GCC Archives — Carrington Malin

May 3, 2021
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GCC technology investments are growing, as private investors, investment banks and sovereign wealth funds switch focus from traditional investment assets such as bonds, equity and real estate.

In October 2017, Saudi Arabia’s Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman announced plans to build a $500 billion smart city of the future called NEOM and made headlines around the world. It’s a grand scheme to create an AI-driven city that crosses the borders of Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia – and, mainly thanks to NEOM’s massive scale and expense, some have found the plan, simply, hard to believe.

However, that same year, with far less media coverage, Saudi also launched its nationwide smart cities programme, selecting 17 cities for digital transformation projects, with the support of $500 billion earmarked for modernising urban developments across the Kingdom. Although the largest of its kind in the Gulf, other government-planned smart city initiatives have already been set in motion in Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman and the United Arab Emirates.

The Gulf states have always been big buyers of technology and one could describe today’s government digital transformation policies as fearless! The UAE, for example, has a history of enacting bold initiatives that, rightly or wrongly, would require many years of debate and review elsewhere. The race to embrace facial recognition technologies is one such area of digital policy and a key milestone in this month’s news is that residents of the Emirates can now use biometric facial recognition to access thousands of public services.

Naturally, the GCC’s affinity for new technology has made the region a fast-growing market for 5G, AI, blockchain, Edge and IoT technologies and the past month has had no shortage of commercial announcements from tech companies competing for a slice of the pie.

The buzz around the Gulf’s smart cities market

It’s no secret that partnerships are key to developing sustainable smart cities and these are being put in place at all levels across the Gulf.

This week, digital energy management leader Schneider Electric and NXN, a leading regional provider of smart digital services for the smart cities sector, announced a partnership to collaborate on smart energy solutions. Meanwhile, Chinese AIoT solutions developer Terminus Group and UAE solutions provider Injazat signed a partnership targeting urban digitalisation in the region.

Urban mobility is also seen with increased frequency in the Gulf’s news media. A Huawei exec was quoted recently as being bullish about the market for 5G-enabled self-driving cars in the Middle East and he’s not alone. In fact, overall, the interest in autonomous vehicles seems to have entered a new phase and signing up potential ecosystem partners has become a priority.

Dubai’s Roads and Transport Authority (RTA), which has a strategy to transform 25 percent of total trips within the city to driverless transport by the year 2030, just signed an MoU with the World Economic Forum related to its Safe Drive Initiative Framework (SafeDI Framework). This was also the month that Dubai’s Crown Prince H.H. Sheikh Hamdan Bin Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum confirmed that GM-backed autonomous vehicle company Cruise will supply the emirates’s robotaxi shuttles. Cruise could operate its Origin ride-sharing shuttles in Dubai as soon as 2023.

Facial recognition? That’ll do nicely, sir!

Following a cabinet decision in February to approve the use of facial recognition for public and private services, the UAE government has announced the integration of facial recognition into the national public services app, UAE Pass. Users will be able to use biometric facial recognition to gain access to 6,000 services provided by over 130 government departments and public authorities. Private sector payment services using biometric facial recognition ID are expected to follow in the near future.

The UAE is not shy of using facial recognition technology for security purposes either. Already in use by police across Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah emirates in public CCTV systems, police vehicles and radar cameras, the number of pilots using facial recognition technologies are growing fast. This week, Sharjah Police disclosed that it has multiple trials in action using drones equipped with facial recognition technology to help police search for suspects or wanted criminals, police public areas and monitor suspicious behaviour.

Robots move to front-of-house in Gulf retail

Robotics has been in use by major retailers and distributors in the GCC for some years for warehousing and stock control. Supermarket giant Carrefour has Tally robots (manufactured by Californian automation startup Simbe Robotics, Inc.) in use across eleven of its retail malls in the UAE, for auditing and stock control. Now the group has started to use robots for customer service, opening its first fully-automated store in Dubai Financial District last year, with app ordering and a robot delivery service.

The idea seems to be catching on and a number of retail automation projects are in various stages of development across the region. This month, national telecom operator Omantel announced plans to partner with Oman Oil Marketing Company to enable the first AI and IoT-powered smart store in the Sultanate of Oman.

The growing curiosity about robots has also given rise to a number of Robo-diners in Saudi Arabia and the UAE. ‘Restaurant Robot’, a new Asian restaurant in the southwestern Saudi port city of Jazan, recently made the local press. Conceived and run by a young female engineer, Reham Omar, the restaurant’s six waitress robots (manufactured by Chinese robotics firm CSJBOT) have proved to be quite a hit with diners.

Increased focus on GCC technology investments

Despite the region’s high spending on acquiring technology, the vast proportion of Gulf investment managed by large private investors, investment banks and sovereign wealth funds has historically gone into traditional investment assets such as bonds, equity and real estate. When tech has been a target, it has typically been the blue-chip stocks and certainly not new, unproven tech ventures. Today, the attitudes of both private investors and fund managers are changing rapidly. A Financial Times exclusive a few weeks ago revealed that Abu Dhabi’s sovereign wealth fund, Mubadala, is turning away from its roots and ramping up investments in technology, healthcare and disruptive industries.

Last year Mubadala announced that it was investing $2 billion in a 25-year strategy plan led by tech-focused private equity firm Silver Lake. Earlier this month, Silver Lake disclosed that it is investing about $800 million in Abu Dhabi AI and cloud computing company Group 42 (G42), in a sign of the private-equity firm’s deepening relationship with the emirate. The week afterward, Group 42 announced an AI and Big Data joint venture with Israel’s state-owned Rafael Advanced Defense Systems. Although this might look like a game of venture capital pass the parcel, the key takeaway is that big Gulf funds are now looking to new technology and global tech-focused funds are keen to partner with them.

Saudi funds are targeting emerging tech too. Upcoming venture capital investor, backed by one of the world’s largest oil companies, Saudi Aramco Energy Ventures was among a group that awarded $50 million to Seattle-based industrial analytics startup Seeq Corp., as part of its Series C funding round this year. Meanwhile, Riyadh-based Future Investment Initiative Institute (FII-I) has invested in German electric VTOL aircraft startup Lilium.

Funding is also being used as a lever to bring research and development into the GCC. Abu Dhabi-based ADQ‘s Alpha Wave Incubation (AWI) fund invests in Asian startups on the condition that they establish an R&D operation in the city. This month, ADQ announced an investment in Indonesia-based edtech startup CoLearn’s $10 million Series A funding round. As a result, CoLearn is already hiring for its new Abu Dhabi-based R&D team.

UAE National AI Strategy

Lastly, if you are curious to learn more about the UAE’s National AI Strategy, I can recommend watching this new video of the Minister of State for Artificial Intelligence, Digital Economy and Remote Work Applications, H.E. Omar Sultan AlOlama who presents a concise overview of the country’s strategy and its implementation.

This article was originally published as ‘A letter from the Gulf’ in The AI Journal.

Also see last month’s ‘Letter from the Gulf’


April 4, 2021
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Budgets fueled by oil revenues and a relative lack of legacy systems offer distinct advantages to technology master planners. So, can the GCC leapfrog the West in AI adoption?

First time visitors to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates or any of the other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, cannot fail to be impressed by the pristine international airports, awe-inspiring highways and comprehensive digital government systems.

The region’s state-of-the-art infrastructure and ability to roll-out advanced technology owe much, not only to oil revenues but also to the lack of legacy infrastructure and systems. This has allowed the Gulf states to leap-frog and embrace new technologies faster than many countries in the West. Now they’re hoping to do the same with artificial intelligence, by embracing AI faster than anyone else.

If the past month’s news is anything to go by, the GCC has recently switched its adoption of emerging technologies up a gear.

UAE reveals 4IR development strategy

Notably, amongst the many tech-related government announcements in March, the UAE last week revealed its new industrial development strategy, ‘Operation 300bn’.  The plan aims to create a new industrial ecosystem consisting primarily of high-tech and Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) ventures. The past five years have seen the Emirates push technological innovation to the top of the national agenda. The UAE was one of the first countries to announce a national AI strategy in 2017 and the primary motivation behind its widely publicised Mars Hope Probe is actually to help catalyse innovation at home.

‘Operation 300bn’, which aims to increase the industrial sector’s contribution to the UAE’s GDP from AED 133 billion ($36bn) to AED 300 billion ($82bn) by 2031, confirms the central position of an advanced technology agenda at the heart of the country’s policymaking.

Qatar and Saudi Arabia have also increased their 4IR focus during the past few years, with Saudi Arabia forming the Saudi Data and AI Authority (SDAIA) in 2019 and announcing its national AI strategy in October last year. This month Qatar signaled readiness to proceed with its own AI strategy, forming a new committee to help drive implementation.

Fast-tracking digital transformation

Meanwhile, we’ve seen both public and private sectors increase the rate of adoption of AI and other emerging technologies, further accelerated by the onset of Covid-19.

According to new results released from Dell Technologies’ 2020 Digital Transformation Index, Saudi Arabia and the UAE seem to be accelerating ahead of the rest of the world in implementing digital transformation and cutting-edge technologies. The research found that 90 percent of organisations in the two countries fast-tracked digital transformation programmes last year, ahead of the index’s global benchmark of 80 percent.

This fast adoption is evidenced by news of some massive technology projects that we’ve heard about during the past few weeks.

DP World, Dubai’s multinational logistics and container terminal operator, has now implemented a fully-automated Terminal Operating System for one of its key container terminals in Jebel Ali Port. The home-developed system includes autonomous systems and remote control functionality for all of the facilities in the terminal.

In the energy sector, Aramco Trading Company, or ATC, which is responsible for transporting Saudi Aramco’s oil supplies to worldwide markets, and developer Maana have implemented an AI maritime fleet optimisation application purpose-built for the oil and gas industry. The application runs a digital twin of ATC’s global maritime operations, using AI to automatically optimise schedules across the fleet with a single click and offer scenarios and insights to aid planning.

Desert smart cities

There was also no shortage of smart city news this month, with Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, in particular, forging ahead with initiatives to improve the lives of city residents, boost competitiveness and develop urban sustainability. Dubai International Airport’s use of iris scanner ID systems for automated passport control made headlines in February. This month, a Dubai 2040 Urban Master Plan was announced to leverage city planning and new technologies to create greater urban sustainability.

In Kuwait, Hong Kong group Wai Hung and Investment Projects General Trading Company signed a deal to build one million smart parking spaces in nine countries across the Middle East.  While, in neighbouring Saudi Arabia, the holy city of Makkah (Mecca) is deploying solar-powered smart bins to collect and autonomously sort empty plastic bottles.

Abu Dhabi’s AI powerhouse Group 42 announced a new partnership with the UK’s Serco Group to develop AI and IoT solutions for facilities management and support the outsourcing company’s shift towards data-driven operations. We may well see the future impact of this partnership reach far beyond the Gulf.

In another Group 42-backed initiative announced this month, Abu Dhabi’s first public trial of driverless vehicle services will begin by the end of 2021. Initially, three autonomous vehicles will provide transport services to tourists and residents visiting the Yas Mall area, but the plan is to increase both the coverage and the number of AVs involved during 2022.

Building the Gulf’s first quantum computer

Quantum computing has already been identified as an area of opportunity by GCC states, with a number of quantum computing research groups being formed in universities in Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.  This year, King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) has been recruiting for a Professor of Devices for Quantum Technologies, who will ultimately lead the university’s efforts to build quantum devices.

However, in Abu Dhabi, the newly formed Technology Innovation Institute (TII) is already building its own quantum computer at its Quantum Research Centre, in collaboration with Barcelona-based deep-tech startup Qilimanjaro. TII is the applied research arm of the emirate’s Advanced Technology Research Council, which both formulates research policy and orchestrates projects, resources and funding.

It’s research and development ventures such as this that symbolise the latest dreams of Gulf policy-makers. Over the years, the Gulf states have proved to be astute buyers of advanced technology, while taking none of the risks necessary to develop innovation at home.

Today, along with ambitious policies to embrace emerging technologies, build smart cities and leverage AI, there is also now momentum behind policies that actively encourage home-grown technology development. The region’s nascent R&D sector has already become an early beneficiary of this policy shift and it’s a sector that the world can expect to hear much more from during the coming years.

This article was originally published as ‘A letter from the Gulf’ in The AI Journal.