Interview: Sami Alajmi of Saudi Aramco

Interview: Sami Alajmi of Saudi Aramco

The future of technological advancements in the security landscape is a topic which most are interested in. However, it is always best to ask an expert. Vice President of Industrial Security Operations at Saudi Aramco, Sami Alajmi, reflects on his career and the state of security in the Middle East.

With 30 years’ experience of working in the field of security, it’s fair to say that Sami Alajmi has been at the coalface of the sector, as it has undergone one of its biggest evolutions.

Having joined the Aramco apprenticeship programme at just 17, he has worked his way up from an entry level role to being appointed as the Vice President of Industrial Security Operations in September 2023.

And not only has his ascent through the company been impressive, it has also taken place at a time when the security industry has seen tremendous progress and advancements. From working in the field of digital system repairs, Alajmi has gone on to lead projects including executive protection, securing multi-million dollar oil production facilities, the inauguration of KAUST (King Abdullah University of Science and Technology), and the biggest security systems programme in the history of the company.

So, what has he learned from his three decades in security?

Tell us about your career path?

I joined Aramco 33 years ago at the age of 17 through an apprenticeship programme. After an initial role in the marine department, I was selected to work in the field of digital system repairs to troubleshoot, repair and replace security systems. It was through this that I started to gain valuable experience in the industry.

Following that placement, Aramco selected me to join a Bachelor degree programme in the US to study computer engineering, with a strong focus on access control. I returned in 1996 and was tasked with spearheading Aramco’s first digital replacement programme in the security department.

Our main challenge at the time was implementing a sustainable security infrastructure that would deter unauthorised access to Aramco’s facilities. Digital networking back then had neither the speed nor support for such systems, and we didn’t have the knowledge we needed. Aramco nominated me again for further study — this time to take part in a Master’s programme in telecommunications.

When I returned, the world had changed and we realised we needed an entirely new security system for Aramco.

So we designed one from scratch. One of our first major achievements was to develop and implement the ‘4D strategy’:

Detect, Delay and Deploy, in order to Deter unauthorised access. This was implemented in a civil facility for the first time in the world, and it took security — both within Aramco and the wider Kingdom — to a different level of sophistication.

Since then, I have led many critical projects ranging from building complex security systems across Aramco’s oil production facilities to executive protection. There was also the inauguration of KAUST, not to mention executing the biggest security systems programme in the history of Aramco.

Each project had its own set of unique challenges that were crucial to my growth journey.

In your 30+ years in the industry what has been the biggest leap forward you’ve seen?

Digital transformation has been a game-changer for the security industry in the last 30+ years. No industry, including physical security, has been immune to its impact. Technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) are reshaping the global economy, including the energy sector. But, with advancements in digital technology, security risks have become increasingly multifaceted and sophisticated. This underscores the need for a holistic strategy to ensure the proper security architecture and controls are in place to protect our assets and enable secure and reliable energy supplies.

As malicious threat actors become more sophisticated and organised, with capabilities to launch cyberattacks across the supply chain, it highlights the need for an integrated security strategy that addresses both digital and physical environments. At the same time, ensuring an even pace and consistency of digital transformation can be challenging. For example, a lack of integration between hardware, software, data, information security, and other factors can impact the efficacy of security protocols.

These unprecedented challenges propelled the use of digital technologies in the security domain over the past two decades, as organisations sought to deploy advanced security technologies to ensure security capabilities across multiple functions were up to date.

Today, areas of focus include cybersecurity, security management, access control, physical security infrastructure, hazardous materials detection, surveillance and crisis and emergency response systems. While much progress has been made we maintain our relentless focus on digitalisation and the deployment of 4IR technologies to ensure our security capabilities remain robust, allowing us to continue supplying vital energy around the world.

How has security evolved in the past three decades?

Advancements in technology have radically transformed security functions, enabling more sophisticated intelligent systems with real-time response capabilities. Today, harnessing 4IR technology, images can be accessed remotely, via the cloud, allowing for real-time surveillance. This has transformed the role of security officers from being passive observers to proactive responders, who can detect and deter threats before harm or loss occurs.

The same is true for physical Access Control Systems (ACS), which have evolved from being simply stand-alone electromechanical locking mechanisms.

Now, they are an ecosystem of integrated technologies. As threat actors become more sophisticated, such a holistic approach to security that relies on interconnected systems is essential.

What do you regard as areas for future growth and development?

To continue to enhance and develop our capabilities to keep pace with advances in technology and confront new threats that may emerge. Our priorities to ensure we maintain the highest security standards across our global operations include:

  • Sustaining the capability and efficiency of security operations through a robust security framework.
  • Enhancing the readiness of our security force to improve emergency response capabilities and ensure company assets are protected at all times.
  • Continuing to optimise the latest 4IR technologies to transform traditional processes and services into a data[1]driven ecosystem of connected solutions to better understand performance, risks and address security challenges.
  • Continuously improving our human resources capabilities to ensure we have a competent workforce at all levels that drives the Industrial Security Operations (ISO) business towards excellence.

What is the biggest challenge the Middle East’s security sector is facing right now?

The security sector in the Middle East, and indeed in the rest of the world, is facing multiple challenges. These include complying with increasing regulations and requirements, confronting evolving security threats, and ensuring the performance of security systems under immense time pressures in complex environments. In addition, the sector faces strong competition in attracting and retaining top talent, due to perceptions of high-risk work environments and challenging working conditions.

To address these challenges, the sector must continue to develop holistic security strategies and invest in integrated technology solutions to effectively address risks across its supply chain.

Additionally, continued investment in comprehensive training programmes and technological upskilling for security personnel will be key to ensuring fluency with the latest security technologies and enhancing response capability. Developing programmes to address challenges associated with shift work, such as fatigue and burnout, will also play an important role in developing a sustainable talent pool in this critical sector.

With the advancement of technology, the nature of risks facing our sector is ever-evolving.

Continued public-private collaboration will be key to addressing emerging challenges, and staying up[1]to-date with regulations, requirements and strategies.

How would you like to see the sector evolve in the future?

The security sector has undergone significant changes over the years, with advancements in technology such as AI, data analysis and robotics expected to revolutionise security services in the near future. The perception of security has also changed significantly, with an increased emphasis on safety and customer service. Security officers are now trained to be more integrated within the community. They are also now trained in data collection and analysis, enabling them to make more informed decisions when protecting clients.

Robotic security officers are becoming more popular, increasing the efficiency of security operations.

These changes are expected to continue shaping the future of the security industry.

How has ISO positioned Aramco to succeed?

A secure and stable supply of energy is crucial to the global economy, and Aramco plays an important role in meeting the world’s energy needs. The security of its operations and facilities is therefore of paramount importance, both to the company and its customers around the world.

Security and safety are our top priority, and we collaborate with many security associations around the world to develop communication channels; exchange expertise; and learn about global best practices in industrial security. Ultimately, our goal is to protect our people and our assets, all the while maintaining a safe and healthy environment in which to live and work.