Mobile phone service providers scrambled on Tuesday to hold onto half a million users spooked by BlackBerry's showdown with UAE regulators, offering them a switch to Apple's iPhone and other rival smartphones. “I'm going to grab the Nokia option, it seems more of a business phone than Apple,” said Wiam Nabulsi, an account manager at an advertising agency in Dubai.

BlackBerry handsets are popular among business people and professionals in the United Arab Emirates, a wealthy oil exporter that includes the Gulf Arab financial hub Dubai. It also has a following among the young and wealthy, with students choosing the device for its user-friendly chat option. The UAE said on Sunday it planned to suspend BlackBerry email, web browsing and Messenger services from October 11 unless the maker, Research In Motion, allows it access to encrypted messages. On Tuesday, top service provider Emirates Telecommunications Corp (Etisalat), which is partly government-owned, began offering free handsets and discounted service packages to prompt users to switch.

As well as Apple, it has offered phones from Samsung, Nokia and LG and plans to have contracts for the new offers available soon. Rival provider du telecom, in which the government also has a stake, plans similar offers and is set to detail them on Wednesday. Nawwar Nashawati, who owns an events and concierge services firm, said one challenge would be explaining to overseas visitors why their BlackBerry roaming services would be limited once they land in the UAE. “But if we want to be on the safe side, we just have to stick to whatever Etisalat is offering us. We can't risk being disconnected again,” Nashawati said.

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