Research In Motion (RIM), threatened just a few weeks ago with being banned from the United Arab Emirates, has just landed a deal to bring the UAE advanced egovernment services.
While there's no provable direct link or proof that RIM gave government snoops a backdoor to its private data, the announcement comes just days after the end of a highly public spat between RIM and the Emiratis. The deal is a complete 180 from the UAE's prior threat to cut off BlackBerry service Oct. 11 if RIM didn't give over access to its encrypted server information. Both RIM and the UAE's Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA) reached a last-minute agreement to keep access in Dubai and elsewhere going; the terms of the agreement have still not been disclosed.
As a bonus to the egovernment services deal, the UAE gets to have a hand in developing smartphone apps for the entire Middle East—a very lucky tender for any government indeed.
The announcement was delivered during a keynote speach by RIM co-CEO Balsillie at Dubai's GITEX (Gulf Information Technology Exhibition), one of the largest gadget shows in the world. Held every autumn, the convention serves as a main tech hub for the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia. In 2009, Microsoft launched Windows 7 for the first time at GITEX. This year, it was RIM's turn to shine and Balsillie showed off their new BlackBerry PlayBook tablet in detail.
But the most interesting aspects of Balsillie's presentation wasn't the details of the BlackBerry PlayBook (admittedly cool—16, 32, and 64GB versions, heavy duty 5300 mAH battery, and more). Rather, it's that RIM has inked a large-scale egovernment service deal with the Emirati government—a deal so detailed it would have required endless hours of overtime to create in the time frame between Oct. 9 (when RIM and the TRA announced their deal) and the Oct. 18 keynote.
“I am delighted to announce a very special relationship with the TRA and Blackberry with Du and Etisalat […] We are going to be releasing a partnership on applications on egovernment and also specialized consumer services, as well as mobilizing enterprise services for the Middle East," Balsillie said in his announcement. "One of the things we are working on is advanced egovernment services and as you know, there is a new wave of technical innovation going on with mobility from the Internet and this is an enormous opportunity for governments to really leap-frog to future kinds of services.”
Du and Etisalat are two of the largest telecommunications firms in Dubai and the Emirates. In the speech, Balsillie gave the egovernment program's details—which were seconded in RIM's press statement. The statement promises a strategic partnership between RIM, the TRA, Etisalat and Du to “support the TRA's mandate to encourage, promote, and develop the telecommunications and information technology industry in the UAE and across the region” and “more localized content and applications to the BlackBerry platform in the Middle East.” A secure ebanking solution will be introduced on Middle Eastern BlackBerrys and assistance will be provided on implementing the BlackBerry Academic Program initiative at several Emirati universities.
Unsurprisingly, the TRA is now singing a much different tune about Blackberry. While the Emirati regulatory agency was accusing RIM of “causing judicial, social and national security concerns in the UAE” just a few months ago, their official line is much different now. Promotional materials sent by RIM on the agreement quote TRA chairman Mohamad Bin Ahmad Al-Qamzi as saying, “This collaboration demonstrates the TRA’s commitment to sustain technological leadership in egovernment through mobile services designed to better serve citizens throughout the region. BlackBerry smartphones are the leading mobile communications tool in the Middle East and are increasingly adopted by our citizens for their powerful messaging and multimedia capabilities. For this reason, the TRA believe this initiative will help to encourage, promote, and develop more public interaction and involvement between the government and the citizens and residents through the BlackBerry platform.”
The specifics of the RIM-UAE egovernment services to be provided remain unclear. According to arabianbusiness.com and the Gulf News, they include epayment options for Dubai Electricity & Water Authority customers. But educated guesses can be made thanks to other announcements made at GITEX. Ahmed Bin Humaidan of the Dubai eGovernment Department (yes, there is one), gave a long presentation on new initiatives. Etisalat, meanwhile, is in talks to develop a cross-platform app with the Dubai Roads & Transport Authority to let users find parking lots, make parking payments and pay parking tickets/fees via their BlackBerry or iPhone.
Interestingly, Balsillie's speech focused on their plans for the Middle East at large rather than Dubai or the UAE in particular. Specifically, BlackBerry App World and BlackBerry WebWorks will also be launched in the Middle East, along with region-specific ebanking services.
Balsillie made no reference to RIM's recent trouble with the Emirati government during his presentation and, according to attendees, did not speak to reporters after his speech. TRA director general Mohammed al-Ghanem refused to comment on whether RIM placed a server in the Emirates. Other speakers at GITEX included Facebook's Randi Zuckerberg and Creative Commons CEO Joi Ito.