Dubai air­port’s vir­tual aquar­ium tun­nel and what it means for the fu­ture of bor­der se­cu­rity

The National - News - - OPINION - JOHN COYNE Dr John Coyne is Head of Bor­der Se­cu­rity at the Aus­tralian Strate­gic Pol­icy In­sti­tute

Last week, Ma­jor Gen Obaid Al Hameeri, deputy di­rec­tor gen­eral of Dubai res­i­dency and for­eign af­fairs, an­nounced that in the com­ing years those ar­riv­ing at Dubai air­port can ex­pect “a 100 per cent vir­tual bor­der where hu­man con­tact is ab­sent”. Make no mis­take, this tech­nol­ogy is well within the grasp of Dubai’s in­no­va­tors.

The real im­ple­men­ta­tion chal­lenge isn’t tech but work­ing out how, at a time of height­en­ing threats, these devel­op­ments can be in­te­grated into the UAE’s broader se­cu­rity strate­gies.

Many coun­tries are rac­ing to­wards the con­tact­less vir­tual bor­der of the fu­ture. Aus­tralia is set to be­gin tech­nol­ogy tri­als at Can­berra air­port in the next few years. One Chi­nese air­line has al­ready re­placed board­ing passes with fa­cial recog­ni­tion mea­sures. These new tech­nolo­gies make sense given they can con­firm iden­tity with greater ac­cu­racy than any hu­man.

Dubai air­port is no stranger to in­no­va­tion; it has been a con­sis­tent early adopter of new tech­nolo­gies like e-gates. Un­sur­pris­ingly then, there is likely to be lit­tle re­sis­tance to tech­nol­ogy-driven changes.

Global in­ter­con­nect­ed­ness and in­te­gra­tion are key dy­nam­ics that have in­flu­enced the UAE’s eco­nomic and so­cial suc­cess. In this con­text, ad­vo­cat­ing the pri­macy of se­cu­rity in bor­der man­age­ment is naive. And to date bor­der se­cu­rity strate­gists in each of the Emi­rates have de­vel­oped world class bor­der se­cu­rity ca­pa­bil­i­ties while fa­cil­i­tat­ing trade and travel.

Nat­u­rally, the res­i­dency and for­eign af­fairs depart­ment has cast achiev­ing bal­ance be­tween “se­cu­rity, speed and qual­ity of ser­vice” as one of the big­gest im­ple­men­ta­tion chal­lenges for their new vir­tual bor­der vi­sion. How­ever, to be truly ef­fec­tive and ef­fi­cient, these new tech­nolo­gies need to be fully in­te­grated with a range of other sys­tems and pro­cesses to en­sure bor­der se­cu­rity is main­tained. This in­te­gra­tion is a com­plex chal­lenge, es­pe­cially if it is to en­sure re­sources are fo­cused on man­ag­ing risks and dis­rupt­ing threats, rather than de­vel­op­ing se­cu­rity mea­sures.

Nev­er­the­less, the threat en­vi­ron­ment that the UAE faces is rapidly chang­ing. Re­cent global changes in ir­reg­u­lar mi­gra­tion trends, ter­ror­ism threats and transna­tional or­gan­ised crime method­olo­gies have il­lus­trated that, to deal with ex­tra­or­di­nary bor­der se­cu­rity pol­icy chal­lenges, gov­ern­ments must be able to act quickly and strate­gi­cally. These devel­op­ments have also shown how dif­fi­cult it is for gov­ern­ments to iden­tify the tip­ping point at which day-to­day bor­der se­cu­rity chal­lenges be­come ex­tra­or­di­nary pol­icy chal­lenges.

Col­lab­o­ra­tive and in­te­grated bor­der se­cu­rity strate­gies con­tinue to be cru­cial to na­tional and do­mes­tic se­cu­rity. Within its fed­er­ated model of gov­er­nance the UAE must be able to rapidly de­ploy ca­pa­bil­i­ties in re­sponse to evolv­ing threats, risks or op­por­tu­ni­ties. Ar­guably, when it comes to greater bor­der se­cu­rity col­lab­o­ra­tion fur­ther fed­er­al­i­sa­tion of the UAE’s bor­der agen­cies seems a log­i­cal pol­icy choice, es­pe­cially if the ben­e­fits of the in­no­va­tions at Dubai air­port are to be fully re­alised.

With a fed­er­ated bor­der se­cu­rity model the UAE could adopt more co­he­sive prac­tices across all of the emi­rates and their re­spec­tive sea, air and land en­try points. And fa­cial recog­ni­tion devel­op­ments could then be de­ployed si­mul­ta­ne­ously across the coun­try.

At the very least, in­no­va­tors will need to en­sure that fu­ture vir­tual air­port bor­ders are fully in­te­grated into the whole of gov­ern­ment bor­der and na­tional se­cu­rity strat­egy. If it does not do so, there is a real risk that this new bor­der will not dis­rupt threats but dis­place them to other points in the bor­der se­cu­rity sys­tem.

In the cur­rent un­cer­tain times, peo­ple ex­pect and value stead­fast re­solve when it comes to bor­der se­cu­rity. Ar­guably, this re­solve is mea­sured by the gen­eral public in terms of their per­cep­tion of se­cu­rity ar­range­ments.

The au­thor­i­ties would be wise not to for­get that the “se­cu­rity theatre” as­so­ci­ated with air­ports also has de­ter­rent ef­fects. Iron­i­cally, Dubai’s fu­ture con­tact­less bor­der may be more se­cure than ever be­fore, yet not be per­ceived as so by those it seeks to pro­tect or dis­rupt.

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