The Middle East’s Technological Renaissance

The UAE and Saudi Arabia are Carving Out their Own Place in the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is going to be a big game-changer in the global economy. Global spending on AI is expected to hit $35.8 billion this year, up 44 percent over last year. The US and China are investing heavily in research and development, while countries like the UK are working towards becoming leaders in more niche areas of AI. Other countries like South Korea, France, Germany, and others are also strongly increasing their AI investments. Given this surging interest across the global landscape, governments and businesses across the Middle East, and particularly countries like the UAE and Saudi Arabia, are beginning to realize the shift globally towards AI and advanced technologies and are also pursuing strategies to carve out their own place in the advancement of AI. The magnitude of the impact expected in these two economies is unsurprising given their relative investment in AI technology compared to the rest of the Middle Eastern region - both countries place within the top 50 countries in the world on the Global Innovation Index 20173 in terms of their ability to innovate and the outputs of their innovation.
The UAE, the Arab world's second-largest economy, is projected to benefit the most in the region from AI adoption. The technology is expected to contribute up to 14 percent to the country’s gross domestic product – equivalent to Dh352.5 billion – by 2030, representing roughly two percent of the global total, according to a report by consultancy PwC. The UAE will be followed by Saudi Arabia, where AI is forecast to add 12.4 percent to GDP. That means a diversification from oil and gas to an economy of innovation with manufacturing, mining and public service industries to see the most benefit.
According to the consultancy KPMG, 70 percent of UAE’s chief executives are disrupting their industries by making significant technological advances in core operations in 2019, compared with 63 percent globally. UAE firms are adopting new technologies – such as artificial intelligence and automation – to ensure they beat global competitors, according to the KMPG’s 2019 CEO outlook report published this week. Nearly three-fourths of the UAE businesses are trying new AI and automating processes in their businesses while only 31 percent of companies are doing it globally. Research by Microsoft also found that business leaders across the UAE are highly advanced in terms of their implementation of AI. 53.3 percent indicated that they want to use AI to improve decision making within the next year as opposed to 33.7 percent internationally, and 84 percent think AI is going to have a positive impact on their leadership, which was the highest number in the survey. 
The nation’s efforts are mainly concentrated in the city of Dubai, which is already home to a number of futuristic projects, including plans to create a “Mars science city” and build a real-life hyperloop, programs for renewable energy and electric vehicles, and tests for flying taxis and even flying jetpacks. Dubai even has an accelerator program aimed at expediting the creation of these various futuristic technologies. Earlier this year, the city hosted the world’s first-ever AI summit. 
According to His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE, and Ruler of Dubai, “AI is the next major revolution of our time and the UAE’s goal is to become one of the most advanced countries in this regard.”
To compete for a position on the AI podium, the UAE launched its official strategy for AI in 2017, more recently appointing a state minister for artificial intelligence, His Excellency Omar bin Sultan Al Olama. The ministry of intelligence, the first of its kind in the world, aims is to improve government performance by investing in the latest AI technologies and applying them in various sectors. Earlier this year the ministry launched a strategy aimed at positioning the UAE as a global leader in AI by 2031.
A number of vital sectors will witness an immediate positive impact from applying AI technologies. Over four years ago, Alef Education was launched and has since managed to get its artificial intelligence education platform into dozens of schools in Abu Dhabi, as well as Al Ain, another city in the Emirates, creating a new learning experience for thousands of students. The platform focuses on core subjects such as maths, English and science and helps students by using AI to tailor the curriculum to individual needs. It gives students, teachers, and parents real-time feedback and adjusts accordingly. Alef Education plans to expand into more countries, adapting the program to suit each market. Its lofty vision is to affect the lives of a billion people over the next 10 years.
There are many innovations also taking place in the healthcare industry, which is set to grow exponentially, with the demand for world-class medical service currently outpacing supply. According to Alpen Capital, the UAE healthcare market is expected to grow 12.7 percent, to nearly US$20BN (AED 71.56BN) by 2020. The UAE leads in the top 20 countries in the world with US$1,200 per capita spend on healthcare (AED 4,400). In line with the UAE’s artificial intelligence strategy, the Dubai Health Authority (DHA) introduced Dubai Health Strategy 2021, which focuses on technology and automation using AI and robotics. From augmented reality (AR) platforms that allow doctors to ‘teleport’ between clinics to concierge packages providing bespoke medical services, 3D printing prosthetic limbs and robot pharmacists, the UAE is seeking to take its healthcare to the cutting edge and secure its position as the global leader in health technology.
The government is also encouraging the hospitality sector to adopt an artificial intelligence program, known as the Window Vision system, that measures the amount of food that is discarded and puts a monetary value on it in an effort to save one million meals in one year. The Minister of Climate Change and Environment, Dr. Thani Al Zeyoudi, said that by making the promise, the country was cementing its commitment to meet the United Nations target of cutting food losses and waste by 50 percent by the year 2030.

Saudi Arabia is also not standing idle. The Kingdom is undertaking the largest and most ambitious economic reform and transformation program in its history. A broad range of initiatives is being rolled out to realize the objectives of Vision 2030. Digitization and artificial intelligence (AI) are key enablers of these wide-ranging reforms. According to PwC, AI will contribute $135.2 billion to the Saudi Arabian economy by 2030. The Kingdom also recently granted citizenship to an AI-powered robot named Sophia.
The country was the biggest backer of SoftBank’s $100 billion Vision Fund — which invested solely in tech ventures — and has a raft of what it calls “gigaprojects” in the works. Chief among these is the proposed $500 billion futuristic mega-city 33 times the size of New York City the Kingdom building from scratch., announced in 2017, which — if completed to plan — will be inhabited by more robots than people. Born from the ‘Saudi Vision 2030’, a plan to reduce the state’s dependence on oil, NEOM is set to become one of the world’s first smart cities. Their aim is to be an economic, scientific and technological capital, attracting the world’s greatest pioneers, thinkers, and doers, to push the boundaries of innovation.
The mega-city will be a special economic zone. NEOM’s founders claim that the city will be so advanced that robots will outnumber humans. One look at their advisory board will tell you that they’re no stranger to tech. Prince Alwaleed bin Talal is a consultant to NEOM. The Saudi billionaire owns stakes in Snapchat, Twitter and Apple. The country is also backing Lucid, by investing $1 billion in Tesla’s rival autonomous carmaker, and their ties to Uber are stronger than ever: they have previously invested billions in the ride-sharing company. This all hints at a fully automated city of self-driving cars and passenger drones, given the accumulated resources and innovation of those organizations. Neom is also supposed to draw on "cloud seeding" technology to make artificial clouds which will produce more rainfall than naturally possible in the desert. At night it will be is illuminated by a giant artificial moon.
King Salman issued a decree last month to establish the National Center for Artificial Intelligence and an organization called the National Data Management Office, which will be linked to the Saudi Data and Artificial Intelligence Authority, which was set up in August to oversee the use of the tech in the country. Minister of Communications and Information Technology Abdullah Al-Sawaha said that the establishment of the center was a clear indication of the Kingdom’s determination to develop its digital capabilities and build a future based on AI and innovation. Al-Sawaha said that AI would enhance productivity, boost decision-making processes across all sectors, render services provided to Saudi citizens more innovative, and open new horizons to stimulate entrepreneurship and support young people. However, there are also risks that these technologies could lead to high levels of structural unemployment among citizens. According to statistics from Harvard Business Review, 46 percent of jobs in Saudi Arabia are susceptible to automation, which will require government policies aimed at increasing human capital to counter the risk of AI-related job losses.