The UAE announced the world's first suspensions of BlackBerry services yesterday as telecoms officials in Saudi Arabia also piled pressure on the devices' maker to allow access to messages sent with them. The UAE's telephone and internet regulator, the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA), said that services for the nation's 500,000 BlackBerry users would be suspended from October 11. Saudi Arabia's telecom watchdog was reported to have ordered telecom firms operating in the kingdom to stop BlackBerry messenger services later this month. Saudi Telecom has about 400,000 BlackBerry users.
The moves follow signs of an agreement reached last week between the Indian government and the device's manufacturer, Research in Motion (RIM), following similar threats by India to suspend services. BlackBerrys send encrypted messages via RIM's servers in the UK and Canada - meaning there is no way for authorities outside those countries to access them. This has led to concerns that the system can be exploited by terrorists to threaten national security.
The TRA said it had attempted to negotiate with RIM over various ways to obtain access to encrypted data since 2007. According to the TRA statement, encrypted messages sent on BlackBerry phones are beyond the reach of UAE law enforcement. These services could "allow users to act without any legal accountability, causing judicial, social and national security concerns". Mohammed al Ghanem, the head of the TRA, said in the statement: "In the public interest, we have today informed the providers of telecommunications services in the country of our decision to suspend the BlackBerry services of messenger, e-mail and electronic browsing." The agreement to maintain services in India came after the government renewed its threat to ban BlackBerry services in the country. India's Department of Telecommunications had given RIM until the end of July to share codes that would allow it to decipher encrypted data sent on BlackBerrys. "BlackBerry has assured [us] that the issue of monitoring of BlackBerry will be sorted out soon," Utthan Kumar Bansal, India's chief for internal security at the ministry of home affairs told reporters last week. "I am sure we will soon be on the same page and our concerns will be addressed." India's security agencies have been demanding action to close loopholes in telecoms networks that could be exploited by militant organisations. Like the UAE and Saudi Arabia, the Indian government asserted its right to "lawfully intercept" text messages and e-mails for national security reasons.
The actions of the UAE and Saudi Arabia will be closely watched by other Gulf countries and India. "If it's isolated [to the UAE], RIM would want to stick to their principles and keep the key features that have made the BlackBerry a success," said Simon Simonian, a telecoms analyst with Shuaa Capital. "But there is a risk of the situation becoming contagious in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain." One solution the UAE offered was for RIM to place a network operating centre in the UAE. This would allow the Government - or any other entity - legally to compel RIM to release data, including private messages sent between users. Both the UAE's phone operators, Etisalat and du, said they would comply with the TRA's ruling and would offer alternatives for current BlackBerry subscribers.
More than 187,000 BlackBerry devices were sold in the UAE last year, according to IDC, a US technology research company. Worldwide, 37 million BlackBerrys were sold last year. The estimated 500,000 BlackBerrys in use in the UAE make up around 11 per cent of the country's mobile phones. "Etisalat has an obligation to act within the law and the regulations of the TRA, while at the same time, providing our customers with the best service," said Etisalat in a statement. Du released a similar statement. Etisalat has begun sending BlackBerry subscribers text messages to warn them of the impending ban. Yesterday customer service staff at Etisalat's call centre said they had stopped issuing new BlackBerry contracts pending a further announcement. Meanwhile, staff at du's customer services call centre said it would be possible to subscribe to the services until October 10, when an alternative service package, yet to be announced, would come into effect. Many customers said the cancellation of services would affect their ability to do business.
Tommy Hughes, 24, an events manager in Dubai, was given a BlackBerry by his employer so that he could access e-mails while on site. "The suspension of BlackBerry services would affect our turn-around time for answering clients' questions," he said. "I have no idea what I'm going to do. I go for days without being at the office." One phone shop owner who had just bought a new BlackBerry in an Etisalat promotion said he planned to return the phone and cancel his subscription. Hassam Muhamed Ahmed, a salesman at Handy Line Mobile on Defence Road in the capital, said: "What am I going to do with it now? I've already called Etisalat to ask about it, and customer service says they will give people some other phone, like an iPhone, but I'm going to just get mine turned off." Mr Ahmed said he had already counselled potential buyers away from the BlackBerry. "I'm telling anyone who comes in about the decision because it's a huge problem and customers are going to come back and complain," he said. He added that the store had recently changed most of its stock from Nokia to BlackBerry accessories. They would now be difficult to sell, he said, meaning that he was faced with a loss of thousands of dirhams. He added that it would be difficult for phone operators to offer an equal service without BlackBerry. email@example.com firstname.lastname@example.org
* With additional reporting by Leah Oatway and Anuj Chopra