Israel becomes a guarantor of cybersecurity in the Middle East. Here’s how.
As the United States pivots towards the Pacific, it has reduced its military footprint in the Middle East over the past decade. Its increasingly limited role remains focused primarily on combating Iranian threats by building regional alliances on several fronts. The Abraham Accords reached under the Donald Trump administration in 2020 – which normalized ties with Israel between the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and later Bahrain, and were extended to the North African countries of Morocco and Sudan – are seen as a new era of security. provisions in the region.
These developments have had strong implications for cybersecurity in the Middle East. Such developments also allow Israel to become more of a guarantor of IT security against Iran and other regional threats by filling the void resulting from the increasingly passive attitude of the United States towards the evolution of security dynamics in the region. However, Israeli cyber capabilities and positioning in the region remain a target of acquisition by China, which is trying to take stock of the restrictive role of the United States.
Along with the coronavirus pandemic, countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region are keen to accelerate the ongoing digital transformation, joining a global rush for digital tools and infrastructure to meet the challenges of the pandemic. Meanwhile, cyber attacks and the lack of cyber resilience – the ability to respond and recover from cyber attacks – in the region continue to hurt business establishments and undermine economic interests, especially in the Gulf countries.
From this perspective, the shortcomings of the region’s cyber defense capabilities remain significant. A 2020 study by the Ponemon Institute found that the average cost of a data breach incident incurred by a business in the Middle East is $ 6.53 million, well above the global average cost of a incident of $ 3.86 million, increasing its financial impact by 9.4% over the previous year. Additionally, the 2020 Cost of a Data Breach report found that the average time taken to respond to breaches in the Middle East was “the slowest in the world.” Amid this massive vulnerability, Israel, with its advanced cyber capabilities, is seen as the ideal partner by many Arab countries, especially those in the Gulf.
Cyberlinks between CCG and Israel
The provision of Israeli cybersecurity tools to Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries began long before the recent rapprochement. In 2007, the United Arab Emirates recruited the Israeli company 4D Security Solutions based in the United States to help increase the defense capacity around sensitive energy installations and to set up a “smart” surveillance system across Abu Dhabi. In 2017, former Israeli Knesset member turned venture capitalist Erel Margalit said Saudi Arabia received help from Israeli cybersecurity firms to deal with a cyberattack on Saudi Aramco, the company oil and gas, in 2012. He also alleged that Israeli companies were in talks with the Kingdom’s Public Investment Fund to help build Neom, the smart Saudi city.
Following the Abrahamic Accords in 2020, cyber cooperation between the UAE and Israel has seen major advances. In an April interview with Haaretz, Mohamed Al-Kuwaiti, the cyber tsar of the United Arab Emirates, said there was “good information sharing between us”, referring to the cyber intelligence cooperation between the two countries in response to a cyberattack by the Hezbollah-affiliated Lebanese Cedar forward persistent threat group in January.
The concerns shared by Israel with the GCC countries regarding Iran’s cyber threats are central to their cyber cooperation. In that year alone, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have been the target of major cyber attacks by alleged hackers affiliated with Iran. Additionally, Iran is active on the disinformation front by creating a network of websites and accounts used to spread false information about GCC countries, Israel and the United States. Even relatively small-economy Gulf countries, like Bahrain, have been the target of hackers linked to networks infiltrated by Iran.
However, Israel’s cyber cooperation with Arab countries extends beyond the core area of its conflict with Iran to North Africa. In early July, a cyber agreement was signed between Israel and Morocco, allowing cybersecurity teams to exchange information on cybersecurity threats and hacking attempts. It should be noted that Morocco is one of four Arab countries – in addition to Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – that claim to have used Pegasus spyware, designed by Israeli surveillance firm NSO Group. . Suspicious countries deny the allegations. This is accompanied by the United States’ decision to relocate Israel to the area of responsibility of the United States Army Central Command (CENTCOM), which coordinates U.S. defense operations in the Middle East with its partners and prioritizes Iran and non-state terrorist groups as main threats.
China’s role in cybersecurity in the MENA region
While cybersecurity ties are developing between some Arab countries and Israel, China is also gaining a foothold in the region. China’s investment craft, combined with active cyber diplomacy, strengthens Beijing’s cyber positioning in the MENA region. In March, China and the Arab League signed a data security cooperation initiative that aims to “position partners as strong players in the formation of international regulations as well as further efforts towards a more cohesive structure. of global digital governance ”. The move comes against the backdrop of China’s Global Data Security Initiative, through which Beijing is trying to influence the international debate on data privacy norms and standards.
The Chinese initiative was announced in September 2020 in response to the U.S. Clean Network initiative for 5G launched by the Trump administration a month earlier. While Beijing claims not to target any third parties, Washington has explicitly said it is working to exclude Chinese information technology vendors, especially those associated with the Chinese Communist Party, U.S. and allied 5G mobile networks.
It should be mentioned that the US initiative received no positive response from the MENA region, despite several appeals to several Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which were more likely to perceive the program as a antagonistic step towards China, their main importer of oil. Since taking office in January, Joe Biden’s administration does not seem eager to take over the initiative from the Trump era. Additionally, China’s Digital Silk Road Initiative is harnessing Beijing’s influence in the region through investment opportunities offered by Chinese tech giants in 5G networks and digital surveillance.
As for Israel, the Chinese investment portfolio challenges the traditional long-standing US presence by making acquisitions in Israeli high-tech startups, growing from $ 76 million in 20 deals in 2013 to $ 325 million. dollars in fifty-two transactions in the first three quarters only. 2018. On average, Chinese direct investments capture 30 to 40% of the total capital raised in transactions with their involvement per quarter.
Interestingly, last August, cybersecurity firm FireEye revealed that a massive China-backed cyber attack hit dozens of Israeli government and private organizations and other targets in the Middle East. The attack is said to have focused mainly on Israeli entities in the fields of high technology, telecommunications, defense, universities and information technology to acquire Israeli know-how in cybersecurity, renewable energy. , agricultural technologies and 5G communications.
Even though China seems to be gaining influence in the cyber MENA realm, Arab countries, especially those in the Gulf, seem more open to cooperation with Israel, with whom they share serious concerns about Iran. In addition, Israel is positioning itself as a regional partner technologically capable of helping MENA countries avoid compromises between the United States and China, which avoids losing to each other in the global cyber-race. Yet China’s active infiltration attempts are more likely to bypass Israeli cyber capabilities and direct those capabilities towards Beijing’s own interests.
Islam al-Halawany is a senior research analyst with expertise in the public sector of the MENA region. He previously worked for research and training centers affiliated with the Egyptian Cabinet as an economic policy researcher for the Information and Decision Support Center and as a research assistant at the Cairo International Center. for conflict resolution, peacekeeping and peacebuilding.
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