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Saudi regulator delays BlackBerry ban

JEDDAH, Aug 9 – Saudi\’s telecoms regulator has postponed a ban on BlackBerry until Monday so that suggested solutions to the kingdom\’s security concerns offered by the Canadian maker can be tested.

The Communications and Information Technology Commission said the 48-hour grace period, ending on Monday evening, was given "to test the suggested solutions," a statement carried by SPA state news agency late on Saturday said.

The CITC decision was also based on the "ongoing efforts by the providers of mobile services to meet the requirements of the commission\’s regulations."

"A decision to stop or maintain the service will be taken according to the results" of the tests, it said.

A deal between BlackBerry maker Research in Motion (RIM) and Saudi Arabia was "virtually" sealed, an official at one of the three mobile services providers said on Saturday.

The Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya television said that RIM has agreed in principle to grant access to Saudi authorities to decipher its messenger exchanges between users.

A special server for the messenger services is to be set up in the highly security-conscious Gulf state, birthplace of Al-Qaeda and its leader Osama bin Laden, Al-Arabiya reported.

The Saudi telecommunications authority had announced that it had ordered mobile providers to block key BlackBerry services from August 6 or face a 1.3-million-dollar fine.

The regulator had said the suspension was because "the way BlackBerry services are provided currently does not meet the regulatory criteria of the commission and the licensing conditions."

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BlackBerry\’s encrypted emails and data are stored on servers in Canada, where RIM is based, meaning that third parties such as intelligence agencies cannot monitor the secure communications.

BlackBerry subscribers number around 700,000 in Saudi Arabia, a conservative kingdom which enforces a rigid Islamic social code and strictly censored Internet.

Some BlackBerry users reported a brief shutdown of services on Friday.

It came five days after the United Arab Emirates, with some 500,000 BlackBerry users, announced it would cut off BlackBerry messenger, email and web browsing services on October 11 over security fears.

Confusion over the future of BlackBerry services has infuriated some Saudi users who are still unsure if their smartphones will continue to provide instant messaging services or will turn into ordinary phones.

"Is this a game for kids? You either cut off the service or leave it on," one reader commented on Al-Riyadh daily\’s website, addressing the CITC. "I feel that you do not know what you are doing."

Others joked about the uncertainty, with one alleging incompetence by the telecoms regulator.

"Ha-ha, you didn\’t know how to switch off the service," the blogger wrote.

But some still favour a BlackBerry ban because of security fears.

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"What do you get if the terrorists manage to prepare plots that the state fails to uncover, and then blow you up along with your BlackBerries?" asked a reader using the pseudonym "Saudi Fighter" on the Al-Watan daily\’s website.

The newspaper said the market for BlackBerry handsets, which saw a drop in prices and sales in recent days, had strengthened with optimism that the matter will be resolved.

Mohammed al-Mutairi, who owns a mobile phone shop in Riyadh, told the daily: "Sales improved on Saturday compared to the previous three days" which followed the regulator\’s ban announcement.

Meanwhile, neighbouring Kuwait said on Sunday it had no plans to follow the example of Saudi Arabia or the UAE.

"At the moment, I can tell you that there is no intention to stop BlackBerry services in Kuwait," Communications Minister Mohammad al-Baseeri told reporters.

But he added: "We are in direct and indirect talks, and contact, with Saudi Arabia, UAE and the BlackBerry maker to follow up on the solutions presented by the company."

Bahrain and Oman have said they oppose a ban on BlackBerry, a favourite tool of business travellers, while Lebanon, a frontline state with Israel, has yet to reach a decision despite its security concerns.

Outside the Arab world, India is mulling a ban and Indonesia is not ruling out the option, although on Thursday it denied that the world\’s largest Muslim country was considering a suspension of BlackBerry services.

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