There are notable differences in the way telecommunications are regulated across the Middle East.

A comparison of the regulatory frameworks in Qatar, Bahrain and the UAE provides an insight into the distinct licensing obligations facing operators. There are also separate rules governing interconnection and access rights, the importation of equipment, and matters of consumer protection, as well as variations in the enforcement regimes that apply. Here we look at the regulation of telecoms in the UAE. Other guides look at Qatar and Bahrain.

The market

The telecoms market in the UAE is a duopoly between du and Etisalat, the incumbent operator, both of which are majority owned by the government. There are two mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs) in the UAE, which are wholly owned by du and Etisalat respectively.

Dubai is fast becoming a regional hub for ICT investment and international telecoms companies who are able to setup branch offices in the various free zones, such as Dubai Internet City. However, these international providers cannot offer public telecoms services direct to customers onshore in the UAE and must instead contract with licensed operators to procure last mile services.

Mobile penetration levels in the UAE are among the worlds’ highest.

The regulator

The UAE Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (UAE TRA) was established in 2003 as an independent regulator and regulates the information communications and telecoms sector in the UAE.

Regulated activities and licensing

Under Article 37 of Federal Decree-Law No. 3/2003 on Organising the Telecommunications Sector, a licence is required from the TRA to provide any telecommunications services through a public telecommunications network in the UAE.

Telecommunications services are defined as the service of transmitting, broadcasting, switching or receiving by means of a telecommunications network of any of the following:

  • wired and wireless telecommunications;
  • ·voice, music and other sounds;
  • ·visual images;
  • signals used in radio and TV broadcasting;
  • signals used to operate or control any machinery or apparatus;
  • the installation, maintenance, adjustment, repair, replacement, moving or removal of apparatus which is or will be connected to a public telecommunications network;
  • the construction maintenance and operation of networks for telegraph, telephone, telex, leased circuits, domestic and international data networks, internet and wireless transmission; and
  • any other telecommunications services approved by the UAE TRA Board;

This is supplemented by TRA Resolution No. 6/2008 Regarding the Licensing Framework which provides that the operation of a public telecommunications network or provision of telecommunications services are regulated activities, requiring a licence from the TRA.

To hold a licence to provide public telecoms services in the UAE, an entity must be established pursuant to a decision issued by the TRA.

A number of international telecoms operators have established branch offices within freezones in the UAE, such as Dubai Internet City, but their operations are limited as they cannot offer public telecommunications services onshore in the UAE. International operators can only do so through contractual arrangements with a licensed operator.

Equipment importation

The UAE has a type approval policy and regulations which require all RTTE to be registered with the TRA before it can be sold, distributed or used in the UAE, except for equipment imported for personal use which is exempt from the type approval regime, together with equipment imported by public entities and telecoms operators.

A local applicant is required for these purposes. Dealers, importers and manufacturers of RTTE in the UAE should be registered with TRA and obtain the requisite customs clearances. The dealer registration system is separate from the type approval system for RTTE.

Access and interconnection

Chapter 5 of Federal Decree-Law No. 3/2003 deals with interconnection, requiring the TRA to facilitate the process of interconnection and monitor compliance by the parties with the terms of any interconnection agreements they enter into. The TRA is also responsible for handling disputes and determining the terms on which a licensee will offer the sharing of facilities in the event of a dispute arising. 

The Instruction – Interconnection 2006 sets out the minimum requirements that must be addressed in a RIO.

Instruction – Mobile Site Sharing 2008 requires a licensee that is developing new mobile sites to do so in cooperation with the other licensee in order to agree joint specifications to ensure the outdoor mobile site is capable of accommodating the requirements of both licensees. Where agreement is reached to share the site, one licensee is not permitted to activate its equipment until the other licensee is also capable of doing so.  

Consumer protection and rights

In the UAE, the Consumer Protection Regulations dated 10 January 2017 sets out the process for consumer complaints and disputes. Typically complaints need to be referred to the licensed operator in the first instance but may be escalated to the UAE TRA under the consumer dispute procedure where the operator has failed to resolve the dispute to the consumer's satisfaction.

In addition, the policy covers topics such as advertising, billing, notification of price increases and roaming costs, pricing, activation, deactivation and disconnection of services for non-payment, the provision of pre-contract information and subscriber contracts.

Penalties and sanctions for breach of telecoms laws

Chapter 9 of Federal Decree-Law No. 3/2003 deals with penalties and sanctions.

Penalties range from up to two years imprisonment and/or fines up to AED 1 million ($272,000), depending on the offence. Administrative fines can be imposed on licensees for violating Federal Decree-Law No. 3/2003, its executive order and decisions, regulations, policies or instructions issued by the UAE TRA.