When it came it was not unexpected, but it was still met with shock.
“BlackBerry services in the UAE will be suspended from October”, the statement from the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA) read, signalling the possible end of a love-affair with the devices for 500,000 of the Gulf state’s 8.2m residents. They are a favourite among locals and expatriates alike, with some of the well-heeled sporting a gold-plated version when touring the country’s five-star malls.
One of the main reasons for its popularity is the very thing the TRA is so concerned about, the unique email and messaging service.
Aside from its obvious business applications, in a society where casual flirting between the sexes is heavily frowned upon, the encrypted email service offered a way for young men and women to make contact without fear of reprisals.
But this is part of the reason why, according to the TRA, BlackBerry poses a threat as it allows users “to act without any legal accountability, causing judicial, social and national security concerns”.
In a land where all telecommunications are ruled by a duopoly - Etisalat and du - restrictons on communication are not new. The internet in the UAE is filtered and sites that are culturally sensitive, such as those that promote pornography, gambling or alcohol, are blocked. Films, such as the recent Sex and the City 2, are also subject to the same level of censorship.
Given the sensitivities in this region, the security concerns of the authorities appear to be valid. After all, it was only eight months ago that the Hamas leader Mahmood al Mabhouh was murdered in a Dubai hotel room in a killling that, according to Dubai Police, involved 26 suspects.
The perpetrators of the attacks on Mumbai in 2008 that left 101 dead were said to have used BlackBerry devices. The attacks prompted Indian authorities to demand that the BlackBerry maker Research in Motion (RIM) share encrypted data or it would be forced out of the country.
It appears that a solution has been found in Indian while other states, such as the US and UK, have legislation in place to force telcos to share data.
Discussions between RIM and the UAE appear to have been taking place since 2007 without, apparently, success. The TRA’s announcement yesterday had been building in the past week but the extent of the blackout, wider than Saudi’s pledge to just abandon the Messenger service, caused shock among users.
The ‘twittersphere’ was alive with chatter, with many fearing the suspension will take place, and the story has been picked up by news outlets across the globe. A suspension would not just affect residents but business travellers to a country that sees itself as a commercial hub for the region.
What will probably happen now is a game of brinkmanship.
Some question whether RIM will want to provide a solution for a market, that is in global terms, relatively small. However, given the economic climate and the battle for smartphone users, it seems implausible that any company would intentionally walk away from an enthusiastic market such as the UAE.
Seemingly arbitary decisions also have a habit of being reversed in the UAE. Earlier this year, it was announced that all motorists in Abu Dhabi and Dubai would need an ID card to access all services. Days later the plan was suspended after staff issuing ID cards were swamped.
What is worrying on this occasion is that both Etisalat and du have taken out full-page adverts in the national press pledging to find alternatives for affected customers. This suggests the suspension is a real possibility.
It’s just a question of who blinks first.