BlackBerry block makes flirting harder

In Saudi Arabia,the growing youth population relies on technology to bypass social restrictions.

Written by Bloomberg | Mumbai | Published:August 20, 2010 10:02 am

In Saudi Arabia,the growing youth population relies on technology to bypass social restrictions.

Boy meets girl has never been easy in Saudi Arabia,where religious police bar unmarried couples from meeting in public. It may get harder as the state presses Research In Motion to let it monitor BlackBerry messages. Many among the country’s growing youth population rely on technology to bypass social restrictions. RIM’s BlackBerry messenger service is one of the most popular means and posting access codes that let users chat with one another on rear car windows and Internet chat groups is a common flirting technique.

“I’m not happy,” Khalid Ali,a 23-year-old Saudi who owns two Blackberry handsets,said at a Riyadh shopping mall. “If I’m inviting a girlfriend to a party,it is not appropriate that anyone knows that. I won’t feel comfortable,even if the service is still there but monitored.” The growing use of devices like BlackBerry handsets by young Saudis has been criticised by supporters of the country’s traditional Islamic rules,who welcomed the possible ban on its messenger service.

“The best thing they can do in their life is cancelling it,” a reader of the Saudi newspaper al-Watan,who gave his name as Faisal,said in a post on the newspaper’s website. “It has only brought evils and flirting in the streets.” Fifty per cent of the Saudi population is aged 24 or below,compared with 31 per cent in France,according to figures from the US Census department. The Persian Gulf nation,the world’s biggest oil exporter,enforces the Sunni Wahabbi version of Islam. The country bans cinemas and doesn’t allow women to drive on public roads.

Religious police from the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice patrol shopping malls to enforce separation of the sexes and other prohibitions,and can carry out spot-checks of offices.

Monitoring message traffic would give authorities “a whole new set of things to do,” said Gregory Gause,professor of political science at the University of Vermont in Burlington. Still,it’s likely that keeping an eye on domestic opposition groups and terrorist threats is the main motivation,he said. Opposition groups like the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association have called for elections and criticised what they say is corruption in the royal family. The country’s dynastic rulers have also frequently been denounced by Al-Qaeda for betraying Islam because of their security alliance with the US. Militants have attacked targets in Saudi Arabia,including a raid on an oil installation and housing complex in the city of Al-Khobar in 2004 that killed 22 foreign workers. Saudi security forces said in June they detained more than 2,000 people suspected of collecting money for Al-Qaeda or engaging in “Internet activities” in support of the group.

Saudi Arabia’s Communications and Information Technology Commission last week ordered the three phone companies to stop messaging services after a yearlong consultation with RIM failed.

Saudi Telecom,Etihad Etisalat ,known as Mobily,and the local unit of Kuwait’s Mobile Telecommunications,known as Zain KSA,gained a reprieve until the end of today as talks on a solution progressed. RIM representatives in Dubai and London couldn’t be reached for comment Sunday. The Saudi regulator and phone companies didn’t comment.

It is understandable that Saudi authorities want to clamp down on terrorist cells,said Firas Alola,29,a Saudi comedian and entertainer. He is not convinced that is the only reason behind efforts to monitor the message traffic,though.

“It’s just the last thing in a long list of things that don’t seem right,” Alola said. “It might be used as an excuse to check into what people are doing and saying. I don’t mind any government looking in on my correspondence,as long as I know why they’re doing it.”

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