Making the UAE the world’s strongest digital fortress

His Excellency Dr Mohamed Al-Kuwaiti, Head of Cyber Security, UAE Government, on visionary plans to build the world’s most secure digital society

The United Arab Emirates is renowned as a place where the improbable often becomes reality. From the world’s tallest building, Burj Khalifa, to iconic man-made islands like Palm Jumeirah, this is a nation where visions are realised.

Two decades ago, one of the UAE’s seven emirates Dubai embarked on a physical transformation that witnessed entire districts emerge from both the sands and sea, creating what is now one of the world’s truly global destinations. Now, it’s time for a digital transformation of even grander proportions, and one that is being masterminded by the entire UAE, with implications for the world.

Evidence of that, if needed, could be found wandering the halls of the Dubai World Trade Centre during the GITEX GLOBAL 2022 event in October, which became the biggest technology gathering in the world. With more than 100,000 attendees, a hall showcasing more than 1,000 startups, and new zones dedicated to coding and the metaverse, the UAE is making a concerted bid to become the global hub for Web 3.0.

Just a few days earlier, Business Chief was provided exclusive access to the launch of an innovation lab that could provide the key component to all that Web 3.0 promises – cybersecurity.

A joint initiative between the UAE Government, Abu Dhabi Polytechnic and Huawei, the Cyber Pulse Innovation Lab aims to bridge the talent gap that is going wider and deeper in cybersecurity – with some reports estimating that there are as many as 4 million unfilled cyber jobs worldwide.

Just as the UAE has pledged to train or attract 100,000 coders as part of its inspiring Projects Of The 50 programme, so it will train the next generation of Emirati cyber experts to protect the nation and set a new global standard of excellence.

Training for the cyber security jobs of the future

His Excellency Dr Mohamed Al-Kuwaiti, Head of Cyber Security, UAE Government, gave the opening address at Abu Dhabi Polytechnic and also spoke exclusively to Business Chief.

“I would say that the Cyber Pulse Innovation Lab at Abu Dhabi Polytechnic is just the start – my vision is to have cybersecurity labs to be established in most if not all of the institutes of higher learning in the UAE,” said HE Al-Kuwaiti.

“The reason is simple – the plan for capacity building in cybersecurity requires aspiring cybersecurity professionals to have solid foundations in appreciating the rigour and need of securing cyberspace. As such, the lab provides an opportunity to be hands-on.”

Taking cyber theory from the classroom to the lab environment, and working directly with technology suppliers like Huawei means that students will be able to learn about real-time threats and solutions as they appear – best preparing them for corporate roles where they can hit the ground running. And this partnership with Huawei is just the beginning.

“With more vendors coming on board after Huawei has led the way, they will provide a vendor-specific capability that will be useful from applied research and learning perspectives, and that will make the students more relevant to the industry,” said HE Al-Kuwaiti.

As well as numerous initiatives in play to attract tech innovators and talent to the UAE, the country is committed to providing jobs of the future for Emiratis – and the growing cyber security skills gap is one that can be an opportunity as well as a practical solution.

HE Al-Kuwaiti admits that the biggest challenge right now is the severe shortage of cybersecurity talent globally. With rapid adoption of digital transformation in the last three years, the talent gap has widened in terms of being able to get the right people with the right expertise in the right place.

There is a global shortage of 2.72 million skilled cybersecurity workers, according to the 2021 Cybersecurity Workforce Study by the International Information System Security Certification Consortium, or (ISC)2. Cybersecurity professionals said in the study that the workforce gap remains the number-one barrier to meeting their organisations’ security needs, with 60% reporting that a cybersecurity staffing shortage is placing their organisations at risk. 

“The consequences of cybersecurity staff shortages are real and create challenges for organisational success,” adds HE Al-Kuwaiti. “The right approach to cybersecurity can accelerate organisational transformation by striking a balance between risk and innovation, and that is why in cybersecurity we always talk about people, process and technology – where people is always the weakest link in the armour.”

Building cyber resilience from the UAE to the world

While cybersecurity is high on corporate agendas, anecdotal evidence from Chief Information Security Officers (CISOs) suggests their warnings often fall on deaf ears, or that funding is woefully inadequate. This may also be one of the reasons why cyber professionals say they are struggling with workloads and stress. Let’s also not forget other headline-grabbing events that have highlighted the need for greater sustainability and supply chain resilience. Cyber attacks, by their very nature, are often secretive affairs or impact people in less obvious ways, or gain less social media attention. However, HE Al Kuwaiti thinks the tide is turning.

“We are seeing that cybersecurity has become a top issue to tackle where the executive management team and the board struggle to understand and reduce the associated risks,” he says. “This is where we are seeing the CISOs get more air-time and respect but it is never enough. Besides working with executive management teams and boards of companies here in the UAE, we also need to galvanise CISOs. The UAE Cybersecurity Council fully supports GISEC’s initiative of creating an InfoSec leaders inner-circle, a gathering of an extraordinary league of senior cybersecurity specialists, to create a fellowship with the mission to discuss key challenges to help build cyber resiliency of businesses in the UAE – and from the UAE to the world. Before other people take us seriously, we must first take ourselves seriously and position ourselves correctly.”

That is a fair point. For the UAE to become a global leader in cybersecurity the UAE needs to believe it can happen. Fortunately, you only have to stand admiring the 828-metre Burj Khalifa in Downtown Dubai and the soaring towers of Dubai Marina from one of the many five-star hotels built on the Palm to realise that all it takes is a strong vision and determined leadership.

“The UAE aspires to be a top globally trusted digital hub and we are working very hard towards it,” says HE Al-Kuwaiti. “Initiatives like the Cyber Pulse Innovation Centre with Abu Dhabi Polytechnic and the CISO Circle are just some of the strategies to address the ‘people’ issue. 

“With the latest UAE National Cybersecurity Strategy for the next three years that will be announced soon, you shall see a comprehensive strategy on how to close the gap with regard to ‘process’ and ‘technology’ that will build the UAE into the strongest digital fortress in the world.”

Cybersecurity is a team sport, and partnerships are crucial

As well as vision and strategy, partnerships are crucial, and the UAE Cybersecurity Council advocates a Public-Private-Partnership or PPP approach to address cybersecurity challenges. 

HE Al-Kuwait says “cybersecurity is a team sport, and it cannot be addressed adequately by just one person, one organisation or one country alone”.

“Partnership with the industry is critical as it brings together all stakeholders of the digital eco-system together with a common vision, plus they can pool resources efficiently and effectively,” he says. 

“Only then can we not only address cybersecurity challenges, but also establish the UAE as a top globally trusted digital hub. I hope to see more partners follow Huawei’s leadership and join the Cyber Pulse Innovation Centre here at Abu Dhabi Polytechnic as the UAE leads a cybersecurity revolution that sees us safeguarding not only the UAE but the entire world.”

• This exclusive interview appears in the November 2022 issue of Business Chief.


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