By Justin Hienz
The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is home to bizarre sights. Man-made islands shaped like palm trees; the tallest building in the world literally reaching the clouds in Dubai; vending machines offering gold bars; 16 year olds driving the newest Mercedes, BMW or Jaguar. It is a strange place, and the veneer of extreme luxury certainly impresses (or fools) most tourists.
But when you pull back the curtain (and it doesn’t take much), the UAE is revealed as a developing country with many challenges, such as a rigid class system, pollution and of course, security. Don’t forget that the UAE is a stone’s throw from Iran, has hundreds of miles of unsecured coastline and is one of the few GCC States to have escaped an al Qaeda attack thus far. That is no easy security situation, and one that merits as much preparation, vigilance and strategy as the country can muster.
Yet, the Emirates’ approach to securing the country is not bound by the same rights as those granted to U.S. citizens – the UAE is a not a democracy, and what the ruling sheikhs say, goes.
On Sunday, UAE officials announced that it would block BlackBerry mobile services. The rationale: to improve security. Apparently, the experts at Research in Motion (RIM), the producers of the BlackBerry, have done an excellent job encrypting information sent to and from the smart phone. The encryption is so effective in fact that UAE security services can’t hack it, meaning they can’t monitor it in search of potential threats – hence the block on BB mobile services. Clearly, the UAE is striving for security in every way, but at what cost?
When I worked in the UAE, I became familiar with threats in the region and the steps needed to secure the country. A mighty task but one the Emirates take seriously. But this move to block BB services comes at a high cost to those seeking information in the UAE. Here is an example.
Currently, if you access the Internet in the Emirates and you are looking for information about human rights abuses that occur there, a quick Google search reveals that the Human Rights Watch website has a page dedicated to the UAE. Click the link, but whoops:
“We apologize the site you are attempting to visit has been blocked due to its content being inconsistent with the religious, cultural, political and moral values of the United Arab Emirates.”
I did this exact search while living in Abu Dhabi, and when I received that message, I went straight for my BlackBerry. The state-owned communications giant Etisalat can monitor and control Internet servers, but my BB helped me find the information the UAE government didn’t want me to.
It’s a fact of life in most Middle Eastern countries (and others around the world) that communications are monitored by the state. Looking at this from the Land of the Free, one might feel a sense of relief that we enjoy liberty and the right to read, write and say anything we like (within the law, that is) without fear of government intervention. But we must remember that maintaining our individual freedoms is a never-ending struggle.
A Washington Post article this week quotes the U.S. State Department, which is criticizing the UAE’s decision. Yet, as the reporter notes, in another Post article from last week we find that the Administration is attempting to provide the FBI with more authority to demand “electronic communication transactional records” without a court order.
Though our governing styles are starkly different, are our approaches to security really that dissimilar?
We’ve had our challenges reconciling security needs with individual freedom and right to privacy. I need not review the public reactions to the Patriot Act or other instances in our history where elements of the government have sought information to the perceived detriment of the American people.
Should al Qaeda land another blow, whispers of a right to privacy would likely die out quickly amidst voices shouting that we must do more to defeat our enemies. In this way, the ban on BB mobile services in the UAE is not as far from U.S. practice as it might seem.
Both countries are pursuing security for the sake of its citizens. But at what point does this good intention cross the line into excessive intrusion? And if undemocratic countries are levying security tactics that violate a right to freedom and privacy, and similar efforts are pursued here in America, what does that say about the legitimacy of our freedom?
Justin Hienz is Managing Editor for Security Debrief and a Senior Account Executive at Adfero Group.