Best VPNs for UAE and Dubai & the legal position on VPN use

Published by on June 6, 2017 in VPN & Privacy

Dubai Sunset Burj Kalifa

Travel to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Dubai is increasingly common. If you do happen to find yourself there for business or for pleasure, you may experience a bit of frustration accessing a fair number of websites. VoIP services like Skype and WhatsApp are blocked, as well as gambling sites like Betfair and several Wikipedia pages. The country’s Telecom Regulatory Authority imposes strict internet censorship across the board. Somewhat surprisingly, the TRA is very transparent regarding what sites are blocked and why.

Many users turn to a VPN to bypass these content blocks, an action that currently resides in a significant legal gray area in the country. Despite this, VPNs remain hugely popular.

A 2012 cyber crime law passed in the country only appeared to ban the use of VPNs for activity considered illegal in the county. Pornography, anti-religious hate speech, and gambling generally top the list. However, that law has since been amended and expanded, throwing many VPN users or potential users into confusion over the new law and whether or not there is a UAE VPN ban in place. Many are now more confused than ever over what is and is not a permissible.

Yet between 2012 and 2016, few, if any, VPN websites that allowed users to access blocked content were themselves blocked by the TRA, indicating that the country is not actively blocking these sites, or at the least, not actively reporting it. Even still, many local stores sell VoIP cards that allow the use of VoIP services, despite the ban on services like Skype. It would appear a blind eye is turned to what might be considered minor transgressions and a huge number of people use Skype and other “banned” VoIP services with the help of a VPN.

That said, the current amendment to the law is new and one that should be watched closely. There are many uses for a VPN in the UAE and Dubai, most of which are very much within the country’s legal gray area, such as accessing geographically-blocked content from streaming websites like BBC iplayer, Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime Video.

We identified a specific set of criteria to form our recommendations for the best VPN for Dubai and the rest of the UAE. In particular, those currently in the UAE should use VPNs that allow them to securely access the large number of blocked websites and VoIP services without worrying about data leaks that reveal what websites or services they’re accessing.

The VPN services we determined were the best for UAE and Dubai VPN users all fit the following criteria:

  • Good encryption
  • No traffic logs
  • Plenty of servers
  • DNS leak protection

As an added bonus, we also emphasized any services that utilized obfuscation to hide the fact that you’re even using a VPN at all.

Expert tip: Some VPN sites are blocked in the UAE so if you are not yet there sign up for a service before traveling.

Best VPN for Dubai and UAE

1. ExpressVPN
expressvpn android 2

ExpressVPN easily meets all of our criteria for making the list of best VPNs for UAE and Dubai. The service employs a distinct no-log policy that includes:

  • browsing history
  • DNS queries
  • traffic data

The encryption uses AES-256 encryption, noted as one of the best encryption methods and notably used by many governments, including the U.S. government and military. ExpressVPN supports OpenVPN with TCP/UDP, SSTP, L2TP/IPSec and PPTP protocols. ExpressVPN employs DNS protection and a kill switch in case the service fails.

Finally, ExpressVPN has among the largest number of servers and server locations, with over 130 server locations in 87 countries. As a bonus, this service utilizes its own, proprietary method of obfuscation to hide the fact that you’re connected to a VPN. As such, the service works in even the most VPN-unfriendly countries. It is known to even get past the Great Firewall of China. ExpressVPN reliably works with most major geo-restricted streaming services like Netflix, Hulu and HBO GO, as well as VoIP services like Skype.

Apps are available for Windows, MacOS, iOS, Android, Linux (command line), and certain wifi routers.

You can currently get 3 months free here, on ExpressVPN’s annual plan.

Read our full ExpressVPN review here.

2. IPVanish
ipvanish android

IPVanish is a high-level VPN service that offers everything we looked for in our criteria. This includes AES-256 encryption, a strict no-log policy and a large number of servers.

You’ll also find that IPVanish utilizes OpenVPN TCP/UDP protocols while supporting PPTP and L2TP/IPsec VPN protocols as well. Notable on this service is the kill switch and ease of use, as well as an exceptionally large number of shared IPs and servers (over 40,000). The service boasts more than 500 servers across more than 60 countries.

We also chose this service because it provides several methods of protection against DNS leaks, the kill switch included, and comes with a very distinct obfuscation option you can turn on or off. Called “enable scramble”, this feature adds obfuscation to the OpenVPN protocols.

Apps are available for Windows, MacOS, iOS, and Android.

You can get IPVanish here, our find out more in our full IPVanish review.

3. NordVPN
nordvpn ios

NordVPN is a great option for those seeking an extra amount of security. Hitting every point in our criteria (no log policy, high-level SSL-2048-bit encryption, large variety of servers), this service also offers a Tor over VPN option. Tor is perhaps the safest method to browse the web. NordVPN combines its service with Tor to offer an extremely safe and heavily encrypted web-browsing experience, especially for those connecting in the UAE and Dubai.

Additionally, NordVPN features a DNS leak resolver designed to prevent DNS leaks as well as a process-specific kill switch should the service fail, or should any individual program running start leaking data. OpenVPN protocols are available here, as well as PPTP and L2TP/IPsec. While NordVPN does not include its own obfuscation method, it does support Obfsproxy. Their website provides a helpful walkthrough on how to set this up through their service. The service also utilizes a double VPN feature which doubles the encryption, although this does, understandably, slow down the service a bit.

Apps are available for Windows, MacOS, iOS, and Android.

Find out more in our full NordVPN review.

Deal alert: NordVPN has extended its New Year deal which gives a huge 72% discount on the 2 year plan.

4. Buffered
buffered servers and connected

It should be noted upfront that Buffered has a no log policy that is not the strongest of the group. The service stores some metadata, but specifically, avoids logging most online activities. This is a strike against the service, however, its other benefits can make it a potentially worthwhile option for anyone using a VPN in the UAE or Dubai.

Buffered does have AES-256 encryption and a large number of servers across 36 countries. As it utilizes OpenVPN protocols, Buffered does have some obfuscation functionality to its service. The service also supports L2TP and PPTP protocols alongside TCP and UDP.

All told, Buffered is not the best service on our list, but one of the best services out there for UAE and Dubai residents and visitors.

Apps are availalbe for Windows and MacOS. Mobile users will have to use a third-party OpenVPN app.

Buffered have a 30 day money back you can take advantage of here our read our full Buffered review.

5. StrongVPN
StrongVPN

StrongVPN has been heavily field tested by expats in China, its most popular market. The VPN can thwart the Great Firewall, China’s advanced internet censorship system, so the UAE’s blocks should be no problem from this US-based provider.

StrongVPN touts a true no-logs policy and 256-bit AES encryption for the OpenVPN protocols, which run over both UDP and TCP. L2TP, SSTP, and PPTP are also supported on the desktop clients. Servers in 20 countries are scattered across North America, Europe, and Asia. A “Scramble” feature on both desktop and mobile can be used to obfuscate traffic and make it look like normal, non-encrypted HTTP traffic.

The desktop interface definitely takes some getting used to, but if you can get over the clunky UI then StrongVPN is a great candidate for users in Dubai and the rest of the UAE.

StrongVPN offers apps for Windows, MacOS, iOS, and Android.

Strong VPN comes with a 5-day money-back guarantee and are offering a 41% discount on their 12 month plan. If you add the code SAVE15 at checkout there is a further 15% discount.

VPNs to avoid in the UAE

If you’ve been Googling around for what VPN to use while you’re in the UAE, a few probably popped up that are actually best avoided, either because they don’t work in the UAE or because of a precedent of shifty practices. There are a lot of bad VPN services out there, but here are three in particular to stay away from:

Hotspot Shield

Many users have complained that Hotspot Shield does not work in the UAE. Even if it did, a recent FTC complaint alleges that the company has been hijacking HTTP requests and redirecting users to affiliate sites against their will. They also insert tracking cookies into your web browser that monitor your activity, which is used by third-party advertisers. Keep away.

Hola

Hola is a peer-to-peer network that uses idle bandwidth on other people’s computers to create a VPN tunnel. Likewise, other people utilize your bandwidth when you’re not using it. This can make you liable for other people’s activity, a a huge risk when in the UAE. The company has a history of abusing users’ trust as well. It once turned all of the devices on its network into a huge botnet and used it to carry out distributed denial-of-service attacks on websites.

HideMyAss

HideMyAss has a history of working with law enforcement and intelligence agencies. The most famous example is the arrest of Cody Ketsinger, a Lulzsec hacker involved in a cyber attack on Sony Pictures. HideMyAss allegedly handed over evidence that led to his arrest. While we don’t condone what Cody did, VPN users’ should be skeptical of HideMyAss’ "no logs" claims.

Digging into UAE’s content and VPN laws

The UAE’s content blocking laws are overly complex but based on two categories: religious principles and protecting businesses.

The religious principles aspect to this is pretty clear. The United Arab Emirates has a complicated government structure with an absolute monarchy at the top. Laws are based on a mixture of Sharia and secular civil ideals.*

As the country’s laws have a significant basis in Sharia, the Telecom Regulatory Authority’s content blocking makes sense per the UAE’s enshrined Muslim belief system, although it’s less draconian than what one might find in other primarily Muslim countries such as Iran or Saudi Arabia.

According to the TRA, content that “contradicts with the ethics and morality of the UAE” is blocked outright. This includes:

  • pornography
  • VoIP sites and services (Skype)
  • gambling
  • websites containing anti-religious hate speech
  • websites related to the production, sale and distribution of illegal drugs
  • content that is often contrary to beliefs of the majority Shia population
  • Many Wikipedia pages
  • Israeli websites

The TRA provides statistics yearly on its content blocking initiative:

2016 amended VPN law

In early 2016, the UAE amended its cyber crimes law to specify more VPN uses. The law reads:

“Whoever uses a fraudulent computer network protocol address (IP address) by using a false address or a third-party address by any other means for the purpose of committing a crime or preventing its discovery, shall be punished by temporary imprisonment and a fine of no less than Dhs 500,000 ( USD $136,128.51)  and not exceeding Dhs 2,000,000 (USD $544,514.04), or either of these two penalties.”

Many stories came out immediately following this amendment that seemingly broadened the extent of this law to include all VPN usage. However, this has not been the case. Indeed, VPN usage in the UAE and Dubai is exceptionally high and very common. As evidenced by the TRA’s own content filtering statistics, most websites outside of those going against ethics laws are not commonly banned. This includes VPN services. Nevertheless, as long as the VPN you are using is doing its job and obfuscating your connection to the VPN server, you’re not likely to draw any attention from authorities.

Some content blocking is meant to benefit businesses

The UAE sees a significant amount of international business traffic and relies heavily on that traffic as part of its economy. Dubai, in particular, has a large number of non-Muslims and temporary residents living and working in the city year-round and long term. To stay on the friendlier side of their international business partners, the country tends to spend less time enforcing some of the laws it has on the books in Dubai, although recent changes to the law may indicate a consequential return to censorship and enforcement.

Businesses themselves enjoy some content blocking laws that are designed to protect their interests. The content blocking of voice over internet protocol (VoIP) and many other messaging apps, such as Skype, WhatsApp and Google Hangouts, is because the country wants to protect its telecommunications industry from losing business to those using free communication platforms. As such, long-distance calling in the UAE can only be accomplished the old-fashioned way, at least legally.

The VoIP cards that are commonly sold in the country are a below-the-counter method of getting past this ban. VoIP calling cards are a workaround to the system allowing users call a remote PSTN that then connects to a VoIP system. In this manner, users are able to make VoIP calls using the regular cellular network or even a landline phone.

UAE’s Freedom on the Net 2015 ranking

As of 2015, the UAE has a score of 68 out of 100 from  the democracy and freedom ranking organization Freedom House. The higher the score, the worse the country’s freedom ranking.

The report confirms the fact that the UAE’s content blocking is among the worst in the world, although it is not the worst in the world, or even in the Middle East. The report also indicates that the country’s ISPs utilize content blocking tools NetSweeper, SmartBlocker and Blue Coat ProxySG. The report additionally indicates that Facebook and Youtube are available, although some search terms and content is blocked on those sites.

Online streaming in Dubai and the UAE

Netflix is not blocked in the UAE. The service launched in the UAE earlier in 2016. There are now over 300 TV shows and just under 1,000 movies available in the country. This represents around 30% of what is available through U.S. Netflix. Many Netflix users in Dubai are using VPNs to access other Netflix regions. Note that not all VPNs are effective at accessing Netflix, for more details see our Netflix VPN list.

Similarly, many users are utilizing VPN services to access Amazon Instant Video services in the country. Amazon itself is not blocked, but the website does not operate its video services in the country. These are, however, available through a VPN, and not considered part of the “illegal content” under the country’s recently amended VPN laws.

Using a VPN to access international libraries of online streaming services such as Netflix, Hulu, BBC iPlayer or Amazon Prime Instant Video are considered low-risk ventures. Authorities are more concerned with users utilizing VPNs for serious crimes, and more particularly, for issues more directly related to the ethics laws mentioned earlier.

Before you enter Dubai or the UAE

Although VPN websites are in the legal gray area in the UAE, accessing them in order to download a VPN service may trigger warnings and make you a monitoring target, even if you’re not using the service for illegal purposes. It’s best, then, to download a VPN program prior to entering the country.

Downloading before you go will help ensure you have the VPN service on your computer before you go to the country. You won’t raise any red flags by going to the VPN’s website after you arrive. And if you’re making sure to utilize obfuscation, assuming you’re using a service that has this option, you can avoid even getting identified as a VPN user at all.

Getting around VPN blocking

As stated earlier, VPN blocking does occur in the UAE, as VPN services are among the items listed by the TRA that they monitor. The new amendments to the country’s cybersecurity law to broaden the scope of VPN illegality also makes it more likely that you’ll find your VPN service blocked.

You can, however, get around VPN blocks by utilizing several known methods.

1. Don’t use a free VPN

Free VPNs are a gamble that are simply not worth your time, especially if you’re traveling to the UAE. Free VPNs often:

  • use less secure encryption methods
  • place third-party ads on your web pages
  • keep logs
  • have fewer server options
  • have slower servers with less bandwidth
  • sell user information

Given the significant grey area that exists for VPN users in the UAE and Dubai, there’s no reason to take that risk to save a few bucks.

2. Change your TCP port to 443

OpenVPN TCP protocol can travel through the 443 port. This is the same port as the HTTPS protocol. This is essentially a mild obfuscation method, as it makes your VPN traffic look just like regular SSL traffic from an HTTPS website. Many paid VPN services allow you to change to this setting rather easily, especially if they’re already using OpenVPN.

3. Change to a different protocol

If the OpenVPN TCP protocol is getting blocked, you may try changing to L2TP/IPsec protocol. This protocol is highly secure and still common. However, make sure that your L2TP protocol comes with the IPsec security, as a “raw” L2TP protocol is not secure.

You may also try the SSTP protocol, if available. However, this protocol is not commonly supported on most devices, although some Windows machines may have it as an option.

We do not recommend changing to the PPTP protocol. It’s not a secure, primarily because it is viewed as obsolete. Given that you’ll be connecting to a VPN in a more-or-less unfriendly environment, you’ll want to avoid an insecure VPN protocol.

*Disclaimer: While we have researched this topic thoroughly, nothing in our article should be taken as legal advice. Our goal is to provide you with the best information and solutions. That said, we are not legal experts on the nuances of the UAE’s laws.


Dubai Sunset by the_dead_pixel licensed under CC by 2.0

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