After tough bargaining, mobile phone dealer Maher Hariri finally bought the used handset from a dubious customer, who then hurried out after getting his money. Maher liked the neat handset and decided to use it for a while. He inserted his sim card into the phone and made a call. A few minutes later, he received a call from the police and in half an hour, a police patrol was inside his shop.
Maher, a major Syrian mobile phone dealer in Abu Dhabi, was told that the phone he has just used is stolen. His surprise about how the police tracked him down so quickly made him for a moment forget his plight.
But Maher was lucky. He had obtained all the documents needed to identify the seller. Two days later, he was relieved to know that the seller was captured.
"I have hardly put my sim card in to the phone and made a brief call when I was called by the police," said the 30-year-old dealer on Defence Road, Abu Dhabi's the main mobile phone centre and the largest used handsets market in the Gulf.
"I now know how they did it…when they receive a complaint about a stolen phone, they supply etisalat with the handset serial number. Once you make a call from that phone, its serial number and the phone number of the caller are displayed on etisalat screen. Etisalat then quickly sends the caller's phone number to the police and also provide them with the caller's exact location."
Police said they had arrested thousands of mobile phone thieves with the assistance of etisalat, which has the technology to control all handsets operating in the country once a working etisalat sim card is inserted into the phone.
Explaining the facility, an etisalat official said that after a valid sim card is inserted into a mobile phone, it is automatically registered on the network and its tracking systems, including the sim card number and the handset serial number.
"Once you make a call, your subscription sim number and the serial number of the phone are displayed on our systems," said Jasim al Khatri, an etisalat administrator.
"What happens is that we often receive lists from the police including stolen mobile phones so we can track them…it is very easy, we have managed to identify most of the callers from stolen phones and this has helped the police catch many thieves…over the past two years, hundreds of thieves have been identified and many of them have been arrested."
Police have reported a surge in mobile phone burglary in Abu Dhabi over the past three years mainly because of a rapid expansion in the business and lack of proper security systems at the phone shops.
Dealers said they had been victim to frequent attempts by petty thieves taking advantage of the absence of security and busy shop workers in peak hours.
"Many of them are unprofessional thieves who just come to snatch one handset…I have reported a couple of losses to the police and a few days later, the handsets were found and the thieves were seized thanks to etisalat assistance," said Mohammed Al Gaddah, another phone dealer.
More than 150 mobile phone shops are based on Defence Road, with an estimated daily turnover of over Dh25 million.
The one-kilometre street, which is dotted by mobile phone shops on both sides, is also home to the Gulf region's largest second hand mobile phone trade.
Lack of security has tempted burglars to break into many shops and dealers estimate the robberies to have cost more than Dh1m in one year.
Given its massive per capita income, business upturn and liberal economic system, the UAE has the highest mobile phone penetration in the Arab world.
Official figures showed the number of mobile phone subscribers in the UAE stood at 7,594 at the start of 2008, a ratio of as high as 173 per 100 people.
The ratio was far higher than any other Arab nation and more than triple the world average of 49.3 for every 100 people, according to the Kuwaiti-based Inter-Arab Investment Guarantee Corporation (IAIGC), a key Arab League body.
Qatar, which controls the world's third largest gas wealth, came second, with a ratio of 150.4 mobile phones per 100 people. It was followed by Bahrain with 148.2, Saudi Arabia with 114.7, Kuwait with 97.2 and Oman with 96.3.
The figures showed the UAE's penetration was more than triple the average Arab ratio of 50.8 and the world average of 49.3 at the end of 2007.
Between 2002 and 2008, the number of UAE mobile phone subscribers soared by an annual average 25.6 per cent, almost four times its population growth.
Experts believe the UAE will maintain its high mobile phone penetration this year given the rapid growth in subscribers, population and its economy.
Defence Road dealers said many thieves apparently do not know they can be tracked by etisalat on the grounds phone burglary rates have remained high.
"I am sure many of them have not heard about etisalat's capability to track down stolen handsets because many of them try to sell the stolen handset and provide their own identification to the dealer," said Abdul Monem Hariri, another dealer.
"It has become very easy for the police to get those bandits because no dealer is willing to buy any handset without obtaining identification from the seller…should we do this, we will be prosecuted. This has happened many times."
Besides tracking mobile phone thieves, etisalat has also been instrumental in police drives to capture other criminals, according to dealers.
"The other day a man came into my shop and started to talk to a female customer…he offered her a lift and after they left, she went straight to the police and complained that he robbed her money," said Husam Al-Masri, a dealer.
"I was called by the police as a witness….I provided them with the serial number of a mobile phone bought by that man. A few days later, he was tracked by etisalat and then captured by the police."
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