Saudi stops BlackBerry messaging, Lebanon holds back

Saudi stops BlackBerry messaging, Lebanon holds back

Jeddah, Saudi Arabia: Saudi Arabia suspended BlackBerry messaging services on Friday, users said, as concerns spread across the Middle East (west Asia) and parts of Asia over security issues with the popular smartphones.

While Lebanon said no decision had yet been taken and Oman said it would not follow the example of its Gulf neighbours, the cost of the smartphone was on the slide in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) ahead of a similar ban.

BlackBerry subscribers in the ultra-conservative Muslim kingdom of Saudi Arabia said they were no longer able to use the messaging services from around midday (0900 GMT).

“It has stopped," said a user in the western port city and business hub of Jeddah, adding that his friends also noticed the services had been phased out on their devices.

The Saudi telecommunications authority announced on Tuesday that it ordered the country’s three mobile phone providers to block the services or face a $1.3 million fine as of 6 August.

The regulator said “the way BlackBerry services are provided currently does not meet the regulatory criteria of the commission and the licensing conditions," in a statement carried by the official news agency SPA.

BlackBerry’s encrypted emails and data are stored on servers in Canada, the headquarters of its maker Research in Motion (RIM), meaning that third parties such as intelligence agencies cannot monitor communications.

BlackBerry subscribers number around 700,000 in Saudi Arabia, a highly security-conscious monarchy with a rigid Islamic social code and strictly censored Internet service.

The Saudi shutdown came five days after the UAE announced it would cut off the messenger, email and web browsing services of BlackBerrys in the Gulf state on 11 October over security concerns.

Abu Dhabi’s The National newspaper said retailers are cutting the prices of BlackBerrys as customers opt for other smartphones, with the pricetag falling by up to 15%.

As the United States stepped into the growing row, Lebanon on Thursday became the latest country in the west Asia to voice security fears over the hand-held devices.

Lebanon’s telecommunications regulator said Beirut would assess security concerns about the smartphones after the arrest of several telecom employees suspected of spying for Israel.

On Friday, it said no decision had yet been reached, while the security implications were being studied.

In Bahrain, a spokesman for mobile provider Batelco told AFP that his firm already has alternative plans in case the Gulf state follows suit with a ban.

And in Kuwait, a VIVA Telecom spokesman said: “Until now we were not given any orders on new means of dealing with BlackBerry and the company will not block any of those devices’ services."

Defending its free market policies, Oman’s regulatory authority said the sultanate has no plans to join the ban, in a statement carried by the Oman Daily newspaper.

“The authority considers these services as part of the free market philosophy in the telecommunications sector," it said.

But India has said it is mulling a ban, while Indonesia has not ruled out the option although on Thursday it denied that the world’s largest Muslim country was considering a suspension of BlackBerry services.

US secretary of state Hillary Clinton said on Thursday that her country would soon hold talks with the UAE and other countries about the issue.

“We are taking time to consult and analyze the full the range of interests and issues at stake because we know that there is a legitimate security concern," Clinton said.

However, she also recognized a “legitimate right of free use and access."

The Saudi daily Arab News, in a report this week on its website, said an online survey of 331 people found 178 people opposed to the BlackBerry ban and 153 supporting it.

It said opponents of the ban complained of no prior notice, while supporters said the BlackBerry had “a very negative effect on the youth."