Aug 20, 2019

Spree of cyberattacks highlights digital vulnerabilities in the Gulf

Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

An increase in cyberattacks across the Persian Gulf has underscored the region's rising geopolitical tensions and cybersecurity vulnerabilities.

The big picture: Government agencies, critical infrastructure and flagship state-owned firms are the prime targets for these cyberattacks, many of which have been linked to Iran or its proxies. While Iran has long threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz during a military conflict, its asymmetric cyber warfare capabilities have become a key means to destabilize competitors and adversaries.

Driving the news: Hackers targeted Bahrain’s National Security Agency, Interior Ministry, and first deputy prime minister’s office on Aug. 5, according to the Wall Street Journal. American intelligence suggested Iranian involvement in the cyberattacks.

  • This incident closely follows a July 25 cyberattack on the country’s Electricity and Water Authority and another suspected, but unconfirmed, attack on Aluminum Bahrain, one of the world's largest aluminum producers.

Background: These attacks have been increasing throughout the region.

  • Bahrain’s Information and eGovernment Authority claims to have successfully interrupted over 6 million attacks and 830,000 malicious emails in the first 5 months of 2019.
  • The United Arab Emirates has witnessed a growing number of cyberattacks on its oil and gas sector. Of 113 cyberattacks reported in the first 5 months of 2019, 7 were categorized as critically harmful and 11 as inflicting medium damage.
  • On Aug. 7, the U.S. government warned about GPS interference and bridge-to-bridge communications spoofing, likely connected to the Iranian military's efforts to mislead and harass vessels in Gulf waterways and other key maritime chokepoints.

The impact: Heightened concerns around data and digital infrastructure security pose commercial and reputational risks, especially as Gulf Arab countries seek to develop tech-driven knowledge economies.

  • Bahrain aims to be a regional fintech hub. It's home to the Middle East office of Amazon Web Services and has passed legislation permitting foreign countries and firms to host external data in various national jurisdictions.
  • The United Arab Emirates is aggressively digitizing economic activities as part of its AI strategy. Emirate-level governments, especially in Dubai, strongly support digital innovation agendas and the incorporation of advanced technologies.
  • Plans for Saudi Arabia’s $500 billion Neom project reveal intentions to build a highly automated, futuristic city complete with flying taxis and robots.

What to watch: Bahraini officials and their Gulf Arab counterparts will likely demonstrate cautious restraint in their rhetoric to avoid an escalation of tensions with Iran. Behind the scenes, however, government and private-sector actors will be working furiously to identify and resolve their cybersecurity risks.

Robert Mogielnicki is a resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.

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