Huawei is looking to invest directly in the UAE in a range of strategic sectors including cloud computing, artificial intelligence, big data, and the industrial Internet of Things.
Chinese cybersecurity guarantees
The Chinese company is a leader in 5G network development and its brand is associated with innovation and added value. But as China is taking the lead in strategic technologies with security implications, such an investment is controversial. The United States has been lobbying EU member states and FiveEye partners, including the UK, to exclude the Chinese company from critical infrastructure.
Huawei promises to deliver cybersecurity. In the words of Huawei’s chief security officer for the UAE, Mr. Aloysius Cheang, the Chinese aspire to cement the Emirates’ position as a “globally-trusted digital oasis”.
Specifically, Chinese investment in the UAE comes with a promise to train Emiratis in dealing with public and private cybersecurity threats. Being an asset management and shipping service hub, the UAE has been an obvious cybercrime target, suffering damages to the tune of $1.4bn a year. Chinese investment promises to bolster the local security ecosystem.
The Emiratis are a global hub for “predictive policing” and other national security strategies that are more akin to totalitarian regimes than democracies.
The risk of a US partnership
A close partnership with the United States and cybersecurity cooperation with the Chinese may not square neatly.
Chinese know-how in cybersecurity is by nature controversial. Chinese companies are required by law to share data with state authorities; therefore, Huawei would face data-breaching allegations in the United States.
The UAE is one of Washington’s closest counter-terrorism partners in the Middle East. Its ruling family promotes the country as a moderate Arab nation, but its human rights credentials leave a lot to be desired.
It seems that the Chinese have a common vision for the region with their local partners. At the recent Gulf Information Security Expo and Conference in Dubai, Huawei was also appointed co-chair of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.
France is already present
In 2019, another tech giant, France’s Thales Group, set up Thales Emarat technologies, a 100% Emirati company whose objective is to support the country’s aspirations to develop national industrial autonomy.
Thales recently announced a collaboration project with Google Cloud that will accelerate the ability of enterprises to safely migrate sensitive data between public cloud, hybrid, and private IT infrastructures.
In sum, the UAE is developing a truly international ecosystem at a point of regional fragmentation of the internet.
The Emirates brand is also associated with niche global markets: weapons, tobacco, real estate, gold and shipping. These are markets that require privacy and Dubai, in particular, is often subject to allegations of money laundering and oil smuggling.
The UAE digital market needs to create an ecosystem of privacy, which is accessible and cost-effective. With the exclusion of the Chinese from Western markets, Dubai could also become a facilitator of access for Chinese companies in Western digital markets.
Besides, the Emiratis tend to share certain cybersecurity objectives with China.
ToTok, Breej Holding, and DarkMatter
Both China and the Emiratis are known to favour a “panopticon-like” vision of the state, allowing for full access to personal data.
The local ToTok app was used by the government of the UAE to track every conversation, movement, relationship, appointment, sound and image of those who installed it on their phones. It was billed as an easy and secure way to chat by video or text message with friends and family but was actually a spying tool, a practice not entirely unknown in China.
The application was also popular across the Middle East, Europe, Asia, Africa, and North America. The firm behind ToTok, Breej Holding, is a front company affiliated with DarkMatter, an Abu Dhabi-based cyberintelligence and hacking firm run by Emirati intelligence officials, former National Security Agency employees, and former Israeli military intelligence operatives work.
Sheikh Tahnoon bin Zayed al-Nahyan, a senior UAE intelligence official, connects Breej Holding Ltd, ToTok Technology Ltd, and Group 42 Holding Ltd. Unlike WhatsApp, Viber, Skype, and FaceTime, ToTok has not been disrupted by local “regulatory oversight”.
The Chinese Cyber-Dragon
The latest annual threat assessment from the US intelligence community, presented to Congress, warns that “China presents a prolific and effective cyber-espionage threat, possesses substantial cyber-attack capabilities, and presents a growing influence threat”.
China has become a cyber adversary for Western businesses and governments because its cyber-espionage groups are among the most sophisticated in the world. The Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency mentioned that at least five federal agencies have identified indications of potential unauthorized access.
In 2020, an Israeli security company said the hacking software, called Aria-body, had been deployed against governments and state-owned companies in Australia and Southeast Asia.
Today, Chinese companies are investing in artificial intelligence surveillance and armed drones in the UAE. At the same time, China is becoming a cyber-operations hub.