Why the Middle East is fast becoming a hub of artificial intelligence

Written by Guy Burton on 28 October 2019 in Opinion Plus
Opinion Plus

The recent announcement that the world’s first university dedicated to artificial intelligence (AI) will open its doors in Abu Dhabi in 2020 marks the latest move in the Middle East’s growing efforts to become a global tech hub, writes Guy Burton.

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The creation of the Mohammed bin Zayed University of Artificial Intelligence (MBZUAI) is part of the United Arab Emirates’ AI strategy, first launched two years ago.

The aim is to incorporate AI into every facet of life from the economy to government, making business more productive and public service more efficient.

Part of this strategy was the creation of a ministerial portfolio dedicated exclusively to AI, with UAE being the first country in the world to do so.

Since then, around 30 start-up companies have established themselves in Dubai, a sign that the government’s strategy has succeeded in helping to cultivate and encourage private sector growth in this field.


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Among them is Derq, an innovative start-up that won funding to develop ways to make the UAE’s cars and roads smarter and safer.

The aim is to develop a 24/7 real-time view of the road system and use AI to predict accident blackspots and eliminate crashes.

The UAE is on course to be the leading AI hub in the Middle East by 2030. A recent PwC report predicted that AI will be worth $320bn in the Middle East by 2030; in the UAE, AI is expected to make up 13.6 percent of GDP, followed by Saudi Arabia with 12.5 percent.

For a region traditionally dependent on oil revenues, these forecasts are a welcome sign that the technology could play a substantial role in diversifying its economy.

"The UAE is on course to be the leading AI hub in the Middle East by 2030. A recent PwC report predicted that AI will be worth $320bn in the Middle East by 2030; in the UAE, AI is expected to make up 13.6 percent of GDP, followed by Saudi Arabia with 12.5 percent"

However, these developments are also raise the broader challenge that AI poses to governments. A recent McKinsey Global report found that half of all current jobs globally can be automated with AI.

The development of AI is set to have profound implications for the world of work, which makes institutions such as MBZUAI essential to developing tools and conducting the research needed for us to harness the technology most effectively.

AI will create opportunities in the form of new jobs, while also threatening many others. To prepare for this, workers may need to change occupations, acquire new skills and learn to work alongside machines. There is also the risk that a skills divide furthers economic inequality.

Such substantial changes will mean rethinking how societies, economies and governments respond and interact with each other.

While substantial progress has been made in AI, the technology is still in a state of transition.

"AI will create opportunities in the form of new jobs, while also threatening many others. To prepare for this, workers may need to change occupations, acquire new skills and learn to work alongside machines. There is also the risk that a skills divide furthers economic inequality"

A good example of this is the case of self-driving cars: despite initial enthusiasm, the expectation that they would be available to consumers has been steadily lowered.

Regardless of AI’s current state, the genie is now out of the bottle, so to speak. It is therefore necessary to start preparing for a future with AI.

That will mean grappling with contentious and challenging issues, including those which go beyond jobs and labour market skills.

Other considerations involve the ethical aspects of AI, including the potentially negative ways it could be used and exploited, from surveillance and censorship to biases and prejudices, which may be inherent within the programming.

These questions may be dealt with in various ways. The establishment of Mohammed in Zayed University of Artificial Intelligence is an important and innovative step in the right direction and one that will help us fill in the blanks in our approach to the technology.

As well as providing a space to prepare students and help them develop practical AI skills, it is an ideal for grappling with these broader issues and challenges.

About the author

Guy Burton is a Visiting Fellow at the LSE Middle East Centre and an Adjunct Professor at Vesalius College, Brussels. Between 2016 and 2018 he was an Assistant Professor at the Mohammed Bin Rashid School of Government in Dubai.

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