The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is brimming with bold ambition. It oozes from the extravagant air-conditioned buildings that make up Dubai’s financial district, home to the world’s tallest building.
At a dizzying 830m tall, the magnificent Burj Khalifa is a monument to the Emirati mindset. Not content with being the tallest, developers are planning to build a new tower in Dubai that beats the Burj by a “notch”.
Yet while buildings may show Dubai’s enterprise in the physical sense, there are deeper foundations being laid. For several years now, the UAE’s burgeoning technology scene has been viewed as a key sector for diversifying its economy away from oil, property and retail, which have experienced slumps in recent years.
In 2017, the Emirati Government made it official, announcing an ambitious national strategy to become a world leader in AI by the year 2031.
“The strategy aims to make the UAE a fast adapter of emerging AI technologies across government, create policies and legislations for fair and ethical AI development, as well as attract top AI talent to experiment and work a sophisticated and secure ecosystem,” said Dr Aisha Bin Bishr, director general at Smart Dubai Office, speaking at Ai Everything, a two-day conference that took place in Dubai in May.
“The strategy has a vision to make UAE world leader in AI by 2031.”
“The US, the archetype of modern tech-culture, is flooded with investment and home to some the biggest AI companies in the world”
It’s a formidable goal. By most – if not all – measures, the US and China are the dominant leaders in the field. The US, the archetype of modern tech-culture, is flooded with investment and home to some the biggest AI companies in the world. Meanwhile China, guided by long-term government planning and drawing on a wealth of data from its 1.4 billion citizens, has published more research papers on deep learning than others in recent years.
But there are promising signs for the UAE. Dubai – the tech hub of the UAE and perhaps a microcosm for the UAE’s broader technology goals – has been laying the groundwork for its tech revolution for a number of years. Between 2015 and 2018 Dubai reportedly attracted more than $21bn in foreign direct investment in AI and robotics, said to be highest in the world during this period.
Meanwhile, research published by Forbes Insights suggests that bullish attitudes to AI are not limited to China and the West. In a survey of 100 C-suite executives across the Middle East, 60% said they had identified AI as being key to their company’s future success – keeping them in line with global counterparts.
And being something of a late adopter in the AI space does come with some advantages for the UAE – it has the blueprints of the US and China to draw from. This has resulted in a public-private sector hybrid: long-term government planning spliced with generous incentives for its private sector.
The role of government
The UAE clearly views the government as a key enabler in guiding AI growth; the shepherd of the flock. In 2017, it became the first country in the world to appoint a minister for artificial intelligence, Omar bin Sultan al Olama, who has held the position ever since.
At Ai Everything, which drew 183 speakers from 21 countries, al Olama underlined the importance of government planning to Verdict AI.
“Our leadership believes in long-term thinking, long-term planning – and action today,” he said. “If you look at the UAE 20 years ago, you wouldn't have imagined that [it would be] where it is today.
“It's with proper planning. It's with actual management of the vision. It's not just about creating a vision, it's about actually putting action on the ground, ensuring that people move forward and do what’s required to be done.”
Attracting top talent
So, what action has the UAE been taking? A vital ingredient for being a leader in AI is attracting the top tech talent to your shores. This allows a country to draw on the knowledge and ideas developed elsewhere, gathering it into a tech melting pot that encourages growth for the host country.
“This sector right now is so competitive, it's so appealing, it's so important,” said al Olama. “The whole world is competing to take over AI talent and bring them to their countries or their cities.”
The UAE has launched a number of initiatives to make this possible. Part of it, though, is about creating a place that is welcoming to people from all backgrounds.
“What we're doing is we believe in collaboration, we believe in cohesion, we believe in inclusion,” said al Olama.
And it seems to be working – for the most part. Dubai has cultivated a friendly and cosmopolitan environment in the city. The stats bear this out, too. Around 90% of Dubai’s population are expats and there are over 200 nationalities residing in the UAE, including Americans, Brits, Indians, Chinese and Germans.
But occasionally incidents, such as the arrest of British student Matthew Hedges in 2018 on spying charges, do undermine an environment that Verdict AI found to be welcoming and open when visiting.
Nurturing home-grown startups
Luring tech startups away from the likes of Silicon Valley requires incentives, which the UAE does via its accelerator programmes that aim to nurture startup talent.
One example is the Creative Lab twofour54 accelerator in Abu Dhabi, which invests between $50,000 to $5m in in media and entertainment startups and membership.
Meanwhile Dubai’s Accelerator Program provides a hub for technology startups, where successful applicants attempt to solve a challenge set out by the Dubai Government, from digital visas to waste management.
During a nine-week period, a cohort of companies are given mentorship and feedback, facilitating “the collaboration between government entities and companies”. At the end of the programme, companies have options to sign memorandums of understanding and/or partner with government.
Arguably the biggest success story to come out of Dubai is Careem. Founded in 2012 by native Pakistani Mudassir Sheikha and Magnus Olsson, the transportation company has gone on to become the leading ride hailing app in MENA, Turkey and Pakistan. In March 2019, Careem was acquired by Uber for US$3.1bn.
Build it and they will come
Investing in infrastructure is another way that a government can steer the country towards meeting its goals. For the UAE, that has meant new roads, buildings and tech hubs.
In March 2019 Mubadala, an Abu Dhabi sovereign wealth fund, announced plans to build a tech hub in the UAE’s capital to attract startups.
The project, which has received financial backing from SoftBank and a partnership with Microsoft, will offer $367m of investment to startups in its first-five year cycle.
Abu Dhabi and neighbouring Dubai are both relatively young cities, the development of their infrastructure shaped by the discovery of oil in the mid twentieth century.
This offers an advantage over older cities – such as London – that can be held back by a mishmash of buildings from varying eras: Dubai is not held back by this legacy infrastructure.
If Dubai is a microcosm for the UAE’s AI and wider technology vision, then Dubai’s Silicon Park is microcosm of that microcosm. The 7.2 square km zone is a government of Dubai-owned technology park that is its own municipality and free trade zone.
“We are a community or a city within a city.”
“We are a community or a city within a city,” said Muammar Alkatheeri, chief project officer at Dubai Commercity, speaking to journalists during a tour of Silicon Park.
Established in 2005, the smart and connected city boasts fast internet connections and technologies such as electric buses that are charged by the road.
Clients operating in the Silicon Oasis include the likes of Fujitsu, AMD, SAP and Synopsys. In addition to the modern infrastructure, companies and its employees enjoy benefits such as no income tax, no corporate tax and streamlined visa processing.
The park is managed by the Dubai Silicon Oasis Authority. Its headquarters is a pristine, spaceship-like structure decorated with Emirati rugs – a cocktail of the traditional and the technological.
In 2016, the government of Dubai launched the Smart Dubai City accelerator, “focusing on solutions that will support the city to become smarter, whether it's the housing or the logistics,” said Alkatheeri.
Such developments are expected to continue. By 2026, spending on UAE infrastructure is expected to reach just under $89.93bn, according to BMI Research.
The UAE is playing to its construction strengths. But infrastructure alone isn’t enough – it’s what goes on inside them that matters most.
Dubai Technology Entrepreneur Campus
Also in situated in Silicon Park is the Dubai Technology Entrepreneur Campus (DTEC), a 10,000 square metre co-working space for startups and entrepreneurs.
“It's the largest Tech Centre in the MENA region and we have grown to this size in just around four years,” said DTEC vice president Hans Christensen.
The bright and open building is designed to encourage people to mingle in the co-working space, as well as offering private office space.
Tech startups that have already received funding can apply for a place at DTEC. Once there, startups can do businesses anywhere around the world, keep 100% of their business without a local sponsor and pay only 5% VAT for $100,000 a year and up in revenue. They can also repatriate money back home – a generous package that is a stark contrast to rocketing rents in San Francisco.
“We are still in a nascent period where VCs are still fairly small.”
Mainly attracting software companies, Christensen told press that it has helped to set up around 1300 companies in the past four years, “of which 800 are still up and running”, including leading AI content intelligence platform Qordoba. Others have been snapped up by Silicon Valley giants, such as Wrappup, which was acquired by Voicera in 2018.
When it comes to deciding to put money into the companies it houses, DTEC places significant emphasis on quality: “We do not invest in flash in the pan, we want something you can go to the next 10 years.”
However, Christensen concedes that Dubai is still has some way to go in securing venture capital (VC).
“This is one of the things that we're working on to increase the amount of venture capital acceleration,” he said. “But we are still in a nascent period where VCs are still fairly small.”
Indeed, research by data analytics firm GlobalData shows that the US is the dominant spot for AI VC, a reminder of the uphill struggle the UAE faces in this area.
AI on the ground
From traffic drones to robot police patrolling the malls, Dubai is often keen to show off its use of futuristic tech.
On the roads, the Dubai Autonomous Transportation Strategy aims to transform 25% of total transportation in Dubai to autonomous mode by 2030, which will involve around five million daily trips. This, says Dubai’s Roads and Transport Authority, will save AED 22bn in annual economic costs.
Meanwhile, the Dubai Health Authority (DHA) is working with private companies from across the world to implement cutting-edge technologies to improve the care it gives to patients, such as proof of concepts for 3D printing and remote patient monitoring.
In one project the DHA is working with private companies to use AI detect diabetic retinopathy, an eye disease that can lead to blindness.
Dr Muhammad Hamed Farooqi, director and consultant endocrinologist at Dubai Diabetes Centre said: “With AI developed by Artelus we took thousands of images and asked for the right diagnosis. The concurrence rate was 98% with both specificity and sensitivity. Now we are in the process of implementing it across DHA. The concept can be applied elsewhere too.”
Happiness before AI
Of course, the UAE faces the same ethical challenges as any country when implementing AI solutions.
In the US and UK, data given up by consumers has been used to sway their vote. Facial recognition in the hands of an authoritarian government can be used to persecute minorities, as has been demonstrated by China’s treatment of Uighur Muslims.
For al Omar, the citizen’s trust in its government and the value people get from this is key to this.
“I think trust is important, but we look at what people care most about is value,” he told Verdict AI. “So what am I giving up my data for? If you're giving up your data, and you're getting nothing in return, people are going to be very upset.”
“We need to ensure that any AI application being developed in the city is completely ethical towards all residents.”
“We need to ensure that any AI application being developed in the city is completely ethical towards all residents,” said Bishr, pointing to Smart Dubai’s AI ethics guidelines launched in January 2019, aimed at encouraging developers to build the standards into their technologies.
At Ai Everything, one of the recurring themes was ‘happiness’. All of the technological development always lead back to this as the central theme.
Verdict AI asked al Olama where this stemmed from and he said that it is as much about economics as altruism.
“If people are happy, they're going to be more productive, if people are happy, they're going to give back economically, and they're going to be happier as well and have a better quality of life,” he said.
He also pointed out that the UAE appointed a minister of happiness, H.E Ohood Bint Khalfan Al Roumi, before the country appointed a minister for artificial intelligence.
So, can the UAE lead the world in AI by 2031?
As things stand, it is perhaps an ambition too far for the UAE to be the world leader in AI by 2031.
However, consultancy and accounting firm PwC has encouraging forecasts for the UAE. It estimates that the Middle East will accrue 2% of the total global benefits of AI in 2030.
While that may sound small, just a 2% share of the AI pie is equivalent to US$320bn.
PwC also foresees the UAE having the fastest AI growth in the Middle East. By 2030, it expects AI to contribute 13.6% to GDP. That’s slightly behind North America (14.5%), but in the dust of China, which is expected to become the dominant AI player by 2030 with a 26.1% contribution to GDP. Of course, the US and China’s GDP’s dwarf that of the UAE, so the UAE will still be some way off in absolute terms.
But the signs are encouraging. While it might not reach the dizzying heights it aspires to reach, the action it is taking now may see its AI sector in a healthy position, perhaps behind the frontrunners – even if it is only by a “notch”.