The concept of national security has developed significantly over the past few decades, particularly with the increasing importance of the economy Image Credit: Dubai Media office

The national security of many countries faces unprecedented challenges, not only in the number or diversity of threats, but also their seriousness and complexity.

Never before have nations been so vulnerable to the impact of so many factors. The concept of national security is no longer confined to military, security, or economic aspects, but has expanded significantly to include social, environmental, technological, digital, and even health issues.

The novel coronavirus pandemic (Covid-19) has brought new challenges that force us to reconsider the concept of national security, to include aspects that, until recently, had not received much attention.

The most important of these are health or medical security, related scientific advancements, and the ability to respond effectively to emerging developments that may have unexpected and serious consequences.

With the developments we have seen in the world in various fields, amid the interconnected interests of countries that are globalisation-related, the concept of national security has expanded to include many vital elements and new terms, such as water and food security, as well as environmental security

- Jamal Sanad Al Suwaidi

National Security in a changing world

Throughout history, security has received significant attention in the lives of individuals and societies. Life cannot progress without security. There are various concepts of security, but, in general, it focuses on stability and living in peace without fear or threat.

The idea has long been associated with the ability to fend off external threats. Therefore, it has historically been limited to military and security considerations, reflecting a state’s ability to protect its borders and population against any military risk.

As a result, it has traditionally made the most sense to apply the concept of national security to military and security developments, including armed conflicts and the balance of power at regional and global levels.

However, the concept of national security has developed significantly over the past few decades, particularly with the increasing importance of the economy as the foundation of a country’s strength, and its growing role in relations between states.

It has developed to the extent that the economy, in its broader sense, has become an essential component of national security. The military and security aspects are also clearly affected by the strength of the national economy. It impacts spending in this area and the ability to modernise a military arsenal.

With the developments we have seen in the world in various fields, amid the interconnected interests of countries that are globalisation-related, the concept of national security has expanded to include many vital elements and new terms, such as water and food security, as well as environmental security.

With growing international concern for the environment, particularly amid accelerating global warming and its implications for many aspects of life, environmental security has become a critical component of national security.

Environmental protection affects the economy, agriculture, and other sectors, and is therefore of great concern to experts studying the future implications of this phenomenon for our way of life.

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More recently, ‘health security’ has become a vital component of national security. The sudden outbreak of coronavirus and its catastrophic impact on various aspects of life has demonstrated that it is vitally important for countries to have advanced capabilities, not only in medical treatment, but also in pharmaceutical industries.

This enables an adequate response to an epidemic or pandemic, as military or economic capabilities, no matter how great, are of no use in this scenario, when the economy is one of the first casualties.

Accordingly, the concept of national security has become more holistic, including military, economic, social, health and even cultural elements. Countries have come to consider a wide range of issues as pertinent for national or regional security.

The concept of national security has significantly expanded to refer to all the capabilities and resources of a country, enabling it to protect itself and its borders and to defend its interests and values against external and internal threats.

This includes military, economic, industrial, security, cultural, educational, digital and technological resources, and of course, workforce, which is at the heart of all of these capabilities.

National Security Challenges

There are multiple sources of threat to the national security of a country; external, internal or overlapping. Typically, these challenges can be categorised based on a variety of criteria. In general, conventional threats are military wars, while unconventional threats take the form of digital wars, also known as cyber conflicts.

The national security of the UAE faces unprecedented challenges, amid regional and international instability. Many conflicts have escalated and been complicated due to the competing interests of local, regional and international stakeholders. Currently, the most significant challenges for UAE national security are as follows:

First — Regional Conflicts

Among the issues most threatening to UAE national security, and Arab national security are the armed conflicts taking place in some Arab countries, especially Yemen, Libya, and Syria.

They are the root cause of unprecedented regional instability; escalation and complications in these conflicts mean they represent a significant challenge for the UAE’s national security, while the government strives to restore security and stability in the region.

This has forced the UAE to directly or indirectly engage in some conflict areas to protect its interests and defend Arab national security, of which the UAE’s national security is an integral part.

Second — Foreign Interventions 

Intervention in the internal affairs of countries in the region has had negative, sometimes dangerous repercussions for the national security of Arab countries, including the UAE.

Nevertheless, these interventions were traditionally governed by controls and had clear boundaries with deterrent mechanisms. However, the situation has changed. Some Arab countries have been taken over by regional powers.

In fact, these forces have become a major factor in fuelling some local conflicts. This is the case in Yemen, where Iranian interference, and its continued support of the Houthi rebels, has exacerbated the crisis, contributing to its continuation, and more than five years on, there is still no political resolution.

The same goes for Turkish intervention, namely in Libya, where it exacerbated and complicated the crisis faced by the country since 2011. There are genuine concerns over the expansion of the conflict, which has the potential to lead to a regional war, especially with overlapping interests.

France, and other countries, have explicitly expressed the danger this interference poses to security and stability in the Mediterranean, and the region as a whole. This, of course, represents a major challenge to national security, with many ramifications for regional security and Arab countries’ interests.

Third — Extremism and Terrorism

Extremism and terrorism remain one of the greatest challenges for UAE national security, as well as regional and even global security and stability.

Although this phenomenon has been in relative decline since the defeat of the terrorist group Da’esh in Iraq and Syria, fears persist of the resurgence of Da’esh, or other groups, and perhaps even the emergence of more extremist and violent organisations.

The factors fuelling this phenomenon have not been eliminated; whether political, related to the suppression of freedoms and probably tyranny; economic, related to poverty and unemployment, especially with the outbreak of the coronavirus, which is expected to have serious effects on economic conditions; or intellectually, where extremist ideas are still popular and spread through social media, which has become an arena for the dissemination of hatred, extremist ideology and even recruitment.

Fourth — Electronic Attacks and Cyber Wars

Concern is growing about threats to computer networks, also known as cyber wars. Cyber-attacks are among the most severe challenges facing the national security of all countries, without exception.

The problem lies not only in the difficulty of predicting, controlling or preventing them but in their devastating effects on national economies.

Cyber-attacks can lead to downtime in sectors, disabling entire services. Besides, they can dangerously elevate tensions between countries, possibly even leading to war, especially if false information was leaked to suggest an imminent threat to a country, provoking a strong reaction that could ignite conflict.

What exacerbates the problem is the accelerating development in technology and the internet. Despite the growth of cybersecurity systems and the existence of strict legal frameworks, the threat is ever-present.

Methods of penetration and attack are continually evolving, and the threat is heightened when countries create digital or cyber warfare units as part of their offensive strategies. Thus, the source of the danger moves beyond individuals or companies to countries.

This could see official services in nations conducting attacks on sensitive sites of other countries, possibly exceeding the limits of espionage or gathering information, to destroy essential data at vital institutions.

Fifth — Demographics

Undoubtedly, there is a massive imbalance in the demographic structure as a result of the development witnessed in the UAE.

It represents a major challenge to national security as this imbalance carries negative repercussions, not only on the issue of work and employing the federal resources necessary to continue the UAE’s development process but also with regard to the possibility of workforce unrest.

The current climate of growing human rights demands could be exploited by rival countries and external powers.

Sixth — Climate Change and the Environment: Climate change associated with global warming is a real challenge, not only for the UAE’s national security but also for all humanity.

It is connected to natural resources and living standards, with enormous implications for water and food security. This is particularly true as climate change dramatically affects water resources, both for drinking and irrigation.

It also has severe consequences for agriculture, particularly desertification, which expands with the decline in areas designated for agriculture.

There are also significant repercussions for the quality of agricultural output and, consequently, the health of individuals and society.

— Dr Jamal Sanad Al Suwaidi is a UAE author