BlackBerrys have become popular the world over as ways for businesses and individuals to securely exchange data. But Saudi Arabia and others are challenging that security with a suspension on BlackBerry service.
Many BlackBerry users in the Middle East may soon be without service
Saudi Arabia is the latest country to announce suspensions in service to BlackBerry smartphones, citing conflicts between the mobile devices and the country's communications regulations.
Saudi Arabia's decision today to cut service to BlackBerrys starting on August 6 follows a similar announcement made by the United Arab Emirates on August 1. The UAE plans to end e-mail and Internet browsing service for BlackBerrys starting in October.
Other countries in the region like Egypt and Kuwait have also expressed concern about use of the devices, and Kuwait successfully lobbied BlackBerry's manufacturer to block some 3,000 pornographic sites from being accessed on its phones used in the country.
"The decision to ban BlackBerrys was made after talks between the UAE and BlackBerry's manufacturer 'Research in Motion' failed," said UAE-based journalist Abdoullah Al-Moutawe, in an interview with Deutsche Welle.
"Just like in other Gulf states, the UAE wants access to the encrypted information being sent from here into foreign countries. The USA and Great Britain have that right, so why shouldn't we?"
Resistance from media, business
French NGO Reporters Without Borders has criticized the bans as an attack on press freedom and has drawn attention to the imprisonment of UAE residents who organized a protest against gas prices using their BlackBerrys.
"BlackBerrys are generally used in the Gulf region to trade information on social and economic topics," said Gilles Lordet, Reporters Without Borders spokesperson, in an interview with Deutsche Welle.
"BlackBerrys pose no national security threat in our estimation. Rather, the governments in the Gulf region are unaccustomed to dealing with criticism, like in the recent case of gas price protests in the UAE."
BlackBerry phones are a staple in Dubai's business world
The UAE has around 500,000 BlackBerry subscribers - including many journalists who work for major media outlets in Dubai like CNN and Al-Arabia. Saudi Arabia currently hosts 700,000 subscriptions.
Resistance to the bans is expected not only from the media but also from major businesses, many of whom have come to rely on BlackBerrys as an indispensible business tool.
"Experts expect to see a 40 percent drop in sales of BlackBerrys," Al-Moutawe said. "That's why the UAE is planning to put a similar device that it made on the market soon."
BlackBerry bans may spread
BlackBerrys are also encountering resistance in major markets beyond the Gulf region.
India is also pressuring manufacturer Research in Motion to gain access to encrypted data exchanged via BlackBerrys. The country has not yet announced a ban on services, though, although The Economic Times cited an anonymous Indian official on Wednesday as saying the country will consider banning mobile services that cannot be monitored.
RIM has expressed resistance to opening up its networks to surveillance by Indian authorities.
"We won't compromise on the security architecture of our corporate e-mails," said RIM's India spokesman Satchit Gayakwad, in an interview with the Associated Press.
We respect the requirements of regulatory bodies in terms of security, but we also look at the customer's need for privacy."
While India and Gulf countries have framed their concerns about BlackBerrys as national security issues, Gilles Lordet of Reporters Without Borders, sees a broader conflict at stake.
"In the Gulf region, there is fundamental tension between the state and the citizens when it comes to freedom of opinion. As soon as the citizens try to improve their ability to communicate freely with new technologies, government agencies step in to find ways to restrict them," he said.
Author: Hicham Drioiuch (gsw/AP)
Editor: Cyrus Farivar