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Millions in the Arab world use VPNs to overcome restrictions and bandwidth throttling

Citizens in the Arab world are using VPNs to help them bypass internet restrictions and increase available bandwidth

Large proportion of citizens in Arab countries are using virtual private networks (VPNs) to bypass restrictive laws on internet use and to overcome limitations on bandwidth for gaming and streaming services.

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has the highest VPN download rate in the world, as a proportion of population, with a total of 4.27 million downloads made in the UAE, the equivalent of 43% of the total population, according to the Atlas VPN research.

In the UAE, websites that violates Islamic moral norms are banned as well as services, such as WhatsApp, Skype, FaceTime, and Facebook Messenger. People are also banned from criticising the government.

Arab countries made up four of the top five nations in terms of VPN use per population, according to the VPN Adoption Index by Atlas VPN.

In Qatar, there were 2.88 million downloads, equal to just over 39% of its population. In Saudi Arabia, there were 9 million downloads of VPN, equivalent to 27% of its population; while in Oman, there were 1.5 million downloads out of a population of five million.

In a Blog Post Atlas VPN said: “Arab nations are governed by hereditary rulers who wield the majority of administrative, legislative, and judicial power. Civil rights of both citizens and non-citizens are severely restricted.

“To overcome some of those limitations, residents search for tools that could help them regain their liberties. VPNs are one of the primary tools people in Arab countries utilise to increase their freedom of expression and access restricted content,” said Atlas VPN.

For example the UAE Cyber Law states: “A punishment of temporary imprisonment and a fine of not less than AED 500,000 and not more than AED 2,000,000, or either of these two penalties, shall be imposed on whoever uses a fraudulent computer network protocol address by using a false address or a third-party address or by any other means for the purpose of committing a crime or preventing its discovery.”

But the region’s increased use of VPNs is not just trying to get around restrictions to what they can do online, but also the result of gamers attempting to overcome limits on bandwidth and enable them to connect with people in other regions.

“Mainly, gamers in the Gulf employ VPNs to change their IP address so they would get matched with players in other regions and to avoid bandwidth throttling. Also, VPNs are necessary for streamers to prevent DDoS attacks,” said the Atlas VPN blog post.

Irina Tsukerman, a human rights lawyer and national security and geopolitical analyst specialising in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) and information warfare, said: “More recently, gaming and streaming have become leading motivators for the use of VPNs, particularly as some countries reform and modernise. The gaming industry has become huge in the Middle East, especially in the Gulf.” 

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