Israel's desert city of Beersheba could be the next Silicon Valley

In the heart of the Negev desert, Israel is laying the foundations of a cybersecurity hub it hopes will be a world leader.

Baz Ratner/Reuters/File
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the Cybertech 2016 conference in Tel Aviv, Israel January 26, 2016.

Beersheba, Israel’s southern desert capital, sits in an area that only four decades ago hosted little more than camels, sand, and dust.

Today, however, the burgeoning urban sprawl is morphing into a tech hub that could rival – or complement – even Silicon Valley.

In its bid to become the cybersecurity capital of the world, Israel is creating a military-industrial leviathan in the heart of the Negev desert, an area that makes up two-thirds of the country’s land mass but contains a mere 10 percent of its population.

“I remember growing up with the stereotypes, the prejudice and the condescension,” Beersheba mayor Rubik Danilovich told Forbes. ““I remember playing away games with my youth soccer league when the opposing team would call us the ‘desert rats.’”

“Today I look at the city and I see big changes. And this is only the beginning – I’m sure of it.”

Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, would surely agree, having declared that the country’s future lay in the Negev desert.

The cybersecurity behemoth rising from the sands is said to be the biggest infrastructure project in Israeli history, housing a relocation of the military’s prestigious technology units, academic research centers, and high-tech startups.

“Cybersecurity is something you will only need more of as humanity gets more tech-oriented, but eventually the boom will settle down and companies won’t open up new activities as much as they do right now,” said Tom Ahi Dror of the Israeli National Cyber Bureau. “So we want as much activity to be set up right here, right now.”

The Israeli government is firmly behind the initiative, providing seven years’ worth of financial inducements for companies to set up there.

Aside from the NSA-style intelligence base, which will be located outside the city, everything is within walking distance – including nearby Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, which pumps out graduates already versed in cyber skills from their mandatory national service.

“Ben Gurion University plays an obvious and important role here. The tight collaboration with major industry firms, such as Deutsche Telekom, EMC, and IBM, makes the BGU cybersecurity program a very strong and practical one,” Amos Stern, co-founder and CEO of Siemplify, a cybersecurity threat analysis company, and ex-Army IDF Intelligence Corps Leader, told Techcrunch.

“I’ve found BGU cybersecurity graduates to be well-aligned with this focus, bringing more than just a theoretical understanding of cyber. They bring a professionalism that’s very valuable when you’re looking to solve the real-world challenges of today’s business.”

Firms such as Lockheed Martin, IBM, and RSA have all set up shop, but the international dimension goes beyond the private sector.

The British government announced in February deepening ties with Israel to tackle cyber attacks on their national infrastructure installations.

“The UK’s world class companies and universities combined with Israel’s cutting edge technology and entrepreneurial culture is an unbeatable combination,” said British Minister for the Cabinet Office Matt Hancock.

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