“This BlackBerry Messenger rumor mill in the UAE is getting out of hand.” I had posted this tweet several days before the UAE announced a ban last week on BlackBerry services by next October if Research In Motion (RIM), the smart phone’s manufacturer, didn’t meet the country’s regulatory conditions.
The truth is there are legitimate concerns behind the UAE’s surprising decision. After all, sinister individuals have taken advantage of the country’s modern infrastructure as well as its lax regulatory environment before, especially leading to the September 11th attacks.
People around the world have traded some degree of freedom for the sake of security; this trade off is possibly the highest in the Middle East. Regional governments regard authoritarian policies such as the emergency laws in some countries as essential to maintaining security. The UAE, along with several regional states have proactively embraced 21st century technology, setting up dedicated internet and media creative zones in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. However, reconciling this relationship between embracing social progress and security concerns is very much itself a work in progress in all Middle Eastern states.
This decision might also be seen as the UAE asserting itself as a global player. The message seems to be that although the UAE, at eight million residents, is a relatively small country demographically, it expects to be treated equally. RIM has reportedly bent over backwards to meet the demands of President Obama’s security team last year. The firm has also allegedly allowed access to Russian and Chinese government agencies to monitor emails despite the company’s denials. But it is perhaps RIM’s recent decision to allow some access to the Indian authorities that accelerated the UAE’s banning the device after three years of failed negotiations with the Canadian based company. Despite its modest size, having the second largest GDP in the Arab world allows the UAE to punch above its weight internationally.
The UAE’s Telecom Regulator Authority (TRA) authorized BlackBerry services back in 2006, apparently in the hopes that the services would be regulated sometime in the future. That hasn’t happened. In hindsight, it appears to be quite irresponsible of the TRA to have given an exception to RIM to provide services in the country without first fully complying with the country’s regulations — as it has left 500,000 disappointed BlackBerry customers in the UAE today.
In the wake of the banning decision, UAE-based internet discussion forums, Facebook, and Twitter all witnessed lively debate by nationals and expatriates on the topic, with many Emiratis supporting their government’s standoff with RIM. But perhaps the liveliest reaction to this ban took place ironically overBlackBerry messages that were sent across the country.
But the roots of the BlackBerry ban may have originated from an event that occurred earlier this summer. As the UAE was consumed along with the rest of the world by the World Cup fever in June, a leaked document surfaced and was distributed amongst Emiratis on BlackBerry Messenger. The document appeared to be an official request from the secretary general of the UAE’s parliament, known as the Federal National Council, requesting that the Dubai Traffic Department waive the traffic fines of the parliament speaker who hails from one of the wealthiest families in the country. Within a few hours, a virtual frenzy broke out unlike anything seen in the UAE before, with Emiratis loudly criticizing and defending the speaker personally. Government officials, including the local Dubai police chief (seen as somewhat of a celebrity), weighed in via radio and newspapers on the discussion of these messages that were sent via BlackBerry. Although many Emiratis turned to Arabic language internet forums, social networking sites, and newspaper commentary pages expressing both outrage and support to the speaker, the most outspoken sentiments were sent via BlackBerry Messenger.
Far from being a mere business tool, the case underscores just how deep is the social influence of mediums like the BlackBerry in Arab Gulf states. BlackBerry Messenger, the service that has proved perhaps most irksome for government officials, allows users to send unlimited and unmonitored messages for a pre-paid fee. UAE nationals used it initially as a means of public announcements for weddings and funerals as well as for sending light-hearted jokes. The phenomenon developed into a tool for younger generation Emiratis to flirt with the opposite sex and send pictures to each other. With time jokes took a political turn and developed into an unregulated tool for defamation and insults from the targeting of political figures, religious scholars and government officials to comments inciting sectarian as well as racial hatred.
Yet in many ways, the recent developments are only a symptom of an underlying phenomena of which the BlackBerry is only one part. In truth, there exists in the country a degree of political and social frustration, disappointment with the performance of the country’s powerless parliament, as well as a lack of accountability of some officials and government bodies who were targets of these campaigns. Perhaps most importantly, many Emiratis feel that the co
untry’s media has failed to act as a responsible Fourth Estate, thereby providing the vacuum to be filled by unregulated forms of communication. Of course, these sentiments will not disappear with the banning of the BlackBerry and will certainly find other avenues at the consternation of the government.
Since the UAE’s announcement at the end of July several countries have indicated that they may follow suit including Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and Indonesia while the German government has decided that the devices aren’t secure enough. The fact that a compromise seemed to have been made with Saudi Arabia may be a double-edged sword for the security conscious firm.
Internally, the UAE’s decision prompted Abdul Hamid al Kumaiti, an Emirati advocate, to send a judicial warning to the TRA for banning the service, calling the decision “unconstitutional.” The Emirates’ BlackBerry ban may have come in time to safeguard the country from the potential security threats that can result from the misuse of the technology, but it is too late to halt the discussion that was facilitated in the community because of it.
This article was originally published in Foreign Policy on August 10, 2010.