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Cyber Matters Draw Israel and Saudi Arabia Closer Together

Recent reporting indicates that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has been investing substantially in Israeli cyber companies that produce offensive cyber tools and weapons.  Per these findings, its presumed that the use of such technology with help Saudi Arabia identify, track, and surveil dissidents and opponents of the government. A website called Saudi Leaksdedicated to exposing Saudi-related scandals cited inside confidential sources that Saudi officials signed contracts with several Israeli firms in order to obtain highly advanced technologies to support cyber spying.  These initiatives are believed to coincide with the Kingdom’s CyberIC plan, a strategy designed to protect the country’s cybersecurity sector. This plan is integral to Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030, a strategic implantation that has digital transformation as one of its pillars.

The CyberIC plan aims to develop the Kingdom’s national capabilities across the larger cyber sector, localizing cybersecurity technology, increasing training content for employees of national authorities, and to generally stimulate the domestic cybersecurity sector.  The first phase of this plan is already underway, and is attempting to increase the number of cybersecurity startup companies by economically assisting  more than 60 national companies.  The idea is to indigenously produce services and solutions in an effort to reduce reliance of foreign technologies.  CyberIC focuses on six primary areas: innovation and entrepreneurship; cybersecurity officers, cybersecurity trainers; graduates from IT schools; cybersecurity experts and specialists; and law enforcement agencies.

As it launches CyberIC, Saudi Arabia appears to have selected Israel as a clandestine partner for the near term to aid in these endeavors.  One news story disclosed how Saudi Arabia purchased sophisticated hacking technology from Israeli company QuaDream.  The company develops smartphone hacking tools that are sold to mostly government clients. In this instance, QuaDream possessed the capability to remotely gain access into iPhones via an Apple flaw and without requiring the owner of the phone to open a malicious attachment or click on a malicious link, a technique known as “zero-click.”  Once compromised, the attackers deployed spyware that extracted data from the device, remotely controlled the camera, eavesdropped, and tracked the location of unwitting users.

QuaDream is not the sole Israeli company supporting Middle Eastern states. The NSO group has been tied to selling equally powerfully hacking tools and capabilities to government clients including the United Arab Emirates (UAE), as well as other African and European governments.  The NSO group developed Pegasus spyware that has been tied to some of the more outlandish spying activities to include targeting journalists, human rights activists, diplomats, and government officials, among others.  In a particularly egregious incident, Pegasus spyware was allegedly used by Saudi Arabia operatives to track a journalist who was believed to be ultimately murdered by the regime. After the scandal was exposed, Saudi Arabia quickly cancelled its contract with the NSO Group, though it still used the tool, and the United States put the company on its Entity list of companies whose business threatens national security.

Traditional adversaries finding common ground when it comes to cybersecurity is not as strange as it may seem.  Israel is a global leader when it comes to the cybersecurity market, and well positioned to support a tumultuous region rife with cyber conflict and valuable energy critical infrastructures to protect. One report finds the Middle East cybersecurity market projected to grow to USD 44.7 billion by 2027, a compound annual growth rate of 17.1 percent, with Saudi Arabia expected to hold the highest market share.  As such, per the report’s findings, Israel is expected to emerge as the best market for cybersecurity investments in the next few years.  Therefore, it is little surprise that Saudi Arabia that has the biggest need would look to partner with the government that has the best technological solutions. Israel has made several overtures to its Arabic and Muslim neighbors signing cybersecurity agreements, helping create “smart” surveillance capabilities, and otherwise serving as a “guarantor” for a Middle East that looks to curtail Iran’s aspirations as being the main power in the region. Indeed, Israel’s headway into the market has garnered Iran’s attention who recently called outthe Kingdom’s investment into Israeli cybersecurity companies.

It’s evident that these two historic adversaries are finding more mutual areas of concern suggesting that there may be a rebalancing of traditional alliances in the region.  Just recently, Saudi Arabia lifted its ban of Israel flights crossing its airspace.  Further cyber ties between the two governments – especially the sale of advanced surveillance technology – further conveys that their interests may be closer than many suspect.  One thing is for certain: Iran is getting the sense that continued regional agreements with Israel threaten to further isolate the volatile Islamic Republic.  Both Israel and Saudi Arabia are constant targets of Iranian cyber attacks indicating that cybersecurity may be the very issue to underpin continued good relations between the countries, and by extension, the rest of the Middle East.

What’s become abundantly clear is that Israel knows how to market itself to the region via its cybersecurity technology offerings.  With the UAE and Qatar also investing in Israeli cyber espionage firms, the appetite for such capabilities is only growing with Israel being the go-to supplier.  For an Iranian government that has been known to use cyber attacks as a form of political hostility against its Middle Eastern neighbors, such technologies could certainly support mitigating these types of activities.  If not careful, Iran may find that its cyber aggression turns out to be one of the catalysts that helps its primary adversary build stronger regional consensus to keep Iran checked in place with the aid of Israeli-made technology.

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Emilio Iasiello

Emilio Iasiello

Emilio Iasiello has nearly 20 years’ experience as a strategic cyber intelligence analyst, supporting US government civilian and military intelligence organizations, as well as the private sector. He has delivered cyber threat presentations to domestic and international audiences and has published extensively in such peer-reviewed journals as Parameters, Journal of Strategic Security, the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, and the Cyber Defense Review, among others. All comments and opinions expressed are solely his own.