BlackBerry ban: Is UAE trying to crack down on Dubai's wild ways?

BlackBerry ban coming to the UAE is intended to improve security after Dubai's 'Wild West' ways came under scrutiny after a brash assassination earlier this year.

By , Correspondent

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    Blackberry ban: A man speaks on his mobile phone as he stands next to a display of a BlackBerry at a shopping mall in Dubai August 1.
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United Arab Emirates “crackberry” addicts bracing for inevitably long and hard pangs of withdrawal if the impending BlackBerry ban goes into effect may take solace knowing that the suspension is likely more posturing than an official policy.

“The UAE is a pretty pragmatic country in a lot of ways. I think this is probably a negotiating stance,” says Jim Krane, author of City of Gold: Dubai and the Dream of Capitalism. “I suspect it will be solved probably within a few days or weeks.”

Citing security concerns, UAE government officials said on Sunday they would suspend BlackBerry services like e-mail and messaging in October. Saudi Arabia has indicated that it will likely follow suit as well. BlackBerrys use an encryption system that keeps the data safe, and consequently makes it difficult for governments to monitor.

With a relatively small security force, the UAE relies heavily on electronic eavesdropping to monitor for any potentially subversive activities. The Gulf nation has been particularly on edge after a Hamas leader was assassinated in Dubai earlier this year – a plot the Dubai police blamed on Mossad, Israel's spy agency. The suspects were able to leave the country before authorities knew their identities.

Privacy concerns vs. security

Although privacy rights advocates have accused the UAE of wanting to increase censorship restrictions, Mr. Krane says security is likely their primary concern.

Emirates leaders are most likely pushing for the ability to subpoena BlackBerry messages in the event the user is implicated in a crime. This privilege is already afforded to governments in the United States and Canada. The US is even pushing for the ability to request such information without a subpoena.

“Openness and tolerance is key to [the UAE’s] economy. It can’t be an open and tolerant place if it starts to impose police state-style security,” says Krane.

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Still, unlike the US and Canada, the legal system in Dubai lacks enough transparency that BlackBerry may feel uneasy giving information about their users to UAE authorities.

“In the UAE if a subpoena of BlackBerry were made available, what could happen to the person who ends up being arrested? The human rights record is pretty grim. Also, how responsible are the authorities?” says Christopher Davidson, author of “Dubai: The Vulnerability of Success.” “I’m not sure that the citizens and the residents of the UAE would be comfortable with the authorities having access to their private communications.”

Mr. Davidson adds that although UAE authorities say they are acting in the same of security, it is highly likely that they want to curtail activists who often use BlackBerrys to organize protests or send controversial information about government officials.

500,000 BlackBerry users braced for a ban

Meanwhile, businesspeople and personal BlackBerry users alike are bracing for the worst. The UAE’s 500,000 BlackBerry users make up some 11 percent of the cellphone market in the Gulf nation. Additionally, the ban would also affect anyone visiting the UAE with a BlackBerry.

As a sort of modern-day Casablanca – a hub of global trade, financial transactions, intrigue – that welcomes 100,000 people to its airport each day, the ban could have significant reach.

“My colleagues and I use our BlackBerrys quite frequently, specifically because we travel in the UAE but also throughout the Middle East, so something like global roaming on BlackBerrys is very important,” says Josh Mathew, a strategy consultant based in Dubai. “There would have to be some sort of mobile e-mail service, there wouldn’t be a choice” to switch to a new smartphone if the ban goes into effect.

The cost and hassle of switching to a new phone is a source of serious consternation for many BlackBerry users in the UAE. If the ban becomes a reality, BlackBerrys in the UAE would go from smartphones to a basic cellphone handset.

Those who wanted a phone with Internet capabilities would have to buy new smartphones and potentially get a new service plan – which as one blogger wrote on the UAE Community Blog, would mean "forking over yet another ton of money to Etisalat and du [two local cell phone service providers] once again."

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