How Saudi Arabia is building cyber resilience while accelerating digital transformation

The Kingdom has made notable progress in international indicators. KSA’s cybersecurity professionals are getting a boost through training initiatives to meet the growing threat of cyberattacks. (Reuters/File Photo)
The Kingdom has made notable progress in international indicators. KSA’s cybersecurity professionals are getting a boost through training initiatives to meet the growing threat of cyberattacks. (Reuters/File Photo)
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Updated 05 July 2021

How Saudi Arabia is building cyber resilience while accelerating digital transformation

The Kingdom has made notable progress in international indicators. KSA’s cybersecurity professionals are getting a boost through training initiatives to meet the growing threat of cyberattacks. (Reuters/File Photo)
  • As the Internet claims an ever-greater share of daily life, opportunities for cybercrime have increased greatly
  • Authorities are waging a digital war to protect citizens and companies from high-tech criminal underworld

RIYADH: The Internet is home to some extremely malevolent behavior. A range of bad actors is intent on stealing people’s money, information and identities, and on crippling essential services.

Of the countless entities and individuals targeted, some of the more prominent are Saudi Aramco, Bangladesh Bank, Colonial Pipeline, the Democratic Party of the US, and the UK’s House of Commons. In 2015, the self-proclaimed Yemen Cyber Army attacked the Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

In common with other GCC states, Saudi Arabia is a prime target of cybercrime, for several reasons. It is a wealthy country with a digitally active population, is positioned at the center of the global energy sector, and located in a region with no shortage of geopolitical tensions. It is also home to Saudi Aramco, among the world’s most valuable companies.

The Kingdom’s vulnerable position was highlighted in 2012 when the Shamoon virus crippled a significant portion of Saudi Aramco’s IT network. Shamoon was one of the most destructive cyberattacks on any business up to that time, and forced Aramco to shut down and literally replace a large proportion of its computers. The same malware has resurfaced over the years, causing further mayhem in every case. 

Identifying perpetrators is fraught because they take great effort to conceal identities, and typically adopt the techniques, procedures and languages of other suspect actors. And when a virus is brought under control, a new one, or a more destructive mutation of the original, may be unleashed on unsuspecting populations and underprepared corporations.

Shamoon was highly publicized, but many GCC companies and organizations continue to face similar attacks from the likes of Morris Worm, Nimda, Iloveyou, Slammer and Stuxnet.

As the Internet claims an ever-greater share of people’s daily lives, the opportunity for cybercrime increases exponentially. The Internet of Things (IoT) may enable a fridge to order fresh milk from the supermarket automatically, and an expat’s currency to arrive in the form of blockchain, but this only broadens the range of potential cyber targets.

Khalid Al-Harbi, Saudi Aramco’s chief information security officer, was quoted by Reuters as saying: “The pattern of cyberattacks is cyclical. We are seeing that the magnitude is increasing, and I would suspect that this will continue to be a trend.”

Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic has led to a surge in cybercrime. As the contagion forced many companies to introduce working from home, malicious actors were able to take advantage of the typically reduced IT security of remote workers. The global police body Interpol reported a spike in both malware and spam in the months after the pandemic took hold — affecting the GCC as much as the rest of the world.




A member of the military specialised in cyber defense works on a computer during the 10th International Cybersecurity Forum in Lille. (AFP/File Photo)

Remote staff are the weakest link of any network. No matter how many millions an organization may spend on developing a robust IT firewall at the office, that advanced security can be undone by the easy or predictable password of a negligent individual working from home, the click on a dubious link, or the unwise sharing of personal data on social media. 

In a white paper released by the International Data Corporation, Uzair Mujtaba, its program manager for Saudi Arabia, observed that “as endpoints become increasingly disparate, the attack surface will expand significantly, and this is compelling technology and security leaders to adopt innovative approaches to cybersecurity.”

According to a new report by VMware, an American cloud computing and virtualization technology company, nearly 93 percent of the 252 organizations it surveyed in Saudi Arabia experienced a cyberattack in the past year.

The findings, a part of VMware’s Global Security Insights Report, came from an online survey conducted in December 2020 of 3,542 chief information security officers (CISOs), chief information officers (CIOs), and chief technology officers (CTOs).

The average number of breaches suffered by each organization was 2.47 over the past year, while 11 percent of respondents said their organizations had been breached between 5 to 10 times. 

Some 80 percent of respondents agreed that they need to view security differently than they did in the past due to an expanded attack surface prompted by the pandemic. 

FASTFACTS

* Among the viruses causing the biggest havoc are Stuxnet, NotPetya and Lockergoga.

* Perpetrators include Unit 74455 of Russia’s GRU military intelligence, North Korea’s Bureau 39, Iran’s Cyber Army.

Responding to this growing threat, the Kingdom has positioned itself at the global forefront of cyber defense. The Shamoon incident of 2012 was a wake-up call, prompting the Saudi government to focus and mobilize resources for the creation of an entire cybersecurity ecosystem to confront both local and foreign adversaries.

This is a key element of Vision 2030. The National Cybersecurity Authority (NCA) was established by a royal decree in October 2017 and is mandated with implementing the National Information Security Strategy — formalizing a Kingdom-wide framework for cybersecurity, risk mitigation, and resilience via governance policies, standards, cyber-defense operations, and development of human capital and local industry capabilities.

The NCA’s stated mission is to “work closely with public and private entities to improve the cybersecurity posture of the country in order to safeguard its vital interests, national security, critical infrastructures, high-priority sectors, and government services and activities in alignment with Vision 2030.”

That sounds like a tall order, but the Kingdom is already a leader in terms of cyber vigilance, with a formidable knowledge base. Indeed, in 2020, the World Competitiveness Center ranked Saudi Arabia as second globally in “the field of continuous improvement of corporate cybersecurity.”

Speaking to Arab News, Haider Pasha, chief security officer at Palo Alto Networks, Middle East and Africa, said: “You need to really understand where your sensitive data is, where the assets are, and have a robust strategy or framework that you can abide by. I see that happening more and more in Saudi Arabia.”




As the internet claims an ever-greater share of people’s daily lives, the opportunity for cybercrime increases exponentially. (Shutterstock)

Every country is facing the threat of cybercrime, but the Kingdom is at the front line of this battle given its rapid pace of transformation and already advanced IT and AI infrastructure. Saudi government ministries are designing proprietary cybersecurity programs as opposed to merely installing products and fixes.

An example of this combination of transformation and high-tech is the Kingdom’s push toward “smart cities” — in which citizens have online access to most, if not all, private and public services, and can easily interact with various government agencies.

Riyadh is one such place, while NEOM, the $500 billion development in the northwest of the Kingdom, is emerging as the first large-scale urban project to be designed and built from the ground up in the era of artificial intelligence.

NEOM, envisaged as a cluster of smart urban spaces, can leapfrog older cities by using cutting-edge and integrated technologies, specifically in the realm of cyberspace.

Cyber resilience is critical to the ambitions of NEOM and other developments, whose expected dependence on AI, e-commerce, IoT and blockchain technology means that the Internet will remain a battleground in which national authorities must constantly enhance the defense of their populations from an evermore sophisticated criminal underworld.

Fortunately, the decision-makers of Saudi Arabia are doing just that.


KSrelief chief meets with CEPI CEO in Riyadh to discuss epidemic, pandemic preparedness

KSrelief chief meets with CEPI CEO in Riyadh to discuss epidemic, pandemic preparedness
Updated 10 sec ago

KSrelief chief meets with CEPI CEO in Riyadh to discuss epidemic, pandemic preparedness

KSrelief chief meets with CEPI CEO in Riyadh to discuss epidemic, pandemic preparedness
  • Dr. Hatchett praised the support offered by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, represented by KSrelief, to help CEPI develop COVID-19 vaccines

RIYADH: King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Center (KSrelief) chief Dr. Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al-Rabeeah met with CEO of Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) Dr. Richard Hatchett in Riyadh on Tuesday.

During the meeting, both sides discussed means to enhance cooperation related to providing suitable vaccines to combat the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic along with other contagious diseases.

They also discussed the need to support needy countries with weaker health sectors, study mechanisms to support CEPI to transfer the technology of manufacturing vaccines, as well as benefiting from Saudi Arabia's logistic and humanitarian role in this regard.

Dr. Hatchett praised the support offered by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, represented by KSrelief, to help CEPI develop COVID-19 vaccines and offer them to the needy, referring to the solid strategic relations between the two sides.

CEPI is a foundation that takes donations from public, private, philanthropic, and civil society organisations, to finance independent research projects to develop vaccines against emerging infectious diseases.


Saudi deputy defense minister to discuss Yemen truce on Washington visit

Saudi deputy defense minister to discuss Yemen truce on Washington visit
Updated 30 min 1 sec ago

Saudi deputy defense minister to discuss Yemen truce on Washington visit

Saudi deputy defense minister to discuss Yemen truce on Washington visit

WASHINGTON: Saudi Arabia's Deputy Defense Minister Prince Khalid bin Salman will discuss a truce in Yemen and the Ukraine crisis with White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan during a visit to Washington on Tuesday, the National Security Council said.
He will also meet with senior defense and State Department officials.


Cabinet affirms Saudi support for international efforts against Daesh

Cabinet affirms Saudi support for international efforts against Daesh
Updated 34 min 1 sec ago

Cabinet affirms Saudi support for international efforts against Daesh

Cabinet affirms Saudi support for international efforts against Daesh
  • The Cabinet congratulated Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan on his election as president of the UAE
  • It also also reviewed recent events held in the Kingdom including the Future Aviation Forum

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia’s Cabinet affirmed the Kingdom’s support for international efforts against Daesh on Tuesday.

It also affirmed its keenness on the stability of Iraq and the extension of the country’s influence and sovereignty over all of its territory, reiterating the Kingdom’s statement delivered by Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan at a Global Coalition against Daesh meeting in Marrakech last week.

The Kingdom also stressed its support for efforts to stabilize the security and economic situation in liberated areas in Syria, and welcomed the establishment of the Africa Focus Group to counter the growing threat of the spread of Daesh in the continent.

Acting Minister of Media Dr. Majid bin Abdullah Al-Qasabi said that the Cabinet also voiced its sorrow and grief over the death of Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al-Nahyan.

The Cabinet also congratulated Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan on his election as president of the UAE, and expressed hope for further action to consolidate bilateral relations and enhance ties among Gulf Cooperation Council countries.

King Salman thanked God for granting the Kingdom the great honor of serving the two holy mosques and for the large number of Umrah pilgrims and worshippers who were able to comfortably and safely visit the Grand Mosque and the Prophet’s Mosque during Ramadan.

The king also expressed thanks and appreciation to the leaders of Arab, Muslim and friendly countries who checked up on his health after he underwent a colonoscopy, the results of which were fine.

The Cabinet also reviewed recent activities held in the Kingdom including the launch of the Saudi Census 2022, the International Conference and Exhibition for Education 2022, and the Future Aviation Forum, during which more than 50 agreements worth SR10 billion ($2.7 billion) were signed.

It also expressed satisfaction with the growth of the Kingdom’s GDP by 9.6 percent in the first quarter of 2022, compared to the same period in 2021, recording the highest growth rate in the past ten years, driven by the increase in oil and non-oil activities.


Pakistan religious affairs minister visits Kaaba Kiswa complex

Pakistan religious affairs minister visits Kaaba Kiswa complex
Updated 17 May 2022

Pakistan religious affairs minister visits Kaaba Kiswa complex

Pakistan religious affairs minister visits Kaaba Kiswa complex
  • Mufti Abdul Shakur and his delegation praised the mastery and dedication that goes into making the Kiswa
  • They learned about how the gilded pieces that adorn the Kiswa are embroidered and the craftsmanship behind it

RIYADH: Pakistan’s Federal Minister for Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony, Mufti Abdul Shakur, has visited the King Abdulaziz Complex for Holy Kaaba Kiswa.

He was received by the head of public relations and media at the complex, Ahmed bin Musaed Al-Suwaihri.

The minister and his accompanying delegation watched a visual presentation on the Kiswa including the stages of its manufacture in the Kingdom and how it is replaced.

Mufti Abdul Shakur and his delegation praised the mastery and dedication that goes into making the covering of the Kaaba and the attention with which the materials used to make it are prepared.

They also learned about how the gilded pieces that adorn the Kiswa are embroidered and the craftsmanship behind it.

The delegation thanked the president of the General Presidency for the Affairs of the Two Holy Mosques, Dr. Abdulrahman Al-Sudais, and the under-secretary-general of the complex, Abdul Hamid bin Said Al-Maliki, for giving them the opportunity to learn about the great efforts made by the Kingdom’s government to serve the two holy mosques, pilgrims, and the Kaaba’s Kiswa.


Intense sandstorm envelops parts of Kingdom in gray haze

Intense sandstorm envelops parts of Kingdom in gray haze
Updated 17 May 2022

Intense sandstorm envelops parts of Kingdom in gray haze

Intense sandstorm envelops parts of Kingdom in gray haze
  • The thick blanket of sand made iconic buildings in Riyadh, such as Faisaliyah Tower, Kingdom Center, and other skyscrapers in the King Abdullah Financial District almost impossible to see
  • Cautioning motorists because of the the heavy sandstorm, the traffic department advised drivers to drive slow and exercise restraint, as well as keep their headlights on

RIYADH: An intense sandstorm engulfed several areas in Saudi Arabia on Tuesday, hampering visibility due to the widespread dust, slowing road traffic and forcing authorities to issue a weather warning.

The sandstorm battered Riyadh, enveloping the Saudi capital’s skyline with gray haze. The thick blanket of sand made iconic buildings in Riyadh, such as Faisaliyah Tower, Kingdom Center, and other skyscrapers in the King Abdullah Financial District almost impossible to see from a distance of a few hundred meters.

Electronic signs along Riyadh’s highways warned drivers to reduce their speed because of the lower visibility.

Cautioning motorists because of the the heavy sandstorm, the traffic department advised drivers to drive slow and exercise restraint, as well as keep their headlights on.

The General Directorate of Civil Defense also advised Riyadh residents to avoid going to various outskirt spots in sands to avoid accidents during the blinding sandstorm.

There have been no flight delays or cancellations in Riyadh because of the sandstorm.

Issuing the daily weather forecast for the Kingdom, the National Center of Meteorology on Tuesday said: “The surface dusty winds will be active in the Eastern Region and some parts of Riyadh Region, reducing horizontal visibility, while the dusty wind will continue to occur in some parts of Qassim, Hail, Madinah, Makkah and Najran regions, extending to eastern parts of Baha and Asir regions, reducing horizontal sight.”

The report added that partly cloudy skies will be seen in some parts of Tabuk, the Northern Borders and Jawf regions.

The NCM added that surface wind movement in the Red Sea will be northerly to north-westerly at a speed of 25-45 kilometers per hour on northern and central parts, and westerly to north-westerly on southern parts at a speed of 15-35 kilometers per hour. Surface wind movement in the Arabian Gulf will be westerly to north-westerly at a speed of 25-45 kilometers per hour.

In Riyadh, the dusty weather has made it tough for outdoor workers, and residents have struggled to keep sand out of their homes.

Abdul Qadeer, a Bangladeshi construction worker, told Arab News: “The heavy sandstorm that started late last night and engulfed the city and its outskirts in gray haze this morning has made it really tough for us to continue working outdoors due to widespread dust.”

Though not infrequent for May — the sandstorm is the third to hit the Kingdom this month — Tuesday’s storm created unfavorable conditions, with the maximum temperature in Riyadh recorded at 38 degrees Celsius and the minimum at 24 degrees Celsius. The relative humidity was recorded at 11 percent.

Parts of Saudi Arabia typically experience sandstorms at the end of winter and advent of summer between March and May, with varying intensity.

Besides the Kingdom, Tuesday’s sandstorm has affected other countries in the region, including neighboring Iraq, which recorded its eighth sandstorm since mid-April, a phenomenon fueled by soil degradation, intense droughts and low rainfall linked to climate change.