The UAE has banned using a BlackBerry for emails, with Saudi Arabia set to follow suit. Photograph: AP
The United Arab Emirates is banning users of BlackBerry mobile phones from using email, instant-messaging and web-browsing services in a long-running spat over security with the device’s Canadian maker, RIM.
Saudi Arabia is expected to follow suit according to an official from the state-controlled Saudi Telecom, who told the Financial Times that the kingdom would ban BlackBerry messenger services.
The Gulf states have become increasingly concerned that encryption technology used by BlackBerry devices makes it difficult to monitor them, and that, because of the way the BlackBerry network functions, data is exported offshore. India has also expressed concerns about the way that BlackBerry devices operate.
The Telecommunications Regulatory Authority said on Sunday that services in the UAE will be suspended as of 11 October because of the failure of attempts, dating back to 2007, to bring BlackBerry services in-line with UAE telecoms regulations. UAE’s two telecoms operators – Etisalat and du – informed their BlackBerry customers of the decision by text. There are roughly half a million BlackBerry users in the emirate.
The regulator stressed that the decision was not about censorship but about regulatory compliance, producing a detailed comparison of telecoms regulation in the UAE, UK and US in an attempt to make its case.
“We are not asking for RIM to do anything that is not apparently being done in developed nations or so-called open countries around the world,” said Mohammed al-Ghanim, director-general of the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority.
BlackBerry phones have a strong following in the region, not only among foreign professionals in commercial centers such as Dubai and Abu Dhabi, but also among youth who see their relatively secure communication channels as a way to avoid unwanted government attention.
“The authorities have used a variety of arguments, like it can be used by terrorists” to justify the crackdown, said Christopher Davidson, a professor at the University of Durham in Britain, who has written extensively about the region. “Yes that’s true, but it can also be used by civil society campaigners and activists.”
The UAE’s decision will prevent hundreds of thousands of BlackBerry users from accessing e-mail and the Web on their handsets starting in October. It’s unclear whether the ban will extend to foreign visitors with roaming services, including the roughly 100,000 passengers who pass through the region’s busiest airport in Dubai each day.
The ban risks further damaging the UAE’s reputation as a relatively easy place to do business.
Dubai, one of seven hereditary sheikdoms in the federation, in particular has sought to turn itself into a global finance, trade and tourism hub. But its reputation has been tarnished by a credit crisis that has left the emirate more than $100 billion in debt.
Residents say the BlackBerry crackdown will only do more harm, making foreign businesses think twice before setting up shop in the country.
“They’ll think now they’ve banned the BlackBerry, maybe next time it’ll be the Internet,” said Shakir Mahmood, a Dubai-based debt collector and BlackBerry user originally from Iraq.
This isn’t the first time BlackBerry and Emirati officials have had run-ins over security and the popular handsets, a fixture in professionals’ pockets and purses the world over.
Last year, BlackBerry maker Research in Motion Ltd. criticized a directive by the UAE state-owned mobile operator Etisalat telling the company’s BlackBerry users to install software described as an “upgrade” required for “service enhancements.”