Cyber Security Conference Riyadh. Image Credit: Twitter

Dubai: As technology advances, not all battles are fought on the field any more. Cyber security experts opine that many such wars are quietly being waged in the cyber realm in different parts of the world, including the Gulf region.

Gulf countries must tighten coordination to fight an increasing number of cyber attacks, experts in Jeddah said on Monday, as one official blamed hackers in Iran.

The comments came at an international conference in the Saudi Arabian capital after the Shamoon 2 virus reportedly disrupted labour ministry computers in January.

All Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries are at risk, Saleh Al Motairi, director general of the Saudi National Cyber Security Centre, told the conference.

“There is an increase in the attacks on GCC countries,” he said, noting that both financial and government bodies have been targeted.

“If we cooperate we will be able to protect all sectors,” he added, reporting that his centre responded to 124 ‘breaches’ last year.

GCC members Bahrain and Kuwait were also the targets of increasing attacks over the past year, according to cyber security experts.

Hackers tried to penetrate the computer systems at Bahrain’s interior ministry, said Lieutenant Colonel Bassam Al Maraj, a ministry director.

Maraj said the attempted breach originated in Iran, and singled out “Bahraini people living in Iran.”

Bahrain is a Shiite-majority but Sunni-ruled state which, like Saudi Arabia, sees Iran as linked to unrest throughout the Middle East.

Quasai Al Shatti, director general of Kuwait’s Central Agency for Information Technology, said financial institutions in his country have also been targeted.

“On the fifth domain of warfare, in the virtual world, we have some sort of a war, but in a low-intensity manner,” said Riad Kahwaji, founder and CEO of the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA). He referred to the cyber world as the fifth domain of warfare after land, sea, air and space. Such a low-intensity war is going on between different countries, including US and Russia.

The ongoing cyber war is going not only among foes, but also among many other parties, including friendly states and terrorists organisations, he said.

“Cyber security is very important, and information is the weapon”, said Sanjeev Walia, CEO of Spire Solutions, a Dubai-based company that offers information security solutions and services. “Friendly states, enemy states, friendly organisations, everybody wants to have the upper hand.”

The ‘war’ was “not only among adversaries. Friendly states try to get information about other countries,” Walia told Gulf News in an interview on the eve of the cyber security conference.

The Shamoon virus was first deployed against the Saudi energy sector in 2012. “There is no way you can prevent the attack,” Almotairi said of the virus.

After the 2012 Shamoon hacking, US intelligence officials said they suspected a link to Iran.

The conference, which is the second of its kind to be held in Riyadh, was attended by several international experts from governments, security bodies and companies specialising in information security protection.

Saudi Arabia’s National Cyber Security Centre has been set up over the past two years, but was only formally opened this month.

“The conference is not a reaction to a certain attack,” said Abbad Al Abbad, Executive Director of Strategic Development & Communication at the National Cyber Security Centre of the Saudi Interior ministry. “However, undoubtedly Saudi Arabia and other countries in the region are targeted, like many other countries in the world are.”

“There is no concept of reaction in cyber security ... We have to raise awareness and readiness and offer the higher protection or lessen the risks,” Al Abbad said.

Asked about threats from terrorists organisations to Saudi Arabia, the Saudi official replied, “We don’t differentiate between terrorist organisations, or otherwise. We are dealing with any entity that constitutes a threat to the Saudi security information systems.”

He said the centre deals with all kinds of cyber crimes and data thefts.

“Cyber is anything related to critical information and critical infrastructure as well, and we need to protect information and infrastructure and guarantee a smooth flow of services.” said Walia. “It is like cat and mouse game. We have to be prepared for the worst.”

Qatar began its cyber security strategy in 2014, Khalid Al-Hashmi, the emirate’s Undersecretary of Cyber Security, told the conference.

“We need to pay more attention to cyber security and we need to add more professionals to the field of cyber security,” said Saudi Prince Bandar Al Mishari, assistant interior minister for Technology Affairs.


— with inputs from AFP