Regional focus: the Middle East

In an article original published ahead of this year’s Critical Communications World in Dubai, CCT talks to two major critical communications players for the region

Photo credit: Adobe Stock/Andrey Popov

There are two good reasons for choosing this moment to publish an article focusing on critical communications in the Middle East.

The first is that this year’s Critical Communications World took place in Dubai. As anyone who has attended the show in previous years will know, CCW is a key event for our sector, providing a meeting place for the global critical communications industry, while simultaneously driving the conversation forward. 

The other reason for focussing on the Middle East is simply the amount of good and interesting work which is taking place there. As was the case this time last year with our equivalent Nordics piece, therefore, we are offering a glimpse of the evolution of critical communications within the region.

This includes both in the public safety/emergency services sector, as well as other mission critical verticals operating in the industrial space. With that in mind, in this piece we are going to talk to two key players in the region, in the form of Intelsat and Airbus Public Safety and Security.

The latter is heavily involved in the provision of both mission-critical coverage and devices, across the UAE and elsewhere. Intelsat, meanwhile, is also becoming increasingly integral to the conversation, as demonstrated by its recently signed contract to provide satellite connectivity to one of the largest oil producers in Saudi Arabia.

Hybrid network

 As with many other locations around the world, the Middle East is currently undergoing a major shift in philosophy when it comes to critical communications. 

Like the UK, the US and elsewhere, this has come primarily from the realisation that while legacy narrowband is undeniably reliable and secure, it won’t necessarily offer the functionality required by mission-critical organisations going forward. Instead, what is required is broadband, in order to facilitate the likes of live streaming.

This is something which is apparent across the Middle East, with an example being provided by CCW 2024 host Dubai. Its public safety network is operated by Nedaa, with TETRA being provided by Airbus, and Nokia involved on the MC broadband side.

Discussing Airbus Public Safety and Security’s presence in the wider territory, its vice-president, Selim Bouri, says: “We’ve been present in the Middle East for more than 50 years now, with a current staff of around 150.

“We’re currently providing nationwide networks in the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain and Lebanon. It is a very good and interesting region for us, and a very exciting part of the world.”

Bouri continues his account of the company’s recent work in Dubai by discussing its provision of what he calls “traditional networks”, by which he means TETRA. Dubai’s Airbus-provided TETRA network comprises 400 380-400MHz base stations, covering the entire country. It currently serves over 30,000 users from across the emergency and security services. 

At the same time as utilising TETRA, meanwhile, Dubai is also in the process of evolving its public safety network via the introduction of mission-critical broadband, thereby offering the opportunity to create what Bouri refers to as “hybrid networks”.

Nokia is involved in the supply of broadband, a relationship that was recently refreshed via the signing of a 5G-themed memorandum of understanding in 2022.

According to a statement released by Nokia at the time, the MoU would: “Explore opportunities to upgrade Nedaa’s telecommunications network across Radio Access Networks [RAN] and core by leveraging 5G technology.

“[A] 5G network with end-to-end slicing functionality will help Nedaa deliver improved public safety and smart city services to concerned organisations and citizens, as well as lay the foundations for more advanced services such as metaverse.” 

Drilling down into the notion of ‘hybrid’ networks, Bouri continues: “In the UAE and Saudi, we now have not only TETRA but hybrid. [From our side], part of this includes the provision of our new generation of base station, the TB4, which provides both TETRA and LTE in one box.”

Moving onto the devices piece, meanwhile, he also mentions the introduction of the company’s hybrid Tactilon Dabat handheld, which Bouri says was actually developed in collaboration with UAE authorities. Its MXC Agnet handheld device, meanwhile, “supports 3GPP standards and satellite communication services to extend coverage in exceptional circumstances”.

The latter was deployed in the most high-profile fashion during last year’s COP 28, taking place in Dubai. According to a statement from Airbus at the time, this enabled security staff to access broadband-based functionality, leveraging a private LTE network provided by Nedaa.

Going back to the earlier comparison with other parts of the world, you can’t help but notice various differences between the roll-out in Dubai and some other territories. The first is the speed with which broadband network/device deployment has taken place, something which can obviously be attributed to the ambition of the Dubai authorities themselves.

In Bouri’s words: “In terms of things like funding, legislation and spectrum, it’s probably a bit smoother to operate in this part of the world. There is a strong imperative when it comes to security and also growth within the region.

“That growth is always supported by investment in infrastructure, whether that’s roads, energy or critical communications. I have to confess, it’s always a pleasure to work with the authorities here.

“There have been a lot of recent events in the UAE and in particular Dubai [such as COP 28 and the
recent Expo], so that’s another reason for the advance.” 

Another difference – at least according to Bouri – is the willingness on the part of the Dubai authorities to continue to leverage TETRA as the primary carrier for voice.

Of course, his focus on hybrid networks is probably no surprise, given Airbus’s ongoing role as the provider of TETRA, plus its investment in the Tactilon Dabat. At the same time, in an environment where money might conceivably be less of an object than elsewhere, why not have the best of both worlds?

He continues: “We have a specific approach, integrating all the different systems. We’ve set out to accomplish that with the development of a converged application platform, enabling the management of
everything from push-to-talk to CCTV and drones.

“This is really the key component for a hybrid network, with the convergent application layer sitting on top of both TETRA and LTE access. This is certainly what we’ve seen in our work so far, integrating networks in Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE.

“The approach of the region is really not about replacing one technology with another, it’s about complementing them. We’re entering a new era which is not about the radio layer but the applications layer, and what we’re going to do with it.

“Emergency services really don’t care what bearer they’re using, as long as they can do the job.”

Challenging environment

As mentioned, last year at this time Critical Communications Today published an equivalent feature to this one, but focussing on the Nordic countries. That too is a region at the forefront of critical comms, with operators having to overcome a variety of geographical and environmental difficulties, such as extreme cold and the remoteness of the landscape.

Like northern Europe, the Middle East also presents its own geographical difficulties. These include in places, conditions as challenging as any to be found across the globe.

At the same time, the Middle East and North Africa have also had their share of recent environmental disasters, meanwhile, such as the catastrophic 2023 Morocco earthquake and Libyan floods. And towards the end of April this year, Dubai suffered unprecedented flooding caused by torrential rainfall in the city.

Going back to challenges represented by the landscape itself, nowhere is more difficult to operate in than the vast, deep desert with its combination of extreme heat and potentially violent sandstorms. The part of the Arabian Desert known as The Empty Quarter, for instance, is 250,000 square miles of mostly sand, with a top temperature in the hottest part of the year of somewhere around 51°C.

Furthermore, the desert is an environment where radio coverage is at an absolute premium, something which becomes increasingly relevant if you are involved in activities such as drilling for oil. With that in mind, satellite coverage provider Intelsat has recently signed a contract to work with what it describes as one of Saudi Arabia’s largest oil producers.

Saher Abudaqar is Intelsat’s managing sales director for the Middle East and North Africa. Discussing the increasing relevance of connectivity-from-space to this kind of work, he says: “Saudi is a large country, which counts itself as among the top three oil producers in the world. This means that you have all these oil rigs and drilling sites dispersed all over the kingdom, deep in the desert and sometimes offshore.”

He continues: “These guys need connectivity for their operations. They need to transfer information back to their data centres, and they need to video-stream. So as far as we’re concerned, in that environment, satellite is the way to go. 

“Sometimes these are permanent sites, and sometimes they are temporary, exploring to see [if a particular location] is usable. The company will set up camp and mobile crew there.”

Going into the company’s offer in more detail, he says that Intelsat operates 57 geostationary satellites in orbit at around 36,000 kilometres above the Earth. He refers to this as a “proven technology,” delivering “rock-solid connectivity” utilising Ku- bands.

He continues: “The combination of wide beams, and high-throughput satellites, whose increase in capacity is achieved by high level frequency re-use and spot beam technology enables fast, reliable bandwidth. 

“At the same time, they also need to consider the welfare of the crew. They could be in the middle of nowhere for a month, away from their loved ones, so they need to have the means to communicate.”

Remaining on the topic of operational data transfer, Abudaqar says this could include things such as temperature readings, as well as sending footage of operations to specialised engineers.

“Let’s say you have a temporary office, which is unmanned,” he says. “You need to take temperature readings using sensors.”

Set-up on the ground, meanwhile, says Abudaqar, couldn’t be easier (or at least easy enough not to require a dedicated engineer). Describing a typical uplink Earth station, he paints a picture of a relatively straightforward antenna, modem and transmitter arrangement, apparently light enough to transport to any location required. 

He says: “You would need technicians to set up the equipment, but with the technology now advancing in the way that it is, this is a much quicker process. We now also have things like auto-deployed antennas, auto-pointing and so on. So, essentially, you can just set it out there, and in an hour – tops – you’ve got your link up and running.

“At the same time, these terminals are now becoming smaller and lighter in weight, which is also making set-up far easier. Our aim is really to make satellite connectivity mainstream, just like any other connectivity method out there; fibre, microwave and so on.”

The Middle East is a fascinating region, and these few words are nowhere near adequate to even scratch the surface. There has been no space, for instance, to cover the use of mission critical comms within the disaster zones mentioned earlier, or to describe the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)’s plan for cross-border communication between GCC nations.

But, hopefully, what we have done is provide an inkling of the uniqueness of the region – geographically, politically and in terms of its ambition – before the community decamped there in the middle of May.