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UNITED ARAB EMIRATES: Skype plans to open Persian Gulf office in effort to tackle ban

March 15, 2010 |  2:41 pm

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The Internet phone service Skype appears to be taking the bull by the horns.

At a recent media conference in Abu Dhabi, capital of the United Arab Emirates, Skype announced plans to open an office in the Persian Gulf in the next few months in a move to try to lift a ban imposed on the service in several parts of the region and develop strategic partnerships in the area, media reports say.

“We opened our Arabic language website last November," Russ Shaw, the vice president of Skype for the Middle East, was quoted as saying by the National newspaper at the Abu Dhabi Media Summit. "But we thought another step forward for us was to have a physical presence in the region.”

Aside from allowing Skype to lobby governments to scrap the ban, Shaw hopes that a physical presence in the region will help develop partnerships with Gulf telecom operators.

That might prove a challenge since some telecom operators in the Gulf previously have given Internet phone services such as Skype and Truphone a thumbs down over fears they will lose the lucrative revenues they generate from international phone calls if Skype and similar services are allowed to operate on their turf.

The UAE telecommunications regulator has reportedly imposed a general ban on the use of Voice over Internet Protocol, VoIP -- the transmission technology used by Internet phone services.

Skype is today only blocked in a few countries, including North Korea, the UAE and Kuwait.

Speaking at the same summit, Skype CEO Josh Silverman criticized the UAE's current ban on the service.

He called it "short-sighted" -- especially for a place like Dubai, which prides itself on being a dynamic free trade hub with a large immigrant population.

"When you're trying to attract a large immigrant population and support a large emigrant population, (Skype is) a vital tool," Silverman was quoted telling reporters at the sidelines of the summit. "We think it is in the interest of the residents of the UAE and the Emirati government and economy to allow Skype as almost every other country on Earth does."

The vast majority of the UAE's residents are foreigners, many of them laborers earning low wages. According to some media reports, making a phone call to India from the UAE during peak hours can cost  the equivalent of  44 cents a minute, a steep price for a manual laborer or domestic worker who often doesn't earn more than a couple of hundred dollars a month.

Skype has not yet decided where to open its regional office, but Shaw said the UAE is on its short list.

-- Alexandra Sandels in Beirut

Photos: Skype CEO Josh Silverman at the Abu Dhabi Media Summit on Thursday. Credit: Ana-Bianca Marin/Getty Images.

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