AI is Booming in the Middle East

UAE is taking the lead, aiming to become a global AI hub by 2031

Sascha Brodsky, Contributor

February 1, 2024

4 Min Read
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At a Glance

  • The Middle East is enthusiastically embracing AI, led by UAE.
  • But hurdles remain, such as lack of skilled workers in AI, making these nations remain dependent on Western companies.

Artificial intelligence might one day become a faster-growing sector than oil in the Middle East.

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is at the forefront of the AI drive. In 2017, the UAE unveiled a national AI plan to become a global AI hub by 2031. The strategy involves deploying AI in health care to improve diagnostics, transportation for developing autonomous vehicles, and education for tailored learning experiences.

The ruler of the UAE recently created a new law to set up the Artificial Intelligence and Advanced Technology Council (AIATC) that will focus on making and carrying out plans and policies for research, infrastructure, and investments in AI and advanced technology.

However, questions arise regarding the real-world efficacy of these applications, the readiness of the infrastructure, and the country's ability to foster a skilled workforce to sustain this growth.

Follow the leader?

“The Middle East has more of a "follow the leader" attitude rather than driving behind the wheel,” Pawel Satalecki, the managing director of MENA (Middle East, North Africa) at consulting firm Avenga, said in an interview.

“The region has proven that it is very good at implementing or tweaking what the U.S. has already innovated. This is what we see in terms of proprietary ML adoption in the corporate sector, as well as with AI's newest shiny tool, ChatGPT, and other generative AI.”

The ecosystem and infrastructure in the MENA region are still too young and shallow to go deeper into AI and surprise the world with entirely new AI innovations, he said.

The UAE's government is swiftly adopting AI technology, mainly focusing on ATRC's Falcon Gen AI. Their latest initiative, AI71, is notable for offering access to the private data of local companies, allowing for the development of AI models using detailed data from industries like health care, oil and gas, and aviation.

The UAE has also released one of the leading open-source foundational models called Falcon and continues to work on foundational models, noted Gal Tal-Hochberg, CTO of Team8, an Israeli-based company builder and venture group.

UAE schools are planning to integrate artificial intelligence and machine-learning technology, focusing on bringing AI-generated tutors into classrooms. Although teachers will remain central to education, the ministry aims to revolutionize the sector by employing AI chatbot tutors. These tutors will use technology akin to what is found in ChatGPT or Google Bard.

But the Middle East's foray into AI has been met with both applause and skepticism. While the region displays ambitious strides in embracing AI, the journey is laden with critical challenges that question the sustainability and inclusivity of this technological revolution.

“I am convinced that the Middle East has all the potential to overcome many current leaders regarding the use of AI,” Satalecki said. “This goes for the government and business sectors alike. However, the upcoming years will have to be spent wisely, incorporating external knowledge and resources into their strategies to catch up and open up the possibility of building the necessary capacities on-site.”

Advances around the region

Saudi Arabia's Vision 2030 strategy prominently features AI as pivotal in diversifying its petroleum-reliant economy. Substantial investments are channeled into sophisticated smart city initiatives and avant-garde AI-driven health care innovations.

Nonetheless, beneath this facade of progress, there lies a palpable apprehension regarding the adequacy of the nation's regulatory frameworks and the potential of AI to amplify pre-existing societal disparities. The challenge transcends the mere deployment of technology; it necessitates ensuring that these technological advances are equitable and beneficial across the diverse strata of the populace.

Israel, known for its tech prowess, excels in AI, especially in cybersecurity and health care. Israeli startups are at the cutting edge of AI innovation, but this rapid growth begs the question of whether there is adequate oversight to address ethical considerations, such as data privacy and algorithmic bias.

In Israel, startups in the AI space are being created − with some already world-leading, such as Pinecone and AI21 in GenAI, and many in the more broad AI space, said Tal-Hochberg.

“Israel also has leading researchers in universities contributing to global research and large development centers of Microsoft, Google, and Meta where cutting edge AI research and development is done, such as on Google Duplex and newly released video capabilities, teams from Meta FAIR and many Microsoft teams,” he added.

Qatar is focusing on AI research and education with initiatives like the Qatar Computing Research Institute. While these efforts are commendable, they highlight a regional issue: the gap between research and practical, widespread application of AI. There is a risk of these innovations remaining confined to academic and research settings without tangible impact on the broader society.

“A major general gap is the need for top IT talents,” Satalecki said. “Emirates, Saudis, and others overcome these challenges by partnering with Western companies and trying to learn quickly.”

Middle Eastern countries are speeding up AI adoption in the enterprise sector, Satalecki added. For example, Saudi Aramco, as well as many banks and financial institutions, have plans and the necessary financial capacities to catch up with the U.S.

“However, due to the lack of local high-qualified IT talent, it is usually advisable to partner with an experienced service provider to catch up,” he said.

About the Author(s)

Sascha Brodsky


Sascha Brodsky is a freelance technology writer based in New York City. His work has been published in The Atlantic, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, Reuters, and many other outlets. He graduated from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism and its School of International and Public Affairs. 

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