The leaders of the Emirates are nervous of an Iranian-style uprising, says Christopher Davidson
Despite headline claims of “judicial and social concerns”, the United Arab Emirates’ ban on BlackBerry email and messenger communications is primarily a response to mounting political opposition. It is also a stark reminder of the current regime’s disingenuous attitudes, its invasive censorship practises, and its intensifying control over the flow of information between the country’s citizens, its millions of expat residents, and all of their contacts with the outside world. Unlike other smartphones, such as Apple’s ubiquitous iPhone, data transferred using BlackBerrys has proved difficult to intercept and monitor for third parties, including the UAE’s state security services and other ill-intentioned eavesdroppers. With over 500,000 users in the UAE, and with BlackBerry’s market penetration having been predicted to increase even further across the region, the panic amongst the country’s unelected and unashamedly opaque apparatchiks has been palpable.
Last year’s “Twitter Revolution” in nearby Iran accentuated this fear, as most of the opponents to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s disputed election victory organised themselves and their protests using Internet and smartphone communications. As such, the continued availability of secure communications to hundreds of thousands in the UAE was deemed an unacceptable risk by the authorities. An attempt was duly made to regain the upper hand, as within days of the Iranian election the UAE’s government-owned telecoms giant, Etisalat, strongly encouraged its BlackBerry subscribers to download a “performance enhancement” patch. However, following user complaints that the patch was decreasing the battery life of their handsets and causing them to overheat, the patch was soon exposed as spyware, with BlackBerry’s manufacturer — Research in Motion — confirming that it would allow Etisalat to spy on all of its customers’ BlackBerry data. Since then, the government has had to sit back and watch in discomfort as effectively anonymous Blackberry users swap messages and stories, many of which criticize the country’s rulers and seek to highlight injustices.
Notably, hundreds of BlackBerry chain messages are being forwarded amongst UAE nationals on a daily basis, mostly in Arabic. A good chunk of these are political in content, with some of the more trivial messages poking fun at various sheikhs, while more serious messages discuss the financial and sexual scandals associated with serving ministers, judges, diplomats, and other officials. Over the past few months there have been a number of particularly sensitive topics that have gone viral on UAE BlackBerrys, with users chipping in with their comments, often under the banner of a pseudonym. These include a heated discussion of the January 2010 acquittal of Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Issa from all torture and sodomy charges levelled against him by his victims, despite video evidence. There has also been much discussion of the March 2010 death of Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Ahmed — the second of Sheikh Zayed’s sons to have died in an aircraft-related accident within two years — and sustained criticism of Dubai’s ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum, both for his personality and for his stewardship of Dubai’s struggling economy. Most interestingly, at least from an organizational perspective, have been the Blackberry-fuelled attempts to co-ordinate public protests in the UAE against the admission of Israeli ministers into the country, petrol price hikes, and other controversial matters.
With the ban, the UAE authorities have stopped this specific avenue of dissent in its tracks, or at least will do so when the ban begins in October. However, by taking this decision the UAE’s population will yet again be denied a safety valve for criticism and free expression, and this will likely have serious medium term consequences, as opponents inevitably seek out alternative outlets. Moreover the ban will have a serious impact on the UAE’s international reputation as an aspiring oasis of economic liberalisation and as a regional business hub, not least in the eyes of those multinationals with bases and staff operating out of the country. The UAE’s fear will also spread fast, as similarly conservative regimes wake up to threat that is developing within their borders. Saudi Arabia has already announced it will follow suit, and other Gulf states will also react.
But where there is fear there is also opportunity, with Qatar having already stated that it has no intentions to curtail BlackBerry use. The plucky little gas-rich emirate, with its history of maverick foreign policies has clearly sensed a chance to demonstrate its relative dynamism and openness compared to the antiquated regimes across its borders. The biggest beneficiary of the ban will, however, be Research in Motion itself, with its customers in those Middle Eastern states that do not cut BlackBerry services likely to place increasing value on the security and privacy of their handsets.