by Taimur Ijlal

How the AI boom in the Middle East challenges technology executives

Jun 08, 2021
Artificial Intelligence

Middle Eastern governments are looking to AI to help diversify their economies from oil and gas, and private enterprises are looking to deploy the technology to achieve operational efficiency and offer new services. Here are some of the challenges that tech leaders in the region need to keep top of mind.

Artificial intelligence and digital identity
Credit: Thinkstock

AI has transformed and disrupted business globally, and the Middle East is no exception. What once seemed to be the stuff of science fiction a few decades ago is now on the technology roadmaps of most companies in the region.

The impact cannot be overstated, as AI is expected to make an economic contribution of US$320 billion to the Middle East economy by 2030, with Saudi Arabia and UAE seeing the most gains in their GDP at 12.4% and 14% respectively, according to a PwC Middle East report. Governments in the region have already set up economic roadmaps to take full advantage of AI’s disruptive potential with the financial sector expected to reap the most benefits, according to PwC.

There have already been several fascinating applications of AI in the region, with Saudi Arabia using AI for identifying and prioritizing vaccination cases, Abu Dhabi National Oil Company ( ADNOC ) mining terabytes of data for scenario simulation and Dubai’s Road Transport Authority managing crowd congestion, to name just a few.  It seems the Middle East has fully embraced the transformative potential of AI at all levels for the next decade or so.

Challenges in embracing AI

Along with its tremendous business benefits, though, AI brings a unique set of challenges. Executives may jump onto the AI bandwagon without properly setting up expectations and understanding why they are implementing AI in the first place. As with any technology, a lack of a viable business case will lead to failure in the long run. Similar to any technology project, AI is not a silver bullet and needs executive level sponsorship, a strong business plan and an appetite for failure for its true potential to be realized in the long run.

Additionally, apart from a few standards, AI has been a mostly unregulated field with little to no standardization across the globe. AI if not properly used can lead to negative real world consequences, such as the recent case of a man wrongly imprisoned due to biases in facial recognition software, and regulation is needed to curb such biases within AI algorithms.  Technology executives in the Middle East also regularly cite legal, security and privacy as top concerns stopping wide-spread adoption, according to an IBM survey.

Local leaders need to review EU AI guidelines

The European Commission has finally released its first draft regulatory framework for AI to manage and regulate applications in the EU. This is significant because it is similar to how GDPR set the standard for privacy frameworks globally — the regulation might also become the template which other governments will adopt for their jurisdictions.

This regulation, if approved, will also cause AI systems in other regions to come into scope if they are targeting EU customers, which is another reason for adoption, as using this regulation as a template will make it easier to serve EU customers in the long run, be it from the Middle East or anywhere else.

The standard classifies AI systems into ‘Prohibited AI’, ‘High Risk AI’, and ‘Low Risk AI’, with the standard mostly focusing on the minimum set of requirements that high-risk AI systems have to comply with. Prohibited AI are systems being used for indiscriminate surveillance or real-time facial recognition in public spaces, or basically systems that might infringe on human rights. This will help to potentially mitigate the risk of cases where biases in AI algorithms have been identified with regards to minority groups or specific races.

Despite the long time period for this proposed regulation to come into effect, there is no doubt that players in the Middle East should keep a sharp eye on this proposal and ensure their systems have a roadmap in place for complying with it.

AI skills needed

Another key challenge revolves around hiring and retention of AI professionals, as most companies simply lack the required skillset of AI engineers to drive widespread adoption. While numerous Middle Eastern universities have launched AI programs at the Bachelors and Masters levels, these graduates may lack the required real world experience for large scale implementations. On the other hand seasoned professionals may demand exorbitant salaries, leading companies to rely on outsourced consultants instead of building those skills in-house, which is an unfortunate trend in the region.

To combat the severe shortage, the best strategy would be a mixture of training in-house staff along with hiring fresh graduates and passing them through a rigorous training program while looking at experienced partners to help fill in the gaps. Middle Eastern governments have taken concrete steps to meet this challenge. Education, for example, is listed as one of the key pillars of the ‘UAE Strategy for Artificial Intelligence (AI)’ and free community courses are being launched to drive up awareness. Saudi Arabia’s National Strategy for Data & AI, meanwhile, calls for training and education for 20,000 AI and data specialist by 2030.

AI paves the way for moving beyond oil

Regardless of the legitimate concerns around misuse and potential biases within AI, there is no stopping the impact it is going to have over the next decade or so. The Middle East is now diversifying its economy and moving away from oil, and deploying technology to do so. AI is at the forefront of this strategy. With proper investment, strategy and an empowered workforce,  Middle East cities will be in a position to become AI hubs in the coming years. AI has the potential to create millions of jobs and fundamentally alter traditional business models, and harnessing its potential is key to moving to a non-oil focused economic strategy.

AI is the future and only via a combination of policy, education and innovation will the Middle East fully tap into its transformative potential. Governments in the Middle East including UAE and Saudi Arabia have already taken big steps to create an environment which fosters AI growth at all levels and place them as AI hubs for the future.

 In addition to technological investments, a strongly trained human workforce and regulatory framework is required for AI to truly shape the next decade or so in the Middle East. As with any technology that has the potential to reshape our lives, AI needs guard posts that recognize and curb any of its harmful applications.

If the proposed EU regulation manages to balance sensible controls while promoting innovation then we may see similar control frameworks popping up in the Middle East as well.  The Dubai Data Establishment, a subsidiary of Smart Dubai Office, has already published ethical guidelines for AI systems to follow principles of fairness, transparency, accountability and security. With the rise of Middle Eastern smart cities, self-driving cars and governments fully committed to their AI vision, the Middle East is well on its way to becoming a world leader in for AI ecosystems by 2030.

(Taimur Ijlal is an information security and data protection professional with more than 18 years of experience in cybersecurity, enterprise risk assessment and cloud technology.)