BlackBerry in deal to avert Saudi ban

Agence France-Presse

Posted at Aug 07 2010 09:56 PM | Updated as of Aug 08 2010 05:56 AM

JEDDAH - BlackBerry has "virtually" sealed a deal with Saudi Arabia on its encrypted messenger services to avert a ban on the smartphone, a Saudi telecoms company official told AFP on Saturday.

"A deal has been virtually reached and we are in the process of adding the final touches," said the official of one of Saudi Arabia's three licensed mobile operators, asking not to be named.

The official declined to go into details.

The Saudi-financed satellite television Al-Arabiya, citing unnamed Saudi sources, said BlackBerry's Canadian makers have 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, according to Al-Arabiya.

Earlier on Saturday, an official of a mobile phone company reported progress in talks with BlackBerry's manufacturers, Research In Motion (RIM), in a bid to have the device conform with Saudi laws.

"A solution is in sight with the Canadian company," the official said.

RIM founder and co-chief executive Mike Lazaridis, however, told the New York Times last week that letting governments monitor messages would imperil ties with clients, including major corporations and law enforcement agencies.

On Thursday, the United States and Canada said they would hold talks with those countries fearful of the security implications of BlackBerry usage.

Several BlackBerry subscribers in the Saudi port city and business hub of Jeddah said on Saturday that the service had been working uninterrupted since it was reinstated after a four-hour suspension the previous day.

The Saudi telecommunications authority announced earlier in the week it had ordered the conservative Muslim kingdom's mobile providers to block key BlackBerry services or face a 1.3-million-dollar fine as of August 6.

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."

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 communications.

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

The brief Saudi shutdown came five days after the United Arab Emirates announced it would also cut off the messenger, email and web browsing services of the BlackBerry on October 11 because of security concerns.