Exclusive: How has COVID-19 impacted Middle East security?

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International Security Journal hears from some of the industry’s leading figures on how COVID-19 is shaping Middle East security.

The Middle East security market has experienced rapid growth for a number of years now. A report by 6Wresearch in November 2019 projected that the commercial security market in the region would be worth a staggering US$8.4 billion by 2025.

Huge infrastructure projects associated with Expo 2020 in Dubai and Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 policy were driving a lot of the growth. But then, COVID-19 struck.

Nobody could have foreseen the economic impact of the virus along with the tragic loss of life it is responsible for. Expo 2020 has been postponed until 2021 and plans for Vision 2030 have been severely effected by the pandemic.

International Security Journal spoke with a number of leading security professionals to hear first-hand accounts of how COVID-19 is shaping security in the Middle East and where opportunities for growth may lie.

Concentrating minds

Not for generations has our society had to face up to a challenge as big as COVID-19. Ettiene Van Der Watt, Director – Business Development, Axis Communications, Middle East & Africa believes it could even be the “greatest crisis of our times”.

Middle East

Ettiene Van Der Watt

He stated: “The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the security industry in the Middle East in the same way as it has the rest of the world. This is a shared experience across geographies and one that has pushed governments and organisations worldwide to reassess operation management and contingency plans. We are united in our commitment to overcome the greatest crisis of our times. We are already seeing some regions cautiously open business operations and start working towards the new normal.”

For many individuals, COVID-19 has brought into sharp focus the importance of personal safety and security. Amine Sadi, Regional Leader – Middle East, North Africa and Turkey, Milestone Systems described the consequences he has seen: “During COVID-19 we have seen an even greater focus on public safety, as well as a new emphasis on individual health, safety and security.

“Organisations have had to invest in security equipment and develop new processes to ensure employees can work in safe environments. Malls, retailers and entertainment facilities have invested in temperature screening, mask detection, people counting and physical distancing monitoring based on video technology and analytics. We have also seen access control procedures being redefined and adapted to the new constraints, using innovative solutions like no touch readers and mobile solutions. This had a financial impact on many businesses that had obviously not planned nor forecasted such investments.”

According to Said Kiwan, Director at MVP Tech, it has been a challenging time to source projects and revenue but the pandemic has encouraged the introduction of new technologies. He said: “COVID-19 has impacted the industry as a whole, particularly those exposed to the private sector industries. With the overall slowdown in economic activity and the reduction of budgets, the only sector picking up in terms of spending is the government.

“In addition, COVID-19 has paved the way to the introduction of new technologies that previously were not seen including fever detection sensors and specialised video analytics solutions assisting the enforcement of social distancing and other COVID-19 precaution measures put in place by governments.”

On a practical level, the day-to-day role of a security professional has been made more difficult with the COVID-19 restrictions that have been put in place. John Cowling, Security Consultant added: “Eliminating business travel during this COVID crisis has stopped many projects and business operations across all sectors which the security professional must assist their organisation to manage the impact.

“Many regional businesses rely upon regional and global trade which requires their representatives, including security professionals, to meet with clients, suppliers, agents and regulatory authorities as well as other stakeholders. Whilst online collaboration tools present a great opportunity to reduce business travel, limitations on IT policies, equipment and need to build trust through face to face meetings has not and will not eliminate the need for business travel.”

Don’t take your eye off the ball

Understandably, the majority of resources and attention have gone into dealing with challenges thrown up by COVID-19 over the past number of months. However, there are numerous other threats out there that organisations need to be aware of.

Adam Green, a security management professional with more than a decade of experience working in the UAE is concerned about rising tensions across the region. He explained: “In the surrounding regions tensions remain high and it is clear that those groups, who thrive from instability and chaos, will continue to do so in this current climate.

“Iraq is of a particular concern as it struggles to form a government after the appointment of a third prime minister and as oil prices, its main source of income, have collapsed due to COVID-19. The worsening conditions in Pakistan brought on by COVID-19 are causing an increase in terrorism and criminal activity within this country. Pakistani-based terrorist groups are currently approaching people who have been affected by COVID-19 whilst offering to provide essential services and assistance to these individuals.

“In return, they gain the loyalty of local populations and access to a new pool of recruits for their efforts to set up an Islamist government in the contested territory of Kashmir. The efforts by terrorist groups have led to an increase in the number of terrorist training camps in this region. In Turkey for example, Islamic State recruiters are targeting migrants from Turkmenistan who have lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic. The Islamic State frequently recruits unemployed and disillusioned individuals to join its efforts to create an independent state dedicated to the teachings of its extremist brand of Sunni Islam.”

Green continued: “Terrorist and organised crime groups have shown this tactic before, but now that more and more people are suffering financial hardships due to lack of employment, these tactics are likely to become more effective for such groups, however not within the UAE, but surrounding countries. Within the UAE and in regards of criminal activity, we have seen UAE authorities capture major players in the criminal underworld recently, from a mastermind of a Dh1.6 billion money laundering, cyber scam, to two drug traffickers from Australia accused of smuggling US$150m worth of narcotics, both hiding out in the country.”

Middle East

Adam Green

Looking for growth

The region has obviously been hard hit by current trading circumstances but there are still opportunities for security providers to do business, particularly within the critical infrastructure sector.

Said Kiwan advised: “There are multiple verticals including critical infrastructure, industrial sectors, government agencies and oil and gas that will grow when spending returns. The key is to be a specialist with a combination of soft and hard skills, not just a generalist in your area. The top spenders in the region are sophisticated buyers and you must have a clear value proposition to bring to the table.”

John Cowling also shares this belief: “Critical infrastructure and mega projects have slowed down for now but still do provide growth opportunities, especially in Saudi Arabia with several large projects continuing. As the COVID crisis passes, the supply chain should recommence and thus have requirements to update/refresh their security measures, including their equipment.

“Cybersecurity concerns continue across the region with the expectation that cybersecurity requirements will continue, if not experience significant growth, especially due to the remote working requirements during this COVID period.”

In the eyes of Amine Sadi, the opportunities lie in the transport sector: “We are still seeing transportation infrastructure as a major vertical opportunity for security providers in the Middle East. The region is investing heavily in enhancing transportation in many ways from airports, to Metro, roads and highways as well as trains. Furthermore, public safety is another key vertical at this time, as authorities are enhancing city surveillance, video protection and critical infrastructure security.”

With lockdown restrictions beginning to ease in some parts of the world, safe and secure travel will once again become a priority, according to Ettiene Van Der Watt: “Months of social distancing and stay-at-home orders have had a major impact on the movement of people and goods around the world.

“Now, more than ever, transport and aviation authorities need innovative technology to get their operations back up to speed. Our video surveillance and connected technology have long been used to safeguard people and transportation infrastructure around the world. And with innovative edge-based intelligence, they can do so much more.”

Looking past the traditional vertical markets, Adam Green has some advice for security professionals looking to stay ahead of the curve during the “new normal”. He revealed: “One market I do see prospering is corporate security services, such as security concierges within offices and corporate companies looking for a COVID-19 Manager, which is likely to be a dual-hatted role such as a HSE/Security Manager, ensuring the wellbeing of office staff who return to work for the first time.”

Although it has been an incredibly challenging period for everybody in the region, there are still opportunities for security providers to enhance their footprint in the Middle East. Those vendors with a clear value proposition and innovative solutions look best placed to capitalise on them.

This article was published in the August 2020 edition of International Security Journal. Pick up your FREE digital copy on the link here.

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