Is It Possible to Use a VPN to Circumvent Censorship in Dubai?
By Lisa Golden
Visitors to Dubai are often surprised to learn that the emirate has very strong censorship rules in place. Enforced to protect the “identity, traditions, ethics, morals, and culture” of Dubai, a lot of websites are off-limits for various reasons, whether due to obscenity, religious reasons, or political pressures. Some websites are completely blocked, while others are monitored for offending content.
Now, many countries around the world have similar laws, with governments implementing them in a variety of ways. What makes Dubai’s laws a little more concerning for visitors is their relatively new (2016) restriction on VPNs.
Virtual private networks (VPNs) route your connection through an external server, making it seem like you’re in another country. You can then get access to content that is blocked in the country you’re in. Beyond getting access to content, VPNs are very important for security reasons and privacy. So how do you get a VPN that works in the UAE?
Is it legal?
The 2016 law made it illegal to use a fake network address, which is technically what a VPN does. The law did make it clear that no one would be prosecuted unless they were using it for a crime. This provided a very big grey area and one which was only made murkier by rumors over the following couple of years.
As things stand, it seems that the law allows you to use VPNs that are “legal” for non-criminal purposes. A rumor that all VPN users were to be fined was squashed as a hoax.
The answer to the question is basically that a VPN is legal (or at least is not illegal). However, that doesn’t make things much easier. The problem is that censorship makes it nearly impossible to actually download working VPN software.
How do I get a VPN?
The problem is that if you try to go to a website for a VPN provider while in Dubai, you will be redirected or get an error message. In the same way that pornographic websites are blocked, VPN websites are blocked too. So, whether it is legal or not, you cannot download a VPN.
There is one way to get around this problem, but it’s only convenient for travelers. You can download a VPN while outside Dubai and use it when you come back. In other words, if you regularly leave Dubai or are yet to visit, you can download a VPN. If not, there are few workarounds.
Is it safe?
We’ve established that it’s legal to use a VPN in Dubai, but clearly, the authorities go a great distance to prevent it. And, especially if you’re using a VPN to view content that is blocked in Dubai, you may be wondering if it is safe.
The short answer is yes. No one is going to know you’re using a VPN unless they’re literally looking over your shoulder. For those in business, a VPN can help keep proprietary secrets, just that, secret.
Using a VPN is perfectly safe and you shouldn’t have to worry about prosecution or fines as long as you are not committing a crime. If, however, you intend to commit or cover up an actual crime with a VPN, then you’re obviously putting yourself at risk, and shouldn’t rely on a VPN to protect you. While it will do its own job, there are other ways to find someone.
Now obviously (I hope) you’re not intending to commit a crime. But you do need to be careful if you plan on making inflammatory statements, sharing videos the authorities might not want to be shared or writing articles that undermine the authorities. No matter whether your intentions are good or bad, this will put you in danger. They may be able to track you down based on what you say, what’s in a video, or your use of social media, even if the VPN keeps them from seeing who or where you are.
Even if you’re not doing anything illegal, emigration authorities can find a myriad of reasons to kick you out if you are from outside the UAE.
Which VPN should you use?
Using a VPN in Dubai is technically legal and it is safe for most purposes. So, which ones are going to suit your purpose best?
ExpressVPN is probably the top performer, considering that it has a high level of protection, has many servers around the world, and its servers are mostly very fast. Alternative options include NordVPN, that offers pretty much the same thing at a similar price but has a 2-year subscription option that saves you almost 50%.
You may also want to consider using Surfshark. It’s not quite as well-known as the others, and may not be as fast or have as many servers, but at $1.99 per month, it is a whole lot more affordable. They guarantee your privacy, and have a good reputation, fulfilling the basic criteria you will need while in Dubai.