pornography, as I discovered in the course of my extensive and altogether frustrating research.
More critically, Internet users in the UAE are legally forbidden from expressing or even reading political, social or religious dissent of any kind. This law is one of the few in the Emirates that applies equally to citizens, residents and visitors alike regardless of nationality.
Offenders can be sent to prison or thrown out of the country for making remarks about government policies. As a result, several Emirati dissidents are now living as exiles in the African island state of the Comoros. (Not the worst place ever to be an exile, but still.) Twitter posts to the effect of "the local security forces are dicks" made through Etisalat's service have sent people packing off to jail.4
Money and monopoly
Etisalat's reasons for blocking websites in the UAE aren't entirely for the preservation of morality and order. For several years, the Abu Dhabi telecom company has blocked the website of the popular VoIP service Skype. One guess as to why the only long-distance and mobile service provider in the UAE decided to block the site of its much cheaper-to-use rival.
In recent years, the new Dubai-based telecom company du joined Etisalat and officially broke its monopoly as the Emirates' only ISP. However, du's services are only available in certain areas called freezones, and in any case, du also censors a broad swath of the Internet along the same lines as Etisalat.
Emirati citizens and residents who want to get around the country's wall of Internet censorship can and do use very illegal - but very popular - proxy services. Still, using the Internet in the UAE is a pain in the ass, to put it mildly.
I don't want to put anyone off of traveling to the Emirates. Abu Dhabi and Dubai are interesting cities (parts of them, anyway) and they're great places to make money if you've secured a good job. And you won't get thrown in jail upon arrival or have to undergo a strip search in the airport before entering the country. But you will have to watch what you say and what you look at while online. If you have a Facebook and/or Twitter account and you regularly make politically or socially themed posts, consider taking a break from that while you're in the Emirates. Whether you like it or not, keep in mind that it's their country - you're just a guest.