Counting the cost of Middle East cyberattacks

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Cybercrime is becoming the preserve of governments and hacktivists, rather than lone wolf criminals. Saudi Arabia and the wider Gulf region are increasingly bearing the brunt of this “fifth military domain.” (Shutterstock)
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The global oil industry has become a regular target of hackers. (Shutterstock)
Updated 08 September 2019

Counting the cost of Middle East cyberattacks

  • Riyadh hosts the seventh Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Information Security Conference on Sept 8 & 9
  • Size of the Kingdom's cybersecurity market is projected to swell to $3 billion this year

DUBAI: As Riyadh prepares to host the seventh Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Information Security Conference, the focus is on both the human capital and the technological investments required by regional institutions to defend themselves successfully from cyberattacks.

The title of the conference, “Cyber Space, The New Frontier: Deception, Orchestration and Blackholes,” may conjure images of intergalactic supervillains, but the objective is fairly down to earth: To enhance connectivity and networking among senior regional cybersecurity professionals.
Companies and organizations in the MENA region neglect information security at their peril. Saudi Arabia’s cybersecurity market alone is expected to grow to $5.5 billion by 2023, as the Kingdom upgrades its information-technology infrastructure to combat increasingly frequent cyberattacks.
A report, titled “MEA Cybersecurity Market Forecast to 2023,” predicts the market will swell to $3 billion in 2019.
“The professional services segment of the cybersecurity market is projected to grow to $1.4 billion by 2023,” said Samer Omar, CEO of the MENA Information Security Conference 2019.
In the same period, Saudi Arabia’s large enterprises segment, and small and medium enterprises segment (SMEs) are respectively projected to grow to $3.4 billion and $2 billion, driven by increases in their adoption of advanced cybersecurity solutions.
The Kingdom’s size, wealth,  digitalization of government services and geopolitical prominence make it a prime target for all types of cyberattackers, from hacktivists and cybercriminals to nation-state intelligence-gathering and offensive information warfare operations.
According to the International Telecommunication Union, it ranked first regionally and 13 out of 175 countries in the Global Cybersecurity Index for 2018.
“As the world gets more and more interconnected and we become increasingly dependent on technology, the threat landscape is broadening and creating more opportunities for attackers,” said Mark Leveratt, cybersecurity advisor to the Defense Services Marketing Council in Abu Dhabi. “This is leaving individuals, organizations, governments and nations increasingly vulnerable to cyberattacks.”
Omar, who has more than 24 years of experience in the cybersecurity industry, says cybercrime is no longer merely about a solitary hacker; it involves highly organized and trained groups and underground organizations serving specific objectives, especially political ones.
To combat such threats and limit their adverse effects, he says, users need to be fully aware about the importance of preserving their data and systems, and of heeding security advice and guidance.


$5.5bn - Projected size of Saudi Arabia’s cybersecurity market by 2023.

$3bn - Projected value of cybersecurity market in 2019.

13 - Saudi Arabia’s global rank out of 175 countries in Global Cybersecurity Index 2018.

$6tn - Projected global cost of cybercrime by 2021.

Leveratt concurs, saying that most cybercrimes are committed by organized groups, whose methodologies, tactics, techniques and procedures keep changing to take advantage of the vulnerabilities in software and hardware for financial gain.
“Nation-state cyberespionage and offensive cyberwarfare are also on the increase, with several well-documented incidents in recent years,” he said. “Cyberspace is now widely considered the fifth military domain.”
Experts say cybercriminals are learning to monetize their efforts more effectively through ingenious and disruptive methods, in addition to embracing the latest developments in artificial intelligence and machine learning to make their attacks more powerful.
“Mobile platforms are one of the fastest-growing targets for cybercriminals. Cybercrime is today a massive industry and one of the world’s most lucrative activities,” Leveratt said. “Cybercrime pays. The comparative return on investment is exponential and it can act as a massive force multiplier and level the playing field for less militarily advanced nations.
“Overall, organizations are improving their cybersecurity strategies, but it is not enough to keep pace with the rapidly changing threats and risks imposed by new technologies.
“To put that in context, some governments are considering allowing the use of nuclear weapons in the fight against cybercrime.”
According to Kaspersky Security Network, an average of 27.3 percent of all users in the MENA region were affected by web-threat incidents during the first quarter of this year. Saudi Arabia had the highest number — 35.9 percent.
“With more complicated and evolving technologies in all sectors, hackers today are using innovative tools to match the advances and achieve their objectives, from financial crime to data theft and cyberespionage, to target both individuals and enterprises,” said Maher Yamout, senior security researcher at Kaspersky Lab.
“Gulf Cooperation Council  countries hold the largest proven crude oil reserves in the world, approximately 495 billion barrels, which represents almost 30 percent of the world’s total and is categorized as the largest producer and exporter of crude petroleum. This makes the oil and gas industry an critical regional asset, which makes it a lucrative target for cybercriminals.
“It is estimated that cybercrime could cost the world about $6 trillion by 2021, which is more profitable than the global trade in illegal drugs,” said Muhammad Khurram Khan, founder and CEO of the Washington-based Global Foundation for Cyber Studies and Research.
“Saudi Arabia, due to its geopolitical and strategic importance regionally and internationally, has become a key target of cybercriminals.”
In recent years, state-sponsored adversaries have launched serious cyberattacks with elaborate planning on critical infrastructure and government departments of the Kingdom.
“They are also targeting the general public and local organizations, including hospitals, universities and SMEs, for financial gain by performing ransomware attacks, which have increased by almost 400 percent over the previous years,” Khan said.
Khan adds cybercrime legislation should be an integral part of the national cybersecurity strategy of every country.
“Fortunately, Saudi Arabia has developed an anti-cybercrime law that aims to secure the safe exchange of data, protect the rights of users and the internet, and defend the public interest, morals and privacy,” he said.

Locust invasion in Yemen stokes food insecurity fears

A Yemeni tries to catch locusts on the rooftop of his house as they swarm several parts of the country bringing in devastations and destruction of major seasonal crops. (AFP)
Updated 31 min 6 sec ago

Locust invasion in Yemen stokes food insecurity fears

  • Billions of locusts invaded farms, cities and villages, devouring seasonal crops

AL-MUKALLA: Locust swarms have swept over farms in central, southern and eastern parts of Yemen, ravaging crops and stoking fears of food insecurity.

Residents and farmers in the provinces of Marib, Hadramout, Mahra and Abyan said that billions of locusts had invaded farms, cities and villages, devouring important seasonal crops such as dates and causing heavy losses.
“This is like a storm that razes anything it encounters,” Hussein Ben Al-Sheikh Abu Baker, an agricultural official from Hadramout’s Sah district, told Arab News on Sunday.
Images and videos posted on social media showed layers of creeping locusts laying waste to lemon farms in Marb, dates and alfalfa farms in Hadramout and flying swarms plunging cities into darkness. “The locusts have eaten all kinds of green trees, including the sesban tree. The losses are huge,” Abu Baker added.
Heavy rains and flash floods have hit several Yemeni provinces over the last couple of months, creating fruitful conditions for locusts to reproduce. Farmers complained that locusts had wiped out entire seasonal crops that are grown after rains.
Abu Baker said that he visited several affected farms in Hadramout, where farmers told him that if the government would not compensate them for the damage that it should at least get ready for a second potential locust wave that might occur in 10 days.
“The current swarms laid eggs that are expected to hatch in 10 days. We are bracing for the second wave of the locusts.”  
Last year, the UN said that the war in Yemen had disrupted vital monitoring and control efforts and several waves of locusts to hit neighboring countries had originated from Yemen.

This is like a storm that razes anything it encounters.

Hussein Ben Al-Sheikh Abu Baker, a Yemeni agricultural official

Yemeni government officials, responsible for battling the spread of locusts, have complained that fighting and a lack of funding have obstructed vital operations for combating the insects.
Ashor Al-Zubairi, the director of the Locust Control Unit at the Ministry of Agriculture in Hadramout’s Seiyun city, said that the ministry was carrying out a combat operation funded by the Food and Agriculture Organization in Hadramout and Mahra, but complained that the operation might fall short of its target due to a lack of funding and equipment.
“The spraying campaign will end in a week which is not enough to cover the entire plagued areas,” Al-Zubairi told Arab News. “We suggested increasing the number of spraying equipment or extending the campaign.”
He said that a large number of villagers had lost their source of income after the locusts ate crops and sheep food, predicting that the outbreak would likely last for at least two weeks if urgent control operations were not intensified and fighting continued. “Combating teams could not cross into some areas in Marib due to fighting.”
The widespread locust invasion comes as the World Food Programme (WFP) on July 10 sent an appeal for urgent funds for its programs in Yemen, warning that people would face starvation otherwise.
“There are 10 million people who are facing (an) acute food shortage, and we are ringing the alarm bell for these people, because their situation is deteriorating because of escalation and because of the lockdowns, the constraints and the social-economic impact of the coronavirus,” WFP spokeswoman Elisabeth Byrs told reporters in Geneva.