Opinion: Great Expectations

Opinion: Great Expectations

“What is perhaps most positive for the security industry is PwC’s latest Middle East survey. It found that impact of COVID-19 has compelled many businesses to address issues around inadequate technology. The majority of those surveyed realise the need to digitise functions and operations with Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning.”

With Intersec postponed, Expo 2020 delayed until October 2021, and Middle East economies facing huge disruption, some security professionals are feeling pessimistic. But you don’t have to look far to see some promising oases of growth and a number of real opportunities for the security sector, writes Harry Kwon, general manager for IDIS MEA

The immediate impact of COVID-19 on the Middle East region was the drop off in global demand for oil. The fall in revenue not only affected the oil rich gulf states but also the adjacent countries that rely on income from their resource-rich neighbours. On top of this, the 2020 collapse in international tourism and business travel due to the pandemic has hit many sectors.

And now the region is having to face – perhaps for some countries sooner than expected – the inevitable transition away from reliance on oil. The switch away from fossil fuels, in the short-term, is going to be challenging – but it is essential. Scientists are warning that we may have very little time to prevent irreversible global over-heating.

Yet, against this sobering backdrop, there are some big positives. Many Arab countries already have ambitious diversification programs in the pipeline, with plans to harness the private sector, cut subsidies, provide employment opportunities for women, and invest in greener solutions.

Handled correctly, these will undoubtedly lead to economies that are better balanced, more resilient, less stressed, less at risk of conflict – and above all, for the first time, truly sustainable. 

Despite economic woes, there is a continued and positive momentum in favour of the right kind of infrastructure development, and the continued pursuit of enabling technologies. Ambitions to create smarter, more digitally connected, technologically confident cities should be seen in this context. A beacon of diversification and reform is Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030, funded by both the private sector and through government investment.

This aims not only to diversify the economy, but crucially to deliver opportunities for sustained economic activity. Overseas investment should help create new flourishing sectors in tech, hospitality, and finance. OPEC’s decision to cut oil prices to stabilise global stock markets left many assuming Vision 2030 would be hampered. Yet it is worth remembering that in 2019 Saudi Aramco was the world’s biggest company by market value, and the most profitable. According to Bloomberg, Aramco’s 2019 income was equal to that of Apple, Samsung, and Exxon Mobil combined.     

And the oil giant has announced the discovery of two natural gas fields. While not green energy, burning gas for electricity generation is cleaner than burning petroleum products. Aramco already has a gas development program that is on track to attract as much as US$150 billion in investment over the next decade. This should help keep the Kingdom’s plan on track to invest around $1 trillion in the country’s non-hydrocarbon sector over the next 15 years, with landmark projects including Neom, the Red Sea Project, Qiddiya Entertainment City, King Abdullah Financial District and Amaala. Many social and urban development projects are also planned, such as the Sakani housing program, and expansion of transportation networks, for example the $22.5 billion Riyadh Metro and Riyadh Rapid Bus Transit System

Smart Cities and AI

All of this points to a commitment to driving development with smart tech – and that approach has been further reinforced by the pandemic experience. In Riyadh, for example, swift action to curb the spread of COVID was effective in part thanks to digital health initiatives, including the use of apps for contact-tracing, medical consultations, and at-home medication deliveries. It has been seen how adopting smart city technologies, including tracking apps and data analytics that improve real-time monitoring of essential services, can help suppress infections and allow economic activity to continue. The result is improved resilience and protection against future shocks and threats, which is good news for a security sector that’s well-positioned to capitalise.  Smart city projects will encompass video tech including surveillance, intelligent analytics and other security and safety IoT devices offered by security manufacturers. 

Inadequate tech

What is perhaps most positive for the security industry is PwC’s latest Middle East survey. It found that impact of COVID-19 has compelled many businesses to address issues around inadequate technology. The majority of those surveyed realise the need to digitise functions and operations with Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning.

Video tech vendors, including IDIS, have long extolled the benefits of Intelligent Video Analytics (IVA) and these findings back up what we’re seeing in terms of demand. With solutions now more affordable, easier to implement and use, and delivering up to 98% accuracy, businesses are now ready to adopt a deep learning platform. They see how it can transform security operations by eliminating many manual tasks using AI-assisted alarms and notifications to events and threats, as well as by turning video data into actionable intelligence. 

Geographic and sector growth

There is reason for optimism in a number of sectors: in hospitality, for example, the Saudi Tourism Authority (STA) believes its target of attracting 100 million annual visitors by 2030 remains realistic, boosted by diversification and reform at new beach resorts.

And as Dubai reopens we should expect upgrade opportunities across commercial offices, retail, leisure and hospitality, and education sectors and the revival of project opportunities that encompass mixed-used developments: the world’s tallest hotel and highest infinity pool, stadiums, more luxury resorts, the modernisation of Sharjah and continued investment in further artificial islands following the success of the Palm Jumeirah and more recently Bluewaters Island.

In the higher education sector, investment from leading global institutions will once again draw in international students. Since the Dubai changed the law to allow for 100% foreign investor ownership of companies outside free zones, and 10-year residency visa options, foreign investment in the sector has increased.

At the same time, oil rich Abu Dhabi is also rapidly diversifying and heavily investing in its hospitality and leisure sector. New projects include the mega Yas Island development, the Al Qana waterfront resort, the region’s largest aquarium, the world’s largest snow park and a raft of new luxury hotels.

The Abraham Peace Accords with Israel is set to increase UAE tourism and business travel with a plan in place for 112 weekly flights, and Etihad already launching a Hebrew website. In addition, the recent normalisation of relations will bring growth and has quickly led to joint investments and business partnerships taking root in banking and fintech.

Regulatory compliance

The region is a compliance-driven market and KSA has some of the world’s most stringent video surveillance performance standards, applied in the banking sector to meet the Saudi Arabian Momentary Authority (SAMA) requirements. This has influenced adoption of higher performing solutions more widely across the region.

While not as harmonised as SAMA, the Saudi refining and chemicals sector tends to take a best practice lead from its counterparts in the US and international standards to improve Occupational Health and Safety (OHS). This enables consultants and integrators to make recommendations based on the protection of critical infrastructure encompassing resilient perimeter protection, high-definition and network surveillance, failover and redundancy, robust access control, centralised command and control, and hardened cybersecurity.

Earlier this year the GCC went a step further, with the Gulf Petrochemicals and Chemicals Association (GPCA) launching a robust chemical management framework, aiming to safeguard workers’ wellbeing by reducing the risk of incidents involving hazardous chemicals. Each Gulf country will mandate specific regulations, but they are expected to include appropriate technical regulations that relate to video surveillance and other security tech.

And Dubai’s SIRA (Security Industry Regulatory Agency) has also updated its regulations to include higher resolution cameras to provide improved image capture as it steps up public safety measures ahead of Expo 2020, due to start in October next year. To achieve this, SIRA has set two megapixels as the minimum resolution along with a minimum of 31 days retention

In Abu Dhabi regulation is the responsibility of the Abu Dhabi Monitoring and Controlling Center (ADMCC), which manages and regulates the use of monitoring and control systems, including video surveillance in vital public spaces and a number or private facilities. It too has upped its standards, mandating a minimum two-megapixel for network cameras and storage of up to 180 days. Combined these updated regulations provide systems integrators, particularly those with sector knowledge, plenty of upgrade and exciting new project opportunities.

The next steps

In the shorter-term the focus is on getting business and tourism back on track and building consumer and visitor confidence. This is particularly important ahead of Dubai Expo 2020 next year. We need look no further than the raft of video tech solutions that support reopening and return-to-work strategies as well as those that enforce better hygiene practices long term.

Already AI is being used to monitor occupancy and crowd density in transportation, hotels and leisure facilities; it is accurately counting people in and out of malls, stores, and other buildings; and it is supporting adherence to social distancing and mask wearing requirements. These advanced video tech solutions can make a difference right now, by solving some of the immediate challenges facing key sectors of the economy. And they will certainly play an important role in longer term transformation of the region.