BlackBerry ban unlikely to be fruitful for UAE and Saudi

Banning BlackBerrys isn't the best way to convince the world that you're a business-friendly place...

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

When we heard that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were threatening to ban BlackBerrys (or at least some functions thereof), we naturally assumed that they were just sick of people spending meetings with their nose buried in a phone rather than actually talking to each other. But no: apparently the putative ban is because the autorities can't work out how to listen in on people's conversations. Since so many businesspeople rely on their Blackberry, particularly while they're overseas, this doesn't exactly scream out the message that the Middle East is a great place for international firms to do business...

Apparently, Saudi Arabia plans to outlaw use of the phones’ messaging service, while the UAE is going even further by banning internet browsing and email too - making your BlackBerry little more than an expensive paperweight when you're in the UAE. In the interests of balance, we should point out that the UAE regulator says the ban is less about monitoring, and more about security - because BlackBerry data is encrypted and then sent to servers hosted overseas by owner Research In Motion, the governments supposedly can’t monitor it properly, which it says raises ‘judicial, social and national security concerns’. Big Brother can't watch you, in other words. But it's nothing that 'so-called open countries' don't also require, they insist (as per this crushingly dull piece by the state news agency).

Unfortunately, this argument was rather undermined earlier this year by UAE-based operator Etilsat's attempt to get users to install an 'upgrade' that actually turned out to be spyware. At the time, the authorities rapidly distanced itself from Etilsat – but since the incident happened shortly after RIM refused to let it view users’ data, it’s not hard to see a link. And in light of Dubai's recent woes, and the region's somewhat authoritarian reputation, a move like this feels like a bit of a PR own goal.

RIM is keeping mum for now, but it has a choice to make in the face of this sabre-rattling, which is presumably designed to strong-arm the firm into giving up the necessary access codes. With over 50m BlackBerry users in the world, forgoing the two countries’ estimated 900,000 users wouldn’t come as much of a blow. However, that doesn’t take into account the market growth that is (or was) likely to take place over the next few years. And it'd have to add 'except UAE' to its ad line about 'taking your friends with you everywhere'.

But it'll be interesting to see what happens if it calls their bluff. Will the governments press ahead with a plan likely to prove very unpopular with foreign businesses, whose custom they presumably want to keep attracting to the region? If they do, at least those of you tired of people fiddling with their BlackBerrys all the way through meetings will know where to do business. And it'll please Steve Jobs...

In today's bulletin:
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BlackBerry ban unlikely to be fruitful for UAE and Saudi
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