With shows, acquisitions and partners, the UAE hopes to emerge as a center for cybersecurity and secure communications

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A UAE flag superimposed on a circuit board. (Circuit illustration via Getty; Graphic by Breaking Defense)

BEIRUT – The United Arab Emirates is expanding and strengthening its expertise in cybersecurity and secure communications, not only to meet domestic demand, but also in the hope of becoming a regional hub for the export of these high-level capabilities. technology in the Gulf and the Middle East.

The ambition of the small but wealthy nation was on display at two major security events held simultaneously in October, the International Expo for National Security and Resilience (ISNR) in Abu Dhabi and the robot-focused GITEX Global and AI in Dubai. Major foreign and local companies in these sectors have attended the fairs and deals have been struck in the sparkling cities.

“We have to consider the UAE’s approach to cyber technology as exceptional in the Arab world, because the UAE understood very early on the importance of resilience in the field of cyber, not only from a defensive point of view but potentially also from an offensive perspective,” said Andreas Krieg, senior lecturer at King’s College London and CEO of MENA Analytica, a London-based strategic risk consultancy specializing in the wider Middle Eastern region. East.

Krieg said the UAE clearly identified its cyber vulnerabilities more than a decade ago and worked more actively on developing mitigations than any other Arab state. The kingdom’s cybersecurity activities have not been without controversy in how the nation has used its newfound expertise.

Most recently, last month saw two major milestones taken to advance the country’s capabilities, one by each of the UAE’s two giant defense organizations, when EDGE Group incorporated secure communications company Digital 14 and Tawazun Industrial. Park, the industrial development arm of Tawazun. Economic Council, launched the Watheq cybersecurity laboratory. This lab has partnered with local cybersecurity company CPX Holding.

“While most Arab states have taken tactical or operational approaches to the cyber domain, the UAE has taken a comprehensive comprehensive approach to strengthening its national cyber domain in one of the most connected economies in the world,” Krieg said.

Krieg explained that in addition to developing in-house capabilities and technologies, entities such as EDGE or Tawazun are purpose-built hubs for forging joint ventures and partnerships with global industry leaders in the field. Not all cybersecurity initiatives have been without controversy.

“In particular, due to the vast resources available and the near absence of restrictions on data availability, Israeli or American companies find the UAE an attractive country in which to operate,” Krieg said. “Here, these acquisition and supply hubs like EDGE and Tawazun become key attraction points for collaboration and investment that have given the UAE access to cyber technology that is quite unique in the MENA region.”

Krieg further pointed out that even compared to Israel, which is an outstanding cyberpower in the region, “the UAE has certain competitive advantages. [in luring Israeli interest] as it has strong networks in the region that can provide Israeli companies with access to wider markets and provide the necessary investment in R&D that is sometimes lacking in Israel.

As reported by Israeli media, the UAE and Israel signed an agreement to develop cybersecurity and deep technology in September 2022. The agreement signed between Abu Dhabi Global Market Academy and Avnon Academy to share expertise between both academies in cybersecurity. A few months earlier, in February, in the opposite direction, an Israeli cybersecurity company signed a deal with an Emirati bank.

Get Cyber ​​Security

The two major defense players in the United Arab Emirates, Tawazun Economic Council and EDGE Group, are investing heavily in cybersecurity, with the former investing in laboratories and education and the latter investing in the technical field and the development of solution products. of cybersecurity.

It was at ISNR that the Tawazun Economic Council unveiled the Watheq laboratory. This lab tests the security resilience of IT assets and services through four specialized labs: cryptography, hardware, signals and software. Through Watheq, Tawazun aims to support government agencies and protect critical national infrastructure with sovereign encryption capabilities.

Additionally, TIP Testing and Qualification Center (TIP TQC), and through its Cybersecurity Lab, Watheq, has signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with CPX Holding. The two local companies seek to provide their customers with a full range of services encompassing all levels of cybersecurity.

For its part, BEACON Red, a subsidiary of EDGE, has signed an agreement at ISNR 2022 with 42 Abu Dhabi, the coding school of the United Arab Emirates to extend the learning experience there.

At GITEX Global 2022, which is more focused on robotics and AI, foreign companies such as Russia-based Kaspersky and China-based Huawei also announced new cybersecurity initiatives to increase their presence in the world. region. Trend Micro, a US-Japan cybersecurity company, announced a strategic partnership with Beyon Cyber, a cybersecurity company protecting Bahrain’s most critical communications infrastructure.

At the national level, GITEX has seen the Government of Abu Dhabi showcase over 100 digital initiatives and projects in the area of ​​digital transformation.

Communicate securely

Elsewhere during the shows, the topic of secure communications was front and center. A few days after its integration into the EDGE conglomerate, ISNR’s secure communications provider KATIM unveiled its next-generation network encryption solution called Gateway 9011.

The company says Gateway 9011 is a solution for large-scale deployment, including sensitive entities, critical infrastructure campuses, government buildings and data centers. It powers network communications with end-to-end hardware-based encryption that the company says is “post-quantum.” (The U.S. government, among others, has sounded the alarm over the potential for quantum computing to crack even the most advanced encryption algorithms, and so has developed what it hopes are quantum-resistant methods.)

KATIM joined EDGE on October 5 after rebranding from Digital 14. KATIM is the brand name for the company’s KATIM R01 and KATIM X2 smartphones, with the aim of increasing the company’s reach by linking it in the name of the well-known phone.

“We have several large-scale projects underway locally as part of our sovereign defense capability for the UAE. We are also pursuing exciting strategic opportunities globally in our core business areas, including secure communications in end-user applications, endpoints, infrastructure and end-to-end solutions,” said the vice-president and responsible for the transformation and commercial strategy of KATIM. operations Shaz Khan, told Breaking Defense.

Shaz said he expects that with the scale and strength of EDGE, KATIM will double its investments to become a global leader in secure communications, including large-scale instant messaging applications, voice and video, network infrastructure and satellite communications.

He told Breaking Defense that the firm is developing the KATIM X3 secure smartphone.

Perhaps a sign of the regions rush for technological change, KATIM completed the full integration, transformation and rebranding in 83 days.

The threat landscape and countermeasures

The demand for cybersecurity services and secure communications comes as the threat landscape has changed and an abundance of data is being transferred from one endpoint to another, especially with regard to the critical infrastructure of the United Arab Emirates. United.

“The UAE’s critical national infrastructure in the hydrocarbons, logistics and finance sectors is highly exposed to potential cyber exploitation from a range of malicious actors,” Krieg said. “Iran is certainly one of the most tangible malicious actors that in the past has attempted cyber sabotage and espionage operations in the UAE. But even Emirati partners such as China and Russia may have an interest in exploiting cyber domain vulnerabilities in the UAE.

In December 2020, just after the UAE normalized relations with Israel, Abu Dhabi was the target of cyberattacks.

The head of cybersecurity in the United Arab Emirates, Mohamed Hamad al-Kuwaiti, said then: “The number of cyberattacks in the United Arab Emirates has increased sharply after the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Traditionally, many attacks in the region come from Iran”, without specifying who is behind them.

Krieg concluded that the entire business model of the UAE as a hyperconnected leading smart power is built around the ability to achieve cyber resilience.

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