x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Challenge of secure borders

A Dubai border security conference begins on Monday, its concerns highlighted by al Qa'eda's Yemen cargo bomb plot.

A police officer in the department of airport security works at the front line of border protection, checking the contents of boxes of shipped goods at Cargo Village in Dubai.
Randi Sokoloff / The National
A police officer in the department of airport security works at the front line of border protection, checking the contents of boxes of shipped goods at Cargo Village in Dubai. Randi Sokoloff / The National

Experts meet in Dubai today to discuss border security against a backdrop of rising concern over smuggling by organised-crime gangs and tightened airport after cargo bomb plots by al Qa'eda.

"Although more stringent controls are going up, the bad guys, whether transnational criminals or terrorists, are still finding ways to penetrate borders," said Theodore Karasik, the director of research and development at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis (Inegma), which is organising the conference.

"These controls need to be more sophisticated," Dr Karasik said.

The risks to airport security were apparent in October when police in Dubai and England, acting on a tip from Saudi intelligence, uncovered bombs in cargo sent from Yemen to the US. The bombs had passed through Qatar.

"The events of the past few months have woken the world up to how carefully you have to monitor not only passengers but cargo," Dr Karasik said.

Airport, border and seaport security are all on the agenda for the conference, with talks by UAE airport and seaport security, defence and customs officials.

A report this year by the European Commission Taxation and Customs Union gave an insight into the extent of smuggling of counterfeit medicine and products through the UAE.

Almost one in seven counterfeit items - including 73 per cent of fake medicines - seized at European borders last year was routed through the UAE, according to the report.

The country was also the last port of call before Europe for almost three-quarters of counterfeit medical products. The number of fake medicines arriving via the UAE jumped from about 750,000 in 2008 to almost 5.5 million in 2009. It was also the distribution point for a third of fake CDs and DVDs.

As a major re-export hub, Dubai could serve as a valuable example for the challenges and solutions to border and seaport security.

But smuggling is also a concern as a result of the sanctions imposed on neighbouring Iran by the international community.

As trade with the Islamic Republic faces clampdowns, experts say the UAE has to contend with challenges to fight the smuggling not just of illicit goods but also of nuclear material to Iran.

"When you close official doors the unofficial doors will open wide," said Dr Mustafa Alani, the director of terrorism studies at the Gulf Research Centre in Dubai. "The margin of profit is much larger."

The UAE has said that it tightened inspections of ships bound for Iran in line with UN Security Council resolutions.

Authorities also face the challenge of fighting illegal immigration, whether through the country's long land borders and coastlines, or with forged documents.

Illegal immigration is a "major headache" for the security forces, Dr Alani said.

While many illegal immigrants are so-called "economic immigrants", the worry is that some who belong to extremist groups may also slip in.

"You don't know if there is a group among them that are not economic immigrants but are basically a terrorist cell," Dr Alani said.

Saudi Arabia is building a security fence on its border with Yemen and tightening security on its border with Iraq. Part of a proposed aircraft deal with the US includes Apache helicopters, which some believe will enhance border security by defending against incursions from Yemen.

The UAE has added an air wing to the forces belonging to the Critical National Infrastructure Authority, also intended to beef up security at maritime borders.

Experts say the Gulf countries are likely to increase their investment in border control technology. With the UAE, for instance, being a transit hub for goods, the responsibility for security rests with it, and not just with countries where terrorist plots originate or those where the plot ends.

"The UAE is partially responsible on the question of security as a transit point," said Dr Alani.

The UAE and neighbouring Gulf countries are likely to increase investment in border security, with the UAE in particular pursuing more sophisticated electronic monitoring technology, he added.