In December, when the UAE became the first Arab nation to win Category B membership of the International Maritime Organisation Council, it showcased the country’s competitive advantages and emerging role in an election that included nominees from 11 leading nations in the marine trade sector.

Dr Abdullah Bin Mohammad Balheif Al Nuaimi, Minister of Infrastructure Development and Chairman of the Federal Transport Authority — Land and Maritime, said at the London event that the milestone victory will spur planned development of local ports to the tune of Dh157 billion over the next few years. He also emphasised that this membership will enhance the UAE’s role in promoting maritime safety and security as it will be part of the decision-making process. 

As the global shipping and logistics industry gears up for a digital future, maritime security is taking on a much broader mantle. Research firm Gartner predicts that artificial intelligence, internet of things (IoT), machine learning and cost-to-serve analytics will drive significant changes in strategies within a decade.  

For instance, AP Moller–Maersk, the world’s largest shipping company, deployed the first blockchain platform for marine insurance earlier this year. Besides automating manual processes and reducing inefficiencies, the Insurwave platform will manage security risks for 1,000 vessels and support 500,000 transactions in the very first year. All marine insurance policies will be updated automatically to reflect risk, using IoT and smart contracts. 

Across industry, other developments are taking shape: drones, autonomous vehicles, information-sharing platforms, real-time data and data synchronisation between all maritime ecosystem partners. In this scenario of everything staying connected, cybersecurity claims top priority.  

“Maritime vessels are increasingly internet-reliant for critical systems related to power management, propulsion control, dynamic positioning and navigation,” says Friso Buker, a former homeland and civil security consultant who has worked with several global clients. 

“As additional functions are added with connections to the outside world, the risk of interference with these technologies will continue to increase. 

“The fact that the targets of cybercrime may be hundreds of miles away from the nearest coastline does not preclude the risk of malicious tampering. In almost every practical sense, internet-reliant or internet-enabled seafaring vessels take on the same risks as every other connected system.”

And by no means is the umbrella epithet of maritime security limited to seafaring vessels. Cargo and cruise ports clamour for attention alongside risks of piracy, terrorism and illegal immigration.

Buker also comments on the country’s emerging status as a cruise destination: “Cruise liners have distinct security advantages over aircraft in that ships have much fewer points of relatively easy entry and security personnel have a longer period of time to inspect passengers and their baggage for illegal or dangerous items. 

At present, the strategies in place seem sufficient for most cruise line operators and for security authorities in the UAE.” 

As the UAE steadily increases its head count of private boat owners, new manifestations of maritime security also affect many people.  

Saeed Basweidan is founder and CEO of Al Asbab, a 11-year-old firm specialising in security and communications, with a dedicated division for marine solutions. The company considers maritime security as multi-faceted with physical and digital components, among them a variety of cameras including underwater, firewalls, intrusion detection system and intrusion prevention systems, data networks and satellite systems.     

“Many owners of small yachts and leisure craft treat privacy and security as separate issues, but they shouldn’t,” says the Emirati engineer who has worked on some of the UAE’s most famous motor yachts. “The two issues must go hand in hand. It is important to consider systems such as  isolated networks and pressure centres and their governance  to ensure maximum privacy and security.”  

Basweidan also advises about universal and ubiquitous coverage: “Irrespective of size, a boat can be vulnerable to security risks and threats, whether it is moored in a marina, cruising a few nautical miles ashore, or sailing in the deep seas. For instance, even when parked at Dubai Marina, a weak network router and security platform can pose threats. Another example is that of private video recordings getting hacked and exposed. 

“The onus is on the owner. Your boat must be as safe as your home is.”