he UAE lays considerable claim to be an international business hub and does its best to attract transnational and global corporations to set up offices and even headquarters in a couple of ultra-modern cities on the Persian Gulf. However, the authorities there are suddenly claiming that the BlackBerry, the mobile comms device of choice for business executives worldwide, is a threat to national security. Martyn Warwick reports.
The United Arab Emirates (UAE) are exactly that; a federation of seven dusty sheikdoms (Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Ajman, Umm al-Quwain, Ras al-Khaimah and Fujairah) in the south-east of the Arabian Peninsula.
All the Emirates, regardless of their size and varying degrees of modernity, are culturally, politically, socially and religiously conservative. The capital and second largest city is Abu Dhabi, which is the political, industrial, cultural and business nexus of the UAE. Dubai, meanwhile has set out its stall as one of the world's most sophisticated and cosmopolitan leisure destinations.
Given that the likes of Abu Dhabi and Dubai have, literally, risen from the desert over no more than the past 40 years, and given the income from the vast oil and gas reserves that lie under the sand, it is no surprise that the UAE has some of the most advanced telecoms networks in the world.
However, for all the ultra-modernity, the UAE also has a reputation for strict control of the media, censorship of the Internet and routine surveillance of both business and private communications into, out of, and within country.
And now, suddenly, (although not for the first time) the powerful Telecoms Regulatory Authority of the UAE (TRA) has turned its attentions to the BlackBerry, declaring that the massively popular devices are "beyond the jurisdiction of national laws" and are "open to misuse."
In a statement the TRA says.
"As a result of how BlackBerry data is managed and stored, in their current form, certain BlackBerry applications allow people to misuse the service, causing serious social, judicial and national security repercussions."
This is a reference to the fact that BlackBerrys are the only mobile devices operating in the UAE that send users data and other information out of country and direct to privately-managed data centres overseas, as the TRA statement makes explicit.
It claims that BlackBerrys send data abroad to be "managed by a foreign, commercial organisation". This is because RIM (Research in Motion) the company behind the BlackBerry sends emails and other data direct to servers overseas. These servers are not connected to ,and thus bypass, the mobile networks run by the local mobile operators. As a result Blackberry traffic is rather more difficult to intercept and harder to place under surveillance than is traffic routed locally.
The Telecoms Regulatory Authority claims that Blackberrys hit the market in the UAE (and were taken up with considerable enthusiasm) before "safety, emergency and national security legislation' relating to their use came into force in 2007.
However, what we are witnessing is more or lessa variation of a a re-run of what happened some 15 months ago when the UAE's state-owned mobile carrier, Etisalat, contacted the Federation's 150,000 Blackberry owners to tell them to upload a "software upgrade for service enhancement".
Unsurprisingly, this was nothing of the sort. RIM quickly carried out a series of tests and investigations and found that the "upgrade" was in fact spyware that would allow outside agencies to eavesdrop upon, record, archive and do who knows what else with data stored or transmitted to, or from, BlackBerrys.
RIM then disassociated itself from Etisalat's claims and sent Blackberry users in the UAE full details of how to delete the software patch. Things went ominously quiet after that but there is little doubt that the authorities don't like the independence and absence of official "oversight" that BlackBerry users currently enjoy in the UAE and are intent on doing something about it.
The desert can be a place of light or darkness depending on where you look.
The TRA hasn't yet said what further actions or sanctions it might take but you can be sure something is brewing.
Meanwhile RIM is keeping its mouth shut and its powder dry.
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