Cybersecurity is becoming an increasingly important security priority for Abu Dhabi’s government, as the emirate’s ongoing transition to a knowledge-based economy entails significant development of new digital infrastructure. The UAE experiences the second-highest level of documented cyberattacks in the MENA region, prompting the country’s leadership to launch a new digital protection entity, the National Electronic Security Authority (NESA), in a bid to better protect critical national infrastructure. As a result of growth in this vital security segment, a host of new opportunities for private sector participation have opened up, as evidenced by a string of recent agreements aimed at building and enhancing the UAE’s increasingly advanced digital security infrastructure.

Digitally Vulnerable

According to a study conducted by the Kaspersky Lab published in March 2015, the UAE is one of the most targeted countries in the MENA region in terms of cybersecurity, the 15th most-attacked globally in 2014, with threats that range from malware and spyware embedded in online games and social networking forums, to attacks on key infrastructure in the energy and utilities sector.

In October 2015 the Kaspersky Lab released another study indicating that just 23% of UAE residents believed they could be targeted by cyber-attackers, with many more respondents worried instead about hacking of online accounts (61%) and malware designed to steal passwords (60%), followed by financial threats, at 53%. Kaspersky warned that new malicious programmes pose a greater threat than hacking. The Tesla Crypt Trojan programme, for example, encrypts files on compromised computers and coerces users into paying for a decryption key.

Abu Dhabi Police

Emirate-level entities are also developing new cybersecurity initiatives, including the Abu Dhabi Police General Headquarters (ADP GHQ), which is actively working to end the exploitation of children online under the umbrella of the Ministry of Interior. In November 2015 the Virtual Global Taskforce (VGT), an international alliance of 13 law enforcement agencies and private sector partners, named Nasser Lakhrebani Al Nuaimi, Minister of the Interior, as chair of the VGT. The UAE is the VGT’s sole Arab member and has announced plans to further expand its existing strategic partnerships between member countries, including establishing advanced joint-training programmes, enhanced research, training, education and intelligence sharing, as well as creating new regulations and policies aimed at prevention and deterrence. “We’ve already removed over 4000 online images, and are actively working to block terms on search engines. Moving forward, the focus will be not only on those who commit the crime, but those who consume the materials produced,” Al Nuaimi told OBG.

Private Sector Involvement

With the nation’s policy framework slowly taking shape, stakeholders are now looking to the challenges associated with cyber-protection in the UAE. Chief among these is a lack of qualified IT personnel and a rapidly changing digital landscape requiring the agile uptake of new technologies. This creates space for new private-sector involvement, and new partnerships between the government and industry; for example, the Emirates Defence Industries Company will emphasise software development. A September 2015 report by Global Insights projects the region’s cybersecurity sector will reach a value of $25bn over the next 10 years.

The emirate is implementing new cybersecurity initiatives. Abu Dhabi’s Masdar Institute of Science and Technology is a partnership with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and as of June 2015 the two are collaborating on a cybersecurity research project. Masdar Institute and MIT are conducting a case study of Abu Dhabi’s power system, in which potential shortcomings are to be identified and addressed to better protect utilities infrastructure.