I recently took the first of several trips to Yemen and Qatar. My purposes revolved around a point I had been making for the last few years: that some small nations were poised to implement national infrastructure cybersecurity structures ahead of larger and more developed nations. This theory went on to suggest that small wealthy nations and small developing nations each had distinct types of conditions which could present recognizable opportunities to make progress.
Central American, North Africa and the Middle East present a range of such nations. On the Arabian Peninsula examples of each are to be found in Qatar and Yemen. The first is a highly developed nation with complex infrastructure and surging growth, the latter is an impoverished nation tentatively coming out of decades of dictatorship.
After meeting with a wide range of individuals and groups in Yemen and key Qatari officials the opportunity to advance these issues in both nations is clear. Qatar stands to advance strong foundations laid in previous years and solidify its position as a role model for national cybersecurity infrastructure development.
Developing these capabilities in Yemen, however, could provide support for issues of national, regional and global interest.
Qatar is a small wealthy nation nation twenty years into an economic and business boom. His Highness Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, Emir of the State of Qatar, has created an economic and international success during this time. Doha employs more construction cranes than any other spot on earth as high rises and artificial islands surge from the Persian Gulf. For six years Qatar has pursued a national cybersecurity plan that has included the development of the Qatar Computer Emergency Response Team (Q-CERT).
The same twenty years had Yemen under a dictatorship that was not as violent as some other former regional regimes, but was comparable in terms of corruption and administrative ineffectiveness. Yemen is emerging from its Arab Spring with a provisional administration in place until 2014 when elections and a new constitution will mark the full pivot – or failure thereof – to a democratic government.
The little revenue coming into the country stems from oil and gas reserves which are both no match for other Arab nations to begin with, and which are projected to dry up in the next several years. A population of 25 million – half under college age – is twice today what it was twenty years ago. Fifty percent unemployment and sparse infrastructure further complicates the nation’s path.
These same factors may, in the long run, work in Yemen’s favor.
While oil-rich nations in the region struggle with a student body fatted by privileged upbringings, Yemen teems with students eager to do the work necessary to raise their living standards. Where other countries in the region are yoked with the double-edged blessing of petro dollars – energy success limiting innovation in other areas – the people of Yemen know they will not be able to drill their way out of every problem. Rather than mollifying an existing established order, Yemen needs to chart a new course on fairly blank paper.
During my week in Sana’a I met with Ministers and Deputy Ministers of Finance, Telecommunications, Oil, Defense and Interior as well as the Deputy Speaker of Parliament. Presented on the challenges and opportunities to the heads of banking, defense and education. Sana’a University opened its doors and provided space for a lecture attended by more than 400 students and faculty. Sana’a City’s governor – sensing an opportunity to support an effort that promises jobs to the very students who led the revolution – appeared during the lecture to address assembled students and media about the strategic value to the nation’s future of developing cyber skills.
At each turn I heard repeated the strong desire for stability. From the political leaders searching for solutions to crushing challenges. From industry leaders seeking opportunity. From students and faculty looking for paths leading to productive careers. In each conversation was voiced the same concern: that the Yemeni people come to see a clear direction that can bring hope for a predictable and improving future.
There are three keys to creating the environment where that hope can find root:
1 – The establishment of a national cybersecurity center (YEM-CERT).
2 – Workforce development to train the nations youth for high-value jobs.
3 – Infrastructure investment in communication and electricity.
– As a first step I proposed the establishment of YEM-CERT (Yemen Cyber Emergency Readiness Team) within the Ministry of Telecommunications. The international organization for CERTs (FIRST.org) meets in June in Bangkok where YEM-CERT will seek acceptance with the sponsorship of Q-CERT and US-CERT. This national center will begin to establish the credibility of Yemen among the cyber tribes that compose the modern world, opening business and educational cooperation opportunities. The center will also provide a central national body to inventory the country’s cyber assets, coordinate the remediation of existing risks and guide the development of public and private systems able to engage with the international community.
Our partner company in Yemen who arranged the visits – Itex Solutions – is now working with the government and private sector to build on the commitment of government authorities to establish YEM=CERT in 2013. Q-CERT has offered support including Arabic-language tools and training.
– As a first step on workforce development the ICS-ISAC – a non-profit Knowledge Sharing center which I chair – is working with Sana’a University to establish intern positions where students can gain experience. International partners in business and education should look to provide assistance and develop joint value by improving educational opportunities to Yemen’s youth as a key to long-term stability.
– Fiber optic networks and mobile phones are proliferating in the country. Where recently only 1.8% of the population had Internet access today not only the youth but shepherds and tribal leaders are finding modern communications as indispensable as those in developed nations. International businesses and governments should look for opportunities to accelerate the improvement of the communications system that will support growth.
The nation’s electric grid needs upgrading as well. With the distributed nature of many communities, wind and solar should be investigated. Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion (OTEC) offers good possibility in the deep water off Aden for continuous electric generation with byproducts of a medium river of much-needed fresh water and improved fisheries through nutrients raised from lower depths.
As is true in every case, the situation in Yemen is much less determined than news clips would lead us to believe. The nation stands on a unique ridge between a known past and two distinctly different futures. In one future lies a failed state and all the cost in human, political and economic terms that implies. In another future Yemen builds on the lessons of others and finds stability and prosperity.
The choice between those futures is in the hands of the Yemeni people. But it is possible for those outside the country to make the road to prosperity more appealing and more easily traveled. Times of change – such as Yemen is undergoing now – present opportunities to those of good will to use small efforts to gain large rewards. The world will regret missing these opportunities if they pass by, the alternative of inaction bears a much higher price in the end.