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Iran claims that Israel is helping Saudi Arabia with cyber espionage

Updated: Aug 17, 2022

Saudi’s new cybersecurity program, CyberIC, has apparently been raising concern in Tehran

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) and US President Joe Biden in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, July 15, 2022. MBS is behind the “Vision 2030” initiative to transform the kingdom into a tech powerhouse. Photo: Bandar Algaloud/Courtesy of Saudi Royal Court/Handout via REUTERS
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) and US President Joe Biden in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, July 15, 2022. Photo: Bandar Algaloud/Courtesy of Saudi Royal Court/Handout via REUTERS

Saudi Arabia’s National Cybersecurity Authority has launched a CyberIC, a major program intended to develop the kingdom’s cybersecurity sector.

Gulf Business quotes the Saudi Press Agency, which announced that the new program “aims to develop and build national capabilities in the field of cybersecurity, localise cybersecurity technology and training content and stimulate the wider domestic cybersecurity sector.”

During the first phase, multiple initiatives will be presented in an attempts to support and increase the number of relevant start-ups. In addition, the program will support some 10,000 Saudi nationals who work in the cybersecurity sector via additional training and beneficiaries, and is said to foster future collaborations with international universities.

But this recent piece of news, exciting for the development of Saudi Arabia and in line with Mohammed bin Salman’s Saudi Vision 2030, seemed to raffle a few feathers and raise concerns in neighboring Iran.

“Saudi Arabia investing aggressively in Israeli Cyber Espionage Companies,” cried the headline of an elaborate article published on the website of Iran’s Fars News Agency – which is run by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

The article cites Saudi opposition sources which claim that Saudi officials have signed multimillion-dollar contracts with Israel “in order to acquire the most sophisticated cyber espionage and surveillance technologies”, as means to prepare for the implementation of CyberIC “which is claimed to be aimed at protecting the kingdom’s cybersecurity sector.”

Reports about the alleged business deals of Israeli cybersecurity firms in Saudi are prevalent in both foreign and local media. The Iranian report cites a 2021 article by Israel’s Haaretz, which claims that an Israeli cyber company called Quadream has been selling zero-click phone-hacking tech to Saudi Arabia since 2019.

It should be noted that the export of products known as “offensive” cyber is highly regulated and tightly controlled by the Israeli government. The country had long been in the hot seat over international accusations of selling advanced spyware technology to regimes that oppress human rights and go after dissidents, activists, journalists etc.

The company that has been tarnishing Israel’s reputation in this domain above all others is NSO group with its spyware “Pegasus”.

The subject of numerous articles and research projects, including last year’s massive “Pegasus Project”, NSO – which was added to the infamous US Entity List last year (together with another Israeli company, Candiru) – has been blamed for selling its product to Saudi Arabia even after the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, whose location was allegedly disclosed to his assassins via the spyware.

Israel and Saudi Arabia do not have official diplomatic relations, and the latter does not officially recognize Israel’s legitimacy and says that no normalization is possible until a satisfactory solution to the conflict with the Palestinians.

Still, there have been countless foreign reports about underlying cooperation between the two countries in various arenas, from commerce to defense. Recently, US President Joe Biden flew directly from Israel to Jeddah in Saudi Arabia in what the president described as a small symbol of “budding relations and steps towards normalization.” Following his visit, the kingdom announced that it is opening its airspace to Israeli carriers.

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