DUBAI: Human rights groups urged three Gulf Arab states on Wednesday to lift bans on free internet calls to help their large migrant workforces stay in touch during the coronavirus pandemic.
Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates have long blocked many voice and video calling apps on the grounds of protecting the commercial interests of state-owned telecoms utilities.
"This has caused serious problems for the people living in those countries, especially the majority of migrant workers and foreign national residents who need to connect and communicate with their families and communities overseas," the rights groups said.
A majority of the estimated 17 million people living in the three Gulf states are expatriates, most of them low-paid workers from Asia.
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the UAE and Oman have relaxed restrictions on some calling apps but on a temporary basis.
They have unblocked apps that allow for distance learning such as Microsoft Teams, Skype for Business, Google Hangouts, and Zoom. Microsoft Teams and Zoom are also available in Qatar.
State-owned telecom firms in the UAE have also introduced a new app, UAE Voice, that allows for free video and audio calls.
But popular apps such as WhatsApp, Skype and FaceTime remain blocked despite persistent calls for a change of policy to face the pandemic, Human Rights Watch and 28 other civil society groups said in a joint statement.
"Denying the Gulf population access to these platforms puts people at serious risk, as this cuts them off from their communities abroad and the resources they need in times of such crisis," they said.
Despite its ambition to become a major technological power, the UAE has harsh cybercrime laws and maintains what civil society groups call a high level of online restrictions and surveillance.
In December, the New York Times accused the UAE intelligence services of using popular new app TikTok to spy on users.