Cyber security is high on the list of challenges that could prove a hurdle to Qatar’s economic development, although it is also being seen as an opportunity for potential growth in the information, communication and technology (ICT) industry.
Demand for stronger internet security is rising in Qatar, fuelled by greater awareness of its importance, following several high-profile cyber crimes. Qatar has pledged to tackle what it terms its “three grand challenges” of cyber security, water and energy through research, investment and education.
Cyber threats are on the rise worldwide. A study by the SANS Institute, a UK-based research group on information security, said the number of organisations with identified or suspected security breaches had increased by nearly 40% in 2014 from 28% a year ago, with only 9% confident their systems have not been penetrated.
Events in recent years have highlighted such concerns. In August 2012 malware struck Saudi Aramco, the world's largest oil producer, wiping critical data from 30,000 of its computers. Later that month a cyber-attack virus crashed the website and office computer systems at RasGas, one of two LNG producers.
A report by technology firm Cisco released earlier this year said businesses in the Middle East were increasingly becoming the target of cyber attacks, with energy firms particularly at risk. Cyber-criminals are attacking internet infrastructure rather than individual computers or devices, with the target of breaching and stealing data.
The threat to businesses was highlighted in a recent speech by Qatar’s Minister for Information and Communications Technology, Hessa Sultan Al Jaber. “Cyber security is vital to our national security, business competitiveness, and sustainability. It is critical to our future and the economy,” she said at the keynote address during the Cyber Security Summit – Middle East.
However, within that challenge lie opportunities. “We can turn these risks into exciting opportunities such as job generation, innovation, and advancements,” she added.
Although the ICT sector in Qatar is deeply concerned over issues such as cyber security attacks, metrics like web connectivity and mobile broadband consumption indicate a country that is increasingly plugged-in, and willing to invest to stay that way. Support from state institutions is encouraging entrepreneurs and researchers to build their ideas into sellable products.
A recent report by market intelligence firm IDC estimates a 14-15% rise in IT spending in Qatar this year due to growth in hosting and managed services. "Competition is expected to increase in Qatar as a greater number of IT services companies establish or expand their operations in order to tap into the growing opportunities in the country,” said Eric Samuel, senior research analyst at IDC Middle East, Africa, and Turkey.
Doha’s plans to become a smart city, which include ensuring all areas are interconnected, have already begun generating higher demand for ICT services across the public and private sectors, according to Mohammad Hammoudi, general manager for Cisco in Qatar.
Increased awareness of security issues, and in particular hacking, has led to security upgrades becoming the most in-demand services, he added. “Cyber security and physical security, such as cameras, have become the number one priority in the sector. Cisco has witnessed a huge increase in service requests related to this,” he told OBG.
Ghada El Rassi, the CEO of MEEZA, a privately-held joint venture with Qatar Foundation, which provides essential IT support, echoed this sentiment, noting that there had been a shift in clients’ requirements from managed services towards security. “Cyber attacks in Qatar and other countries have created an awareness of cyber security issues,” she told OBG. “It has become a need. We are seeing demand in disaster recovery, business continuity plans and security services.”
A push to make cyber security research a priority has already led to Qatar to deepen its pool of experts, while state agencies are joining forces with research institutes and private firms to build up protective measures and develop exportable technologies for IT security.
In September, Qatar University (QU) and French corporation Thales announced the establishment of a cyber security chair at the university. QU said the chair would work with students, faculty and industry leaders to identify cyber security issues and put forward best practices in responding to them. Last year, Qatar Computer Research Institute (QCRI), an initiative of Qatar Foundation for computer research, set up a cyber security research centre to find solutions for the cyber security issues in the country.
Alongside the focus on research, Qatar’s government has moved to clamp down on cyber criminals. In mid-September, the country tightened its cyber security legislation, introducing higher fines and penalties for unauthorised accessing of any website.