The future is bright for artificial intelligence in the Middle East

As part of ongoing efforts to diversify their economies and build a platform for sustainable future growth, MENA countries are increasingly turning to artificial intelligence (AI). A number of recent investments and initiatives – primarily in academia and government, but also in the private sector – have reignited interest from industry leaders around the world in the potential of AI to make MENA economies more efficient and sustainable.

According to a report by the Economist Impact Unit (EIU) and Google released earlier this year, AI could generate $320 billion in additional economic growth in the MENA region by 2030.

Many long-term economic strategies in the region are targeting high-value sectors that have the potential to benefit from the fourth industrial revolution – a series of technological advances in AI, data and cloud computing that are merging the physical, digital and biological worlds.

The economic potential of AI

In recent years, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Egypt have released ambitious government-driven AI development strategies. However, much of their momentum was derailed in the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic as attention turned to managing the evolving public health situation, the broader economic downturn and the collapse in oil prices.

Despite the temporary setback The pandemic has underscored the urgency of economic diversification, and several MENA countries have accelerated investment in non-hydrocarbon sectors where AI could play a key role.

Global private sector investment in AI, largely driven by companies in China and the US, grew by 40% in 2020, according to a Stanford University study, reflecting the rising interest in the field and its potential applications, particularly in areas with high added value, highlights sectors.

A March report by Saudi consultancy Strategic Gears recommended the country focus on using AI to boost three sectors – oil and gas, government services and financial services – which already account for more than 50% of GDP. Manufacturing, healthcare, education, automotive, retail and e-commerce, and transportation are also positioned to benefit from the technology.

Rather than being limited to ICT and technology-based fields, AI is expected to have far-reaching implications for broader economies and will be key to realizing long-term economic plans.

“Implementing AI helps businesses become more customer-centric, efficient, productive and competitive in both local and regional markets,” Bin Abdullah Al Mandhari, CEO of ITHCA Group, an Omani ICT company, told OBG.

“This is already the case in Oman’s oil and gas industry and it will be particularly important to make progress in priority sectors such as fisheries, tourism and logistics. Ultimately, AI can help unlock the potential of these sectors, make them a meaningful contributor to national GDP and help achieve their goals under the Oman Vision 2040.”

Cybersecurity is another area where AI can add value. As OBG recently detailed, Cyber ​​attacks have increased since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, posing an increased threat to emerging markets.

According to media reports, a large-scale phishing campaign impersonating the Ministry of Human Resources of the United Arab Emirates was recently discovered using an AI digital risk monitoring platform from the Indian company CloudSEK.

Energy efficiency wins

In a region where several countries derive significant parts of GDP and export earnings from hydrocarbons, it is not surprising that the energy sector has attracted significant AI investment from governments and companies not just trying to diversify away from oil and gas , but also to strengthen the sectors efficiency and reduced its carbon emissions.

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The Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC) has already used machine learning to mine their historical and current data, which has helped create scenarios and forecast operations that ADNOC estimates have a “business value” of 1% over three years generated billions of dollars.

AI is also expected to be very valuable in enabling the transition to green energy by managing the decentralized power systems that renewable sources rely on and monitoring carbon emissions.

To that end, in May, London-based AI startup Arloid Automation announced three new partnerships in the Middle East to track and reduce emissions.

investment in the future

Given their large young populations, many MENA countries are making significant investments in AI education, training and research to ensure such technologies play a key role in the future economy and workforce.

Of the $320 billion that the EIU-Google report estimates MENA will generate by 2030 thanks to AI adoption, Strategic Gears expects Saudi Arabia to bring in 42%, due in part to its investments can be attributed to education. About three-quarters of the Saudi Vision 2030 targets involve data and AI, and the kingdom plans to train 20,000 data and AI specialists by the end of the decade.

To underscore this focus, in April, national energy company Aramco signed a memorandum of understanding with King Abdullah University of Science and Technology to set up a new research center to advance AI technological development.

Among the UAE’s largest investments in AI education was the founding of the Mohamed bin Zayed University of Artificial Intelligence (MBZUAI) in 2019. MBZUAI is located in the smart city and innovation cluster of Masdar City and ranks 30th globally among the institutions that conduct AI research. Computer vision, machine learning and natural language processing, according to CSRankings, a platform based on computer science metrics.

Elsewhere, Qatar has several branches of prestigious universities, such as Carnegie Mellon University in the US, where students can pursue AI-related degrees and research. The country is also home to the Qatar Center for Artificial Intelligence, which is working to attract talent to its AI faculty and establish a research and policy center.

Because the benefits of AI are multi- and cross-industry, MENA countries can strategize and build AI-tailored ecosystems that fit their respective economic and social structures.

For example, as part of the Egyptian government’s efforts to use AI for economic growth and quality of life improvements, it provides funding for teacher training programs and other AI-related professional initiatives.

As MENA nations and other emerging economies continue to invest in AI education, some industry insiders say that by leveraging local talent, they could have a distinct advantage over developed nations.

“With the pursuit of affordability – a defining characteristic in developing markets – now also a feature of more advanced markets, software developers in developing markets are gaining a competitive advantage based on the combination of their inherent affinity for low-cost solutions and the opportunities opened up by AI” , Soham Chokshi, CEO and co-founder of logistics software provider Shipsy, told OBG.

However, to realize this competitive advantage and achieve significant improvements in domestic AI capacity, countries in the region must also incentivize investment.

“For the Oman Vision 2040 to become a reality and accelerate economic development, the country must work to create a business environment that encourages greater investment in advanced technologies, particularly in the field of AI and data analytics,” said Maqbool Al Wahaibi, CEO of Oman Data Park, said OBG. “In this context, local IT companies must prepare to compete with global players who are expanding their presence in the local market.”

From the Oxford Business Group

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