(Gosh, I used to write this sort of stuff for a living. Seems like a while ago now…)
For those not in the know (which must be hardly anyone, seeing as I saw this story at number three in BBC News’s most-read list, and the topic was apparently trending very high on Twitter) the UAE’s telecoms regulator announced today that as of 11 October this year the devices known as “BlackBerrys” would be banned from using their email or own-brand instant messaging systems – which is unfortunate, as these two features are 95% of the reasons people buy BlackBerrys.
(Later the Saudi regulator did exactly the same thing – only a short while after dismissing the idea of a ban – but with a plan to shut down BlackBerry services THIS month. More on this below.)
Cue the inevitable outcry from the meeja, bloggers, commentators, press freedom and human rights organisations, and pretty much everyone else who heard the news.
Now, in the past, this is where I would have at least attempted to offer a counterpoint to this wave of anger, and tried to offer a line of reasoning to explain the regulator’s actions.
Nope. Not this time.
As far as I can see, there is no major defensible position for banning BlackBerrys – other than the not-particularly-subtle one of “because we don’t like them and we can”.
Before we get on to why this is a fantastically bad idea, let’s look at why the TRA is banning our little fruity phones. The mooted reason is “security”, in terms of the UAE authorities not having oversight of the data being passed between an individual BlackBerry and phone maker RIM’s servers in Canada. Apparently this is against the TRA’s rules.
“Blackberry data is immediately exported off-shore, where it is managed by a foreign, commercial organization. Blackberry data services are currently the only data services operating in the UAE where this is the case,” read the TRA’s statement today.
“Today’s decision is based on the fact that, in their current form, certain Blackberry services allow users to act without any legal accountability, causing judicial, social and national security concerns for the UAE.”
Spot the telling word in that last paragraph. You got it: social.
Yes, there are national security concerns, yes there may be legal headaches in terms of requesting data for a trial – but it’s social that’s the big one. Remember, this row came about after the observed rise of young Emiratis making use of the untracked, unmonitored BlackBerry Messenger service to chat amongst themselves – ie, score with members of their preferred sex (at least in the minds of the media and the powers that be – what the reality is I could not say).
Now, to a certain extent, I am willing to say it is fair to have these concerns. The UAE has always described itself as a society built on certain moral foundations stemming from its religion – and a major part of this is a big X against inappropriate mingling of the sexes, and certainly against anything that might lead on from said mingling.
On that basis, blocking access to the BBM application seems perhaps not unreasonable – if it were only used by Emirati youths, and if it were all that’s being blocked.
But no. Oh no. They’ve blocked so much more. They’ve blocked everything but the phone, in fact.
Analogies about sledgehammers and nuts come to mind here. Evidently a decision has been made that to have people messaging each other outside of the ever-watchful gaze of the UAE establishment is SO APPALLING that it must be stopped at any cost. And that cost is going to be very, very high.
Pissed to the third degree
First, take Emiratis themselves. A lot of Emiratis use BlackBerrys, for business and personal reasons. While some of them may be getting up to hanky panky with the help of the devices, many will be doing little more than emailing and messaging their friends, family and colleagues. They are not going to be happy.
Second, we have the corporate users. Individual deployments of Nokias and Samsungs aside, the corporate portable email solution of choice is BlackBerry, both for international firms and the home-grown variety. And these are big users: my employer is around 40,000-strong: assuming 10% have BlackBerrys, that’s an install base of 4,000. For one company.
Multiply 4,000 by, say, Dhs2,000 in terms of the per-unit value of moving to an alternative system (these numbers are complete fiction, but I think they are fairly reasonable) gives a one-off cost of Dhs8 million – a hefty sum even for the largest company, especially given that the cost was not of its own making.
And that’s not even factoring in the enormous hassle of actually changing over. No-one, anywhere in this region, has 4,000 devices ready to roll just like that – and even if they did, there are all the negotiations and back-end deployments, followed by the company-wide rollout. That’s not doable in two months and 10 days (especially when one of those months is Ramadan).
Granted this is an example from the larger end of the scale – but there will be a fair few companies of this size (and hundreds of smaller ones) now asking themselves what the hell are they going to do.
I would be surprised if some of the bigger ones (investment authorities? Airlines? Banks? Government departments?) didn’t start having a not-so-quiet word with the TRA, or perhaps its masters. Because the corporate users are REALLY not going to be happy.
And then there’s the final constituency: foreign business travellers.
In my opinion, this is where the real cost will come. Ultimately the UAE can deal with its company base and population – but imagine how this will look to the travelling executive.
James McDoon is the COO of a large insurance firm based in the US. He’s on his way to Dubai to conduct negotiations with his local partner to establish a fully-fledged office here. He lands at the airport, switches on his BlackBerry, gets a signal. He waits for his email. And waits. And waits.
He gets to his hotel suite, and makes an angry call to his IT department back at HQ – what’s the damn problem here? IT doesn’t know – there’s no faults at their end.
Next day he goes to his meeting. As he’s walking in to the board room, he asks one of the Dubaians what the deal is with BlackBerrys here. And the Dubaian tells him.
McDoon drifts through the first meeting, nodding at the PowerPoint presentations, asking a few straight-forward questions. But his mind is elsewhere.
That evening he gets back to his hotel. It’s into the working day for HQ now – he puts a call through to his CEO:
“Hey, Hank, how’s things back at base? Uh-huh. Uh-huh. Here? Yeah, it’s ok. Hey, did you know they banned BlackBerrys here, cos of people chatting on them? How fucked up is that? Yeah. Yeah – right! Hank, you can’t say that sort of thing anymore man… hahahaha.
“Say, Hank – didn’t you mention there was some outfit in Qay-tar wanting to do a deal with us? Yeah, that’s the one. Maybe we should give them a spin…”
Nobody calls me chicken
People expect this sort of thing from Saudi Arabia – it’s why very few international companies establish a base in Saudi Arabia, or at least not before establishing one in the UAE first. But that’s Saudi Arabia – and everyone knows it’s a bit messed up there.
The UAE has just sent a signal to the world that it is prepared to sacrifice technological advances and business tools for the sake of its social issues. This may very well be the best thing for the UAE’s moral health (it also may make not a blind bit of difference).
But it has absolutely, definitely, stuck a great big pin into the country’s much-vaunted business-friendly balloon – and even a hasty backtrack will not be able to patch it up sufficiently to keep it at its previous heights.
I fully expect a “clarification”, as it will no doubt be pitched, and possibly even some form of compromise with RIM. But the UAE needs to realise that it’s not playing chicken with one Canadian phone maker – it’s playing chicken with the whole damn world.
And the world never blinks.