Monday, August 2, 2010

Ban the BlackBerry today, keep the Indian Navy Away-- A fanciful conspiracy theory from wallstwtf

I want to write a few words about the potential blackberry bans in the UAE and potentially Saudi Arabia. As a person who sleeps with my blackberry under my pillow my first reaction was one of horror at the idea that the blackberry email functions will no longer work on the UAE and perhaps Saudi. On the other hand, I do remember how nice it was to be unreachable while I was in the Arab world when I first began travelling there regularly in 2005. So while the downside will be reduced productivity this will be balanced by the chance for the bankers who visit Dubai to get an extra martini unmolested by the folks in back in London.

I want to take a minute to think a little more deeply about what this means. The issue it seems is that the nature of the blackberry encryption and network organization makes it impossible for the Emirati security services to scan the communications of blackberry users without the cooperation of Research in Motion, the maker of the device. What’s more given the structure of the network and the jurisdictions in which RIM operates the UAE is concerned that it might not be able to use the local legal systems in which it operates to compel RIM to cooperate and hand over data.

OK, so it’s well known that the Emirates are absolute monarchies and it’s not really a secret that they monitor electronic communications within their territory. This is evident in a variety of ways from the occasionally annoying fact that many websites are blocked to the extremely efficient exposure of the Mossad hit squad earlier this year which demonstrated the impressive capabilities of the Emirati counter-espionage services. That said I think this episode is still somewhat revealing.

First of all it shows the willingness of the Emirati government to inconvenience the people who make their living and their homes in the Emirates as well as the international business community. There are 500,000 blackberries in use in the UAE or almost 10% of the population uses them. They are particularly prominent among the international business community which has increasingly been making Dubai the regional business hub. It also put the Emirates which have carefully cultivated an image of openness in a position where Qatar, which announced that it has no intention of limiting blackberry use, to tweak them.

This was also sure to get a lot of press, which it is indeed getting. That press is more favourable than say the issues Google had in China but this is largely because of the presumption that the new restrictions will be used to cut down on Islamic extremism and Iranian sanction busters. Interesting how the freedom of speech and the rights to privacy are more important in American adversaries than in our allies. A similar crackdown on facebook or twitter in the Islamic Republic of Iran would no doubt cause a great outcry. Well, as a famous American once said, a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.

Personally I think that presumption is largely misplaced, it is not impossible for the UAE to gain access to the data that is carried over blackberries they would simply be subject to judicial review in Canada. Presumably if what they were after were terrorists or sanction busters they could expect this cooperation. No, they want to be able to scan all secrets for the same reason that Iran and China want to crack down on the use of information sharing, they want to stifle domestic opposition. This is an acute problem in the Emirates.

The analogy I like to use for this is Sparta and the Helots. If you are a classical scholar or have watched the movie “300” you will know that the Spartans had the best and most effective army in ancient Greece. Why was this? It was because the Spartans had, years before, conquered and enslaved another people called the Helots. The Helots outnumbered the Spartans by a substantial margin. So the Spartans developed a highly militarized culture which was designed to terrorize the Helots into subservience and it worked. In addition the Spartans were also able to intimidate the other Greek city states eventually destroying the power of Athens in the Peloponnesian War.

The demographics of the Emirates are similar to those of Sparta. The Emiratis themselves are vastly outnumbered by expatriate workers. A few tens of thousands of those labourers are the white collar European or American workers for international firms, who will be most inconvenienced by this. The teeming majority of them however are workers from the subcontinent and Southeast Asia who while substantially better off than most of their countrymen who are still at home are nonetheless at the very bottom of the social ladder in the Emirates. They are therefore potentially the most subversive force with which the regime has to contend and the one with which the Canadian government is least likely to cooperate with wholesale monitoring.

When I first noticed the massive demographic imbalance I wondered why the Emiratis were so militarily complacent. I would have expected mandatory military service and lifetime membership in the reserves in a country where the natives are outnumbered ten to one by foreign labourers who earn less than 10% of the incomes of the locals. Add to this that the mother country of this relatively poor and occasionally persecuted minority is a major power with increasing capacity for power projection. Then someone explained to me the two reasons why this was the case. First, the Emirates are functionally an American protectorate and if there were ever a threat to the regime the American forces stationed there could be relied on to protect the various ruling families against a violent upheaval. The second is that while largely a distant and benign force in the lives of white collar expatriates the Emirati government is a coercive police state in the lives of many of the immigrants from the sub-continent and uses its power of communications to thwart efforts by them to organize.

So why have the Emiratis chosen this moment to square off against RIM over control of the information sent across the blackberry network? Why now and not 2005 or 2007? Could it be that the Gulf Arabs are watching events in the US and beginning to question the American commitment to their security? The American departure from Iraq is imminent. America seems to be reconciling itself to the existence of a nuclear armed Iran. In Afghanistan the destruction of the American commander by Rolling Stone of all thins and the release of 90,000 classified documents by wikileaks is laying bare the fact that American will is being sapped even with regard to the nation from which the 9-11 attacks were launched. Is it possible that these signs of American fatigue in the Arab world are leading governments in the region to realize that they are going to have to be more aggressive in the suppression of domestic unrest solely through the use of domestic resources? It's farfetched but it’s something to think about.


Abu 'Arqala said...


Perhaps, the answer is closer contact with India.

You'll recall that the Indian authorities' concern was raised because the Mumbai terrorists used Blackberries to communicate.

And a prospect of RIM coming to the table ...

Perhaps, the ban is a negotiating tool? An October deadline -- far out enough to allow negotiations.

Ken said...

I'm sure it is a negotiating tool, it seems that another thing which prompted this was that RIM did not keep it's end of an earlier deal with Etisalat to build the relay station in the UAE proper in the first place. I'm sure it will all be worked out, I'm just trying to think of other second order implications there might be behind this.

Abu 'Arqala said...


There's no doubt more than one reason for the action. And maintaining control when one is sitting in a sea of foreigners is a pretty good one in my book.

Ken said...

Yes, maintaining control over the foreigners who run your society is an instinct I can well understand. Personally I would prefer creating a multi-ethnic society wherein the foreigners are given a stake in the overall success of the ystem and some basic political rights and are therefore less likely to require coercive supression and partial closure of the society.

Vangaurd said...


your last comment though well intentioned yet seems like blasphemy from the local monarchy point of view..hope you are not in Dubai

Anonymous said...

Ken, not sure I agree with everything here, but there's a grain of truth. There's no way US is going to allow a nuclear Iran; some sort of attack is imminent. Also, the exposure of the Hamas assasination was completely deliberate by Mossad, After a number of international failures, and being upsateged in the "spectacular" front by Russia's FSB, complete with nuclear poisons, Mossad needed to show it could act with impunity, anywhere in the world. My guess is the Dubai police were told exactly where to look for evidence of a crime.

Internal dissent seems like a good guess; though its worth considering that it's not just foreigners under review: don't forget that 2 9/11 hijackers were Emirati, and for all the flaunted wealth, there's a huge local population in the northern Emirates, and even in Abu Dhabi, who are relativevly poor, and largely dispossessed.

As for the UAE, well, they're not very United, in Dubai and RAK's case not necessarily that Arab, and, in the absence of any Emirs, not even Emirates.

Anonymous said...

Hi Ken,

Domestic unrest indeed, but not from the source you would expect:

Strange, I don't recall reading any of this in the local newspapers..

Anonymous said...

A revolt of foreign born, non-citizen majority would be unprecedented in modern times, and I don't think the US military response would be a given. It would depend on the ideological pose of a revolt. A BJP for the UAE wouldn't be tolerated; Belgium for the Middle East might. It would also depend on the property rights stance. A UAE revolt that proposes creating a trust for land or oil fields for the benefit of Emiratis would be treated very differently by the US than a post-colonialist-style land/oil for everyone grab. Although, I don't know how many people would lay down their lives to achieve Belgium-style democracy with no $ kicker for your descendants.

Closest modern equivalent might be post-WWII Singapore (or maybe Mauritius?), but even then, very, very different.