Qatar and Kuwait have thrown money behind an ambitious project to build a new Gulf internet cable network, to help combat the growing risk of cyber-sabotage in a politically tense region that has already seen some high-profile attacks.
The new fiber optic network – set to go live next week – passes through Iraq and Turkey in an effort to give Gulf telecoms operators an alternative web traffic route to Europe, reducing the risk of connection disruptions.
The system, part-financed by the sovereign wealth funds of Qatar and Kuwait, is part of a broader plan by Gulf telecom operators to account for booming demand for the web while at the same time bolstering their defenses against sabotage or unintended damage.
"Operators do no want to have a single point of failure for their international connectivity," says Jawad Abbassi, general manager of Amman-based Arab Advisors Group, a telecoms consultancy. "They want to have multiple routes to span multiple jurisdictions, if something technical or non-technical complicates matters."
Parts of the Gulf boast rates of fixed-line internet and smart phone penetration that are among the highest in the world. But there are also significant connectivity risks in some countries, such as Qatar and Kuwait, where fewer cables are landed than in neighbors such as Oman and the United Arab Emirates.
Although major regional internet disruptions have been few, an undersea cable was damaged off the coast of Egypt in 2008, prompting prolonged outages around the world, including in the Gulf.
Ahmed Mekki, chief executive of Gulf Bridge International, the company behind the new cabling system, says its route through Iraq and Turkey gives "shorter access to Europe and a continuity of service even if there is a cut in the Red Sea".
The plan is also aimed at improving technical security at a time when cyber sabotage has increasingly become a political weapon in the region. Last year, a cyber-attack on Saudi Aramco affected 30,000 computers and the same virus was then used to attack Qatar's RasGas. Riyadh blamed the Aramco incident on hackers from unnamed foreign states.
Though Gulf Bridge is not the first company to cable-link the Gulf through Turkey, it says it is the first to operate a terrestrial cable that directly connects the region with Europe. While a deal was signed in 2010 for a competitor cable network, known as the JADI link, to pass through Turkey, Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, GBI opted last year to lay its undersea cables linking Iraq.
The Gulf Bridge is also a sign of the growing competition in the Middle East's electronic network cabling industry. By 2015, there will be 48 submarine cable systems connecting the Arab countries, according to Arab Advisors Group, the Amman-based telecoms consultancy.
Given the growing demand from mobile use and internet consumption in the Gulf, there is still scope for more routes to Europe, host to many of the world's most popular websites, analysts say.
"Data usage is growing like crazy," says Mr Singh. "They need to be able to carry more data locally and export data."
Whether individual web surfers will feel the difference is another question. Gulf national telecoms operators will determine at what cost higher speeds or a more secure connection are passed on to customers, who sometimes face little marketplace choice in the face of state-controlled oligopolies of telecoms providers.
But Saudi Arabia, the Arab world's largest economy, has a competitively priced telecoms market. Its penetration of the smartphone sector is about 60 per cent, among the highest in the world, while analysts say the kingdom was the first Gulf country to introduce 4G technology, in 2011.
Even if the customer doesn't see a download speed dividend from the new cabling network, they should still benefit from a smoother continuous service – unless, that is, a fresh set of cybersecurity surprises emerges, to rival the ones seen over the past couple of years.
The Financial Times