Saudi Arabia's security challenges
Given Saudi Arabia's unique position, welcoming millions of pilgrims every year alongside a diverse resident population, the stakes are higher than ever.
As you read, you'll delve into the world where technology and security are perfectly interwoven, showcasing Saudi Arabia's innovative use of biometrics.
In this journey, you'll witness how this remarkable nation utilizes state-of-the-art solutions to meet the security challenges of the 21st century.
Arrivals in Djeddah at King Abdulaziz International Airport.
The airport implementing biometric borders is known for its Hajj terminal, built for Muslim pilgrims visiting Mecca. It can handle 80,000 passengers simultaneously and accommodate more aircraft than any other airport.
What's more, as far as homeland security is concerned, it's far from the whole story.
As well as handling huge influxes of visitors worldwide, the Kingdom is home to a remarkably diverse resident population.
Moreover, it finds itself at the heart of a troubled region in uncertain times. Saudi Arabia is bordered by Bahrain, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, the UAE, and Yemen.
The threats to the country's safety and well-being are ever-present and growing in scale and sophistication.
So what's the answer?
Biometrics to determine who's crossing the border.
Well, at least part of Saudi Arabia's response is coming in the form of biometrics.
Over the last few years, the government has invested in new systems that enable robust identification and verification based on the unique characteristics that define us all.
As a result, they are now in a position to determine – beyond any reasonable doubt – precisely who is crossing the country's borders.
Furthermore, these biometric-based solutions, including an Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS) supplied by Thales, provide the foundations for applications and use cases far beyond border management.
Thales has also been contributing to the national ID card program since 2009.
The Saudi eID card is biometric and critical for efficient physical and electronic identity verification.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, home to an evolving population
To start with, let's review a few relevant facts and figures.
Founded in the early 1930s, Saudi Arabia covers a vast geographical area – more than twice the size of France and Germany combined, with a population over the 36 million mark in 2023.
The proportion of that figure made up of foreign nationals is over 10 million.
Mecca and Medina are the two holiest sites in Islam.
In Saudi Arabia, you'll also find the two holiest sites in Islam: Al-Masjid al-Haram in Mecca and Al-Masjid an-Nabawi in Medina. As a result, the country welcomes many pilgrims annually, most notably for Hajj and Umrah.
- Hajj represents one of the Five Pillars of Islam. It attracts over a million overseas visitors per annum to Mecca. Furthermore, the vast majority arrive in just a few short days.
- Meanwhile, Umrah runs throughout the year, proving another powerful draw for Muslims worldwide. 4 Umrah visas were issued in 2022 in 5 months alone.
Meeting these twin goals will always be challenging in an era of globalization.
But the unique characteristics of Saudi Arabia make it an even more challenging task.
So that's where biometrics come in.
A nationwide biometric identification initiative
Some years ago, the Saudi government recognized the pressing need to put measures to enable swift and irrefutable proof of identity for the resident population and the untold millions visiting the country.
It's a bold ambition. But how precisely have biometrics been used to help realize it?
- First, the Saudi authorities have created a biometric civil registry for citizens and expatriates.
Fingerprints are now being captured from everyone aged 15 or over, and the information is stored in the government's Automated Central System (ACS). For example, those who fail to register cannot access online government services or renew their iqama residence permits.
For the Saudi authorities, enrollment of the adult population was only the starting point. Attention quickly turned to the large numbers of visitors – including pilgrims – that head for the country from virtually every corner of the globe. Once again, the government looked to biometrics for the answer.
- Specifically, that meant a commitment to capturing biometric data – in the form of a fingerprint - from everyone entering or leaving the country.
Furthermore, the Saudi authorities have recently started to insist that all pilgrims for the Hajj and Umrah, wherever they are in the world, have their fingerprints scanned before applying for a visa.
Guarding Nations: The Biometric Revolution in Saudi Arabia, USA, and EU
Saudi Arabia, the United States, and the European Union, three distinct entities each with unique challenges, have embarked on a technological journey to integrate biometrics into their homeland security practices.
This shared pursuit highlights the growing global consensus on the potential of biometrics as a tool for enhancing national security.
- In Saudi Arabia, handling the considerable inflow of international visitors due to religious pilgrimages alongside managing a diverse resident population has sparked the integration of biometrics. The Kingdom has primarily focused on creating a biometric civil registry for its citizens and expatriates and capturing biometric data of all individuals crossing the country's borders. This plan parallels the initiatives implemented in the United States and proposed in the European Union, though the scale and nature of application might differ.
- In the United States, the Automated Biometric Identification System ( IDENT), now having captured biometric data from an impressive 200 million visitors, has been instrumental in bolstering national security, law enforcement, immigration, and intelligence. The focus in the U.S. leans more toward immigration control and has a broader application, having been integrated into visa applications and border controls for a significant duration.
- On the other side of the Atlantic, the European Union envisions a similar path to Saudi Arabia with the planned implementation of its biometric Entry-Exit system (EES). This system aims to record biometric data of non-EU nationals crossing the external borders of the EU Member States, reflecting an approach more focused on border control. The unique aspect of the EU's strategy lies in its application across multiple sovereign nations, reflecting the collaborative, supranational nature of the European Union.
So far, so good.
But how does all this help strengthen safety and security?
An Entry-Exit system is put in place.
That's where Thales Cogent AFIS comes in.
- When a person entering Saudi Arabia has their fingerprint scanned, Thales Cogent AFIS is responsible for comparing it against existing database records and then enrolling it as a new one or consolidating it against information already on file.
- When they leave, another fingerprint scan is taken.
All being well, that one should, of course, already have matching data on file.
As a result, Saudi authorities can quickly identify any visitors that do not return to their home countries in a timely fashion. Furthermore, with their biometrics on file, they also have a powerful means of tracking down any over-stayers.
But there's even more to the Saudi solution than this.
In terms of keeping out unwanted guests, the Thales Cogent AFIS also enables real-time comparison of visitor biometrics with any number of criminal databases or watch lists containing the fingerprints of individuals who might not be welcome country.
The biometric border at peak levels
The Thales Cogent AFIS solution can handle the large volume of travelers that characterize the Saudi border management application.
For example, the numbers crossing daily will typically reach around 120,000 during Hajj.
Even at these peak levels, the matching process is performed not just in a matter of seconds but with the highest possible standards of accuracy. Officials can, therefore, respond quickly to any potential threat to homeland security while allowing legitimate visitors to move through border control as smoothly as possible.
Consequently, the traveler experience is optimized.
• Data collected at all border points
• three synchronized ABIS (Automated Biometric Identification System) back-end sites
• Up to 120,000 transactions per day
• 1/to-many matching of 10 fingerprints in less than 10 seconds
And the initiative does not stop there.
Biometric identification to be deployed across many environments
The Thales Cogent AFIS went live for use at border crossings in 2016. And the story has continued.
The Saudi government's plans for biometric identification extend much further, and the Thales Cogent AFIS has all the flexibility and adaptability necessary to meet the requirements of a wide array of other use cases.
As such, it has since been deployed across a variety of:
- and criminal environments.
Thales Cogent AFIS will also be used for criminal identification (matching a latent image from a crime scene)
For example, these include supporting robust KYC (Know Your Customer) procedures for new mobile phone biometric registrations.
This decision results from new legislation drafted by the country's Communications and Information Technology Commission, and all Mobile Network Operators in the Kingdom must now collect the fingerprint biometrics of new subscribers.
Fingerprints are shared with the National Information Centre to verify the identity of buyers.
The Saudi government certainly faces a particularly challenging environment. But the core issues are common to most countries. Around the world, an ever-growing number of public and private sector organizations are now faced with the pressing need to identify individual customers and end-users reliably and to weed out any potential threats to security and safety.
Of course, in pursuit of these goals, more and more are now recognizing that biometrics can provide the perfect combination of accuracy, speed, and convenience.
And it's easy to see why.
Biometrics requires skills, experience, and technologies.
Taking advantage of our characteristics, such as a fingerprint, face, or iris, clearly offers enormous potential to deliver consistent, comprehensive, and frictionless identity verification.
However, deploying a biometric-based solution requires a fully integrated mix of skills, experience, and proven technologies.
For example, algorithm design will play a key role in determining the accuracy and reliability of biometrics captured on a scanner compared with information held on databases that can run into millions of individual records.
Furthermore, robust measures must be put in place to protect the integrity and privacy of all this highly sensitive information, as encryption and tokenization were recently implemented with Thales in the largest biometric database in the world in India for the Adhaar card scheme.
And so, for the good news.
Help is at hand.
At Thales, we have already been responsible for more than 200 biometric deployments in 80 countries, not to mention an equally strong track record in fields such as border and visa management and secure travel document design and issuance.
Moreover, we're happy to share our knowledge and understanding of these critical fields with stakeholders in both the public and private sectors worldwide.