Netizens in the United Arab Emirates are faced with one of the highest amounts of internet censorship of thousands of websites across various categories. If you’re located in the UAE, you already know just how many popular websites and online services are completely blocked. The emirate of Dubai is not excluded, and residents face the same restrictions and censorship. Being that Dubai is known for having very technological infrastructures, and internet usage has increased as high as 93% of the UAE’s population in 2015.
The local government controls what you get when it comes to the web and the list of restrictions is extensive. Censorship is applied to pornography, political news, social media and dating sites, Wikipedia pages, and even VoIP apps such as Skype. A certain amount of moral and political ideals determine what local authorities allow the public to access. ISPs such as Etisalat and Du are know for throttling connection speeds and blocking VOIP services like Whatsapp and Snapchat.
Fortunately, these blocks can easily be bypassed by using a VPN. VPNs allow you to browse in the UAE and Dubai through encrypted servers located elsewhere in the world, allowing you to access or use any blocked websites and services, all while encrypting and hiding your web traffic from local ISPs or local data collection banks.
The biggest downside, is that using a server located in the U.S. for example, will cause speed to deteriorate due to the long route it must travel. Using regional servers provide much better speeds for United Arab Emirate users, but U.S. access remains popular, just be forewarned that some speed loss is inevitable. Additionally, if you we’re hoping to get access to local UAE servers, due to heavy regulation, almost no providers currently offer servers there with some exceptions on the list. Vice-versa, many users actually seek to access content originating in Dubai from other parts of the world, and if this is what you need make sure to select a service provider that provides a local server.
Here are my top picks for best VPN services for UAE and Dubai
ExpressVPN – Full Review
ExpressVPN promises great service or your money back with a solid 30-day guarantee. The service comes with some of the best software in the industry, and global access to 78 countries. Unfortunately no local UAE servers are available at this time. SmartDNS is included for gaming consoles and Apple TV, but what users may benefit from most, is their quality setup tutorials and customer service. ExpressVPN is a little more expensive but the team goes above and beyond to provide a premium service to ensure customer satisfaction.
NordVPN – Full Review
NordVPN also lets you enjoy online freedom in the United Arab Emirates thanks to the obfuscated technology that it supports.You will be able to overcome the strict blocks that prevent you from accessing any website or watching videos without restrictions. NordVPN also offers advanced security functions such as Tor over VPN and double VPN encryption. Since it is a zero logs provider, it doesn’t store any records about your activities or your connection. You can stream, browse and more without any problems. It is an effective solution to experience internet the way you want, even if you are in a restrictive location like Dubai.
Surfshark – Full Review
Surfshark is capable of overcoming restrictions and censorship in any location, thanks to its Camouglage mode. This is a solution that disguises your VPN traffic, making it appear as standard traffic, which is handy in locations where VPNs are blocked. Since United Arab Emirates is attempting to prevent people from using VPNs, Surfshark is one of the best options to overcome the issues and enjoy true online freedom. Surfshark keeps your internet traffic safe with high encryption, keeping your identity and privacy secure. It doesn’t keep any logs that could put your privacy at risk.
VyprVPN – Full Review
Another good choice for UAE and Dubai residents looking for a VPN service, with good coverage of Asia, Europe and America, VyprVPN has technology and software that looks and operates better than most. With a coverage of over 50 countries and included cloud storage to encrypt your backups, the service is interesting to consider, but cost is also a little higher than most and unfortunately does not have any local UAE or Dubai servers at this moment. If you want apps that look really high tech, or have yet to find fast enough speeds from your location, VyprVPN has a risk free trial that you can use to test the service. I highly suggest to take the trial offer if you continuously suffer from slow speeds when using overseas servers.
What VPNs should you avoid in the UAE and Dubai
Not all VPNs are suitable for use in the UAE. Some of them don§t work, while others are not reliable. If you want to be able to bypass restrictions and keep your privacy protected at the same time, it is best to avoid the providers that we list below since they are not effective to overcome blocks and they have previously compromised the privacy of its users.
Hola is a popular option, mainly because it is free. It uses a P2P network that creates a vPN tunnel using unused bandwidth on other user’s computers. This means that you may end up being blamed for what someone else does on the internet, which could lead to many issues, particularly in the UAE. Unfortunately, that is not the only downside of Hola. The provider has also bad reputation for putting its customer’s data at risk by using all the devices on its network as a large botnet to laucnh DDoS attacks on websites.
There have been many reports from users stating that Hotspot Shield simply doesn’t work in the UAE. On top of that, the company has been accused of hijacking HTTP requests and redirecting users to affiliate sites, without their consent. To make matters even worse, the provider adds tracking cookies into users’ web browsers to monitor your activity. This information is then used by third-party advertisers so it is better that you stay away from it.
HideMyAss doesn’t keep records of your activities or the content of your internet traffic. However, it does keep detailed metadata logs that include your real IP address, as proven by the case of a LulzSec hacker, whose information was handed to authorities by HMA. Although in this case, the hacker was involved in illegal activities, the fact that HMA was able to provide information that led to his arrest, casts a shadow of doubt on the provider’s no logs claims.
Can you use VPNs legally in the United Arab Emirates?
While many people use VPNs to get around blocks, the legal situation of VPN services is currently in a gray area. Many people fear that using a VPN in the UAE could land them into legal trouble and while the popularity of VPNs is still high, the law regarding their use in the country is not very clear. In 2012, a law against cybercrime was passed and although it only seemed to target the use of VPNs for illegal activities, the issue is that what is considered illegal in the UAE covers a broad spectrum. Comments against religion, pornography and gambling are some of the categories included.
The law is quite confusing and it is not clear what is allowed and what is not. The websites of many VPN services are still available and even when VoIP services like Skype are banned, it is possible to find VoIP cards in some shows, which suggests that these laws are not reinforced. However, many people don’t want to take the risk, in spite of the fact that there is no clarity about the legality of using a VPN to bypass geographical blocks to access content on popular streaming platforms like Netflix.
While the subject is complex, it can be easier to understand by mentioning that there are two main reasons why content can be blocked in the UAE: religion and business protection. In the first case, the UAE has a complicated government organization in which laws follow religious principles. Sharia law plays a major part in the legal system in the UAE and authorities block content on the basis of religious beliefs, although the regulations are not as strict as in other Muslim countries like Iraq. In the UAE, the content that is blocked includes websites with anti-religious content, websites related to illegal drugs, Israeli websites, VoIP services, gambling websites and pornography.
Regarding the use of VPN and other technology that allows users to disguise their IP address, the law mentions that those who use it with the purpose of committing a crime face prison and a hefty fine. In reality, there have not been any confirmed reports of people being punished for simply using a VPN, even if it was only to bypass geographical blocks. In any case, as long as you are using a VPN that uses obfuscation to protect your VPN traffic and let you overcome any restrictions
We also mentioned that the blocks may be placed to protect businesses. Since the UAE has become a center for international businesses and Dubai is home to many expats, the authorities seem to be more lenient, or at least they used to be. Recently, there have been indicators of increased censorship. But in some cases, the blocks are meant to protect business’ interests. For instance, the reason why VoIP and messaging apps like Skype and WhatsApp are blocked is that the UAE seeks to protect the local telecommunication industry, which could be affected by the popularity of popular free messaging apps. Although VoIP cards are available, they are not sold officially and they are intended as a workaround that gives users the chance to make VoIP calls using the standard cellular network or a landline.
Online freedom in the UAE
The UAE is classified as Not Free by Freedom House as the blocking system in the world is one of the most restrictive and while some popular apps such as Facebook are available, there is a lot of content that is blocked. Apart from the issue with censorship, it should be noted that due to geographical blocks, the selection of TV shows and movies that people in the UAE can find on streaming services like Netflix, is limited. VPNs are widely used, not only in Dubai, but in many other locations, with the purpose of bypassing geo-restrictions to get access to Netflix US since it has a larger catalog of content. Authorities in the UAE are more concerned about the use of VPNs in UAE when pornography, anti-religious speech, gambling and other high risk issues are involved.
To make things easier, it is advisable to get a VPN before you go to the UAE to avoid any issues. Even if you are not using the VPN for illegal purposes, you may face complications if you try to download the VPN before you enter the country. If you download the VPN prior to arriving to the UAE, you will have the software already running on your device and will be able to connect to a server as soon as you arrive to the country. We recommend users to use a VPN that supports obfuscation technology since this hides VPN traffic and will prevent others from finding out that a VPN is being used.
How to bypass VPN blocking
Generally speaking, VPNs are targeted for blocking and you may come across issues when trying to use one in the UAE. The good news is that it is possible to avoid blocks, as long as you keep in mind some tips. As previously mentioned, there are VPN services that use obfuscation technology to hide the fact that a VPN is in use. Again, we must highlight the importance of avoiding free VPNs since they are less secure and even likely to compromise your privacy by keeping logs, selling your data to third parties and slowing down your connection.
You can also avid blocks by changing your TCP port to 443. OpenVPN TCP protocol can get directed through the 443 port, which is the same as the HTTPS protocol. It works as an obfuscation method and while it is not advanced, it disguises your VPN traffic, making it look like standard SSL traffic from an HTTPS website. If you are using OpenVPN, you won’t have major hassle adjusting the settings to change the port. However, if the OPenVPN TCP protocol is being blocked, you can change to L2TP/IPsec protocol. This protocol is very secure and it is widely used, but you need to ensure that your L2TP protocol features IPsec security since LT2P on its own is not secure. Another option is to use SSTP protocol, if it is available. The downside is that this protocol is not commonly supported. One thing to keep in mind is that PPTP is a weak protocol that has been already compromised. This is why it should be avoided, particularly in the UAE.