Monday, August 2, 2010

The UAE and the BlackBerry Blues

The goal: The United Arab Emirates - super-ambitious Dubai, super-rich Abu Dhabi and five other statelets - wants to become a major player in air travel, tourism, banking and finance, ocean shipping, trade and construction.

The problem: The UAE - mostly, though not entirely, excepting Dubai - is very nervous about allowing the free-flow of information essential to realizing its loftiest ambitions.

The latest evidence: The UAE's decision to ban, starting Oct. 11, Web-surfing, e-mail and texting on Research In Motion's very popular BlackBerrry digital handheld device. Using the BlackBerry for phone calls will still be OK.

The reason: The BlackBerry, beloved of corporate executives and government officials around the world - Barack Obama has one - is carefully encrypted. It's so well encrypted, governments can't easily monitor the data, which are sent to a few key operation centers, in RIM's home country, Canada, and the United Kingdom. The UAE deems this a threat to its national security, saying it could make it impossible to carry out criminal prosecutions or monitor threats to safety.

The conservative Muslim government of the UAE isn't the first regime to fear the global commerce in digitalized information. When I traveled in China last September, I ran headlong into the Great Firewall of China, finding it impossible to access Blogger to write this blog, or to access Twitter. Control-freak governments, in authoritarian states even more than in nervous but relatively tolerant democracies, can't abide the fact that some exchanges of information escape their scrutiny. National security' becomes the catch-all justification for clamping down.

People who romanticize the Internet and other forms of digital information - and there are many who do, all across the political spectrum - have to acknowledge to some degree that their long-time belief that governments can't control information anymore is wishful thinking. They most certainly can, as I saw in China. Iran, Saudi Arabia, India, Turkey, Bahrain, Pakistan and others have recently expressed deep misgivings about letting people communicate with each other outside prescribed channels on devices like the BlackBerry or have free access to the Net.

In the long run, their efforts may fail. Short- and mid-term, they can make their presence felt. Google discovered this in China when it struggled over Beijing's demands that it censor search results. RIM is discovering it in the UAE. Facebook and YouTube have also run into restrictions.

Only 17 percent of the people living in the UAE are native Emiratis, as I learned last year when I traveled in Abi Dhabi and Dubai. The many foreigners who work in the federation like their gadgets, and the BlackBerry is one of their most popular choices. Travelers, too, will find their BlackBerrys affected if the restrictions go into effect as promised.

The UAE has internationalized in a short time, and this has unsettled parts of the country's society, as well as high officials. The UAE has welcomed the world, launching two modern, fast-growing global carriers in Emirates and Etihad Airways, and building showcase airports in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. But the welcome is conditional. Is the country shooting itself in the foot? I think so. But this is pain that UAE leaders are willing to bear, at least for now.