Disputes between Gulf Arab states and the maker of the Blackberry smartphone over access to encrypted communications highlight a growing nervousness over looming regional security threats, from Iran to al-Qaeda.
The Messenger application on the Blackberry, made by Canadian firm Research In Motion, has spread rapidly in the Gulf Arab region where it is a popular business and social networking tool. But because the data is encrypted and sent to offshore servers, it cannot be tracked locally.
That has raised fears in security-conscious Gulf states, especially in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, that a lack of access could fetter their ability to ferret out potential spies, assassins or Islamic militants, analysts said.
“They feel like they are under threat,” said Shadi Hamid, research director at the Brookings Doha Center, citing growing concerns, especially in the UAE, of being drawn into a potential conflict with Iran. “The UAE is very much on the front line.”
Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the most hawkish Gulf Arab states vis-a-vis Iran, are concerned BlackBerry messaging could be used to harm social and national security interests, although they have not made their specific fears public. A potential conflict with Iran is currently seen as the Gulf’s biggest security risk.
As security tensions escalate in the Gulf region, both countries threatened bans on BlackBerry services although Riyadh appears to have resolved its dispute this month with RIM.
The Arab states in the Gulf share the suspicions of their Western allies that nearby Iran is seeking a nuclear weapons capability. Neither Washington nor Israel have ruled out military action if diplomacy and sanctions fail.
That spells danger for the oil-exporting to the Arab states, home to myriad Western military installations, who would almost certainly be drawn into the fray of any military conflict and fear potential repercussions as tensions escalate. “We are in the fourth round of sanctions against Iran, and there is a lot of chatter about what is going to happen with Iran regarding its nuclear programme,” said Theodore Karasik of Dubai’s Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis.
“These countries are looking to safeguard themselves against any potential fifth column, so they need to be able to monitor everything in order to figure out if there is a real threat,” Karasik added.
The UAE has a large Iranian population in Dubai and strong trade links to Tehran. Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia, the biggest Arab economy, is concerned about Iranian sway among minority Shi’ites in the east, especially as regional tensions escalate.
In Saudi Arabia, RIM has been able to avert a Messenger ban by agreeing to hand over coveted “codes” to users’ phones, an industry source familiar with the talks has said.
But a potential ban still looms in the UAE after the government threatened to suspend BlackBerry Messenger, email and Web browser services from October 11 for security reasons.
The UAE, which sees the issue as a matter of sovereignty, objects to BlackBerry data being exported offshore. A UAE diplomat has said talks with RIM were progressing well.
A lot to fear
Accusations, denied by Iran, that Tehran was running a spy ring in Kuwait have added to the perceived urgency of the issue on Gulf Arab fears that Tehran may be scouting out targets for retaliation in the event of a strike on its nuclear facilities.
The security fears of Gulf Arab countries, however, extend far beyond Iran to the potential for attacks from a resurgent regional wing of al-Qaeda to fears about Israeli spying, domestic dissent or perceived immoral behaviour.
BlackBerry has proven popular with young singles in Saudi Arabia, the biggest BlackBerry market in the Gulf with 700 000 users, as a means of meeting in an Islamic society which restricts contact between unrelated men and women.
Activists in the Gulf region have also said its encrypted SMSing has helped foster freer dialogue, including criticism of governments and policies.
The ability to keep an eye on communications of domestic political opponents would be a side benefit for governments of any RIM concessions on access, analysts say.
Saudi Arabia is deeply concerned about the threat of militancy from a Yemen-based al-Qaeda arm that last year tried to assassinate a Saudi prince who ran the kingdom’s anti-terror campaign, and which has stepped up activities in recent months.
Tight communications monitoring are thought to have helped Saudi Arabia quash a 2003-2006 al-Qaeda campaign to topple the monarchy, and Riyadh is keen not to lose the upper hand.
Analysts say Gulf officials were conscious of suspicions by Indian security agencies that militants used BlackBerry services to plan a 2008 Mumbai attack in which 166 people died.
“Keep in mind that al-Qaeda is sophisticated too, and they are into technology, and they have their own experts here,” said Saudi political writer Khalid al-Dakhil.
“I would think that terrorists, al-Qaeda, foreign intelligence agencies whether Iranian or otherwise. I think these are the most immediate concerns,” he added.
In the UAE, a regional business hub with fairly open borders and about half a million BlackBerry users, concern about foreign agents was heightened after the assassination of Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in a Dubai hotel in January in what was widely seen as an Israeli hit.
“Definitely the question of Mabhouh or the question of the Iranian spying cell in Kuwait is a wake-up call,” said Mustafa Alani of the Gulf Research Centre, adding the outcome in the UAE and Saudi would serve as a test case for smaller Gulf states.
“I am sure the Bahrainis and the Qataris and the Omanis have similar worries … We are in a very tough neighbourhood.”
Canada’s RIM has come under scrutiny from other countries as well, including India, Lebanon and Algeria. Kuwait has said it was in talks with RIM over moral and security concerns but had no intention of stopping BlackBerry services for the time being. Oman also says it has no plans to block BlackBerry services. – Reuters