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Jessica Hume
Jessica Hume

Jessica Hume

For the UAE, BlackBerry brings vice and diminishes virtue Add to ...

In a move that irritated many and surprised few, the United Arab Emirates announced in early August that beginning Oct. 11, BlackBerry services in the tiny Gulf country will be a thing of the past. And if not, that will be because e-mails, texts and instant messages sent using the Canadian devices will be open information to the government, should it want access.

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The royal decree came down through the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority, which cited the government's inability to intercept encrypted BlackBerry messages as a potential threat to national sensitivity. Er, security, rather.

Some wonder whether the proposed ban is a reaction, at least in part, to an assassination that took place earlier this year in Dubai, a hit believed to have been carried out by the suspected Mossad agents who left notorious Hamas military arms man Mahmoud al-Mabhouh dead and the pride of the UAE national security apparatus badly wounded.

By all accounts the Emirates is a beacon of calm in a volatile region. It boasts zero terrorist attacks on home soil and, at least until the January assassination, an almost impeccable security record.

The fact is, what the UAE government feels most threatened by is not terrorism, military intimidation or other forms of attack. But rather, its diminishing ability to promote virtue and prevent vice in a native population it sees as vulnerable to foreign cultural influences.

That the country depends on an 85 per cent foreign population to run its economy is a source of national resentment and insecurity. And that many of these transient expatriates bring with them not just their skills, but their cultures and values, much of which are at odds with those of the UAE, is an uncomfortable reality.

The truth is, BlackBerry has brought porn to men for whom illegal proxies were once the only means. It allows largely segregated Emirati boys and girls to interact discreetly. It enables the UAE's vibrant, albeit underground gay community to organize club nights under the radar - an impossibility if that information were sent through the Dubai central proxy. And let's not forget sexting …

It is these perceived deviances from a strict Islamic social code that terrify the UAE government, a body whose actions indicate it feels more strongly about architectural record-setting and the eradication of public displays of affection than, say, slave labour, human trafficking, drug and endangered animal smuggling, prostitution, domestic violence, national bonds being used to launder money and limited freedom of the press.

The fight for BlackBerry services is about more than the UAE wanting to get its sticky little fingers on access codes to spy on its residents. With the fifth-largest known oil reserves in the world, this 39-year-old country has amassed spectacular wealth almost overnight. This has presented enormous opportunities - now the home of the world's tallest building, an indoor ski hill and an island shaped like a palm tree - but also awkward growing pains.

What this country's frenetic development has shown is that it's much easier to modernize a landscape than a tribal mentality. The UAE is caught between old and new, east and west, past and future, and the fight over BlackBerry services reflects that tension.

Let's face it, the majority of young Emiratis are fiercely nationalistic. But unlike their sexagenarian rulers, they view their polyglot communities with less suspicion.

Regardless of the fate of BlackBerry services, the country will continue to mature slowly until the old guard dies off. The irony is that in limiting freedoms to protect the values it holds so dear, the government alienates the very population it thinks it's protecting.

"Our country can't move faster than its official sensitivities," a then-29-year-old Emirati named Mishaal al Gergawi admitted to me in a 2009 interview about censorship in the UAE. "But things will be different when my generation is in power."

Jessica Hume is a Canadian journalist who worked in the UAE from 2008 until 2010 and now lives in Toronto.

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