Saudi Arabia Archives — Carrington Malin

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.


March 31, 2021
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The impact of AI in the Middle East special report is out from Middle East Economic Digest (MEED), which includes features covering innovation, digital transformation in the construction industry, and update on Qatar’s national artificial intelligence strategy and MEED’s own Digital Transformation Index.

I was name-checked in the ‘Creating an artificial intelligence ecosystem‘ feature by Jennifer Aguinaldo, which explores the region’s quest to drive home-grown innovation and create an AI ecosystem that does more than simply buy technology from overseas. All the national AI strategies developed by countries around the region include plans to encourage innovation, incentivise startups and nurture local research and development. However, it is Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates that have fast-tracked more initiatives, policy and supporting government programmes over the past few years.

As is normally the case with Middle East Economic Digest, the impact of AI in the Middle East report is behind the paywall. If you are a MEED subscriber, you can read Jennifer’s full article here.


January 25, 2021
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Despite the economic pressures of the past few years and the disruption of the pandemic, there is so much going on in tech in the Middle East at the moment. So, there was no shortage of material for Damian Radcliffe’s annual Middle East technology predictions story in ZDnet, which quoted me and others from the region’s tech ecosystem on a wide variety of trends including 5G, emerging technologies, government investment, startups, smart cities, open data and cybersecurity.

Prior to the pandemic IDC forecast that investments in digital transformation and innovation will account for 30 percent of all IT spending in the Middle East, Turkey, and Africa (META) by 2024, up from 18 percent in 2018. Meanwhile, it has predicted that government enterprise IT spending in META will top $8 billion in 2021.

During the past 12-18 months we have seen significant activity in several key areas of government spending, including digital transformation, creating Government Clouds, introducing open data policies and platforms, digital services and robotics. Then there was the Saudi Data and Artificial Intelligence Authority (SDAIA) announcement of the Kingdom’s National Strategy for Data & AI (NSDAI) in October, revealing plans to raise $20 billion in investment for data and AI initiatives.

My expectation is that some of the government digital platforms and initiatives that have been created over the past 18 months will support the launch of a variety of new initiatives, local and foreign investment, public-private sector partnerships and opportunities for startups during 2021.

You can read Damian’s full article on what 2021 means for tech in the Middle East here.


January 14, 2021
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It’s been a bumpy ride for GCC technology ecosystems, with plenty of budget cuts, job losses and, due to the onset of Covid-19, slowing venture capital activity. However, some of the region’s most ambitious government initiatives to-date have been put in place to accelerate innovation, talent and growth in the tech sector. Uptake of some technologies also seems to have spiked since the pandemic.

So, is the region’s tech sector growing or cooling off? It’s an interesting question and, as with many questions like this about industries, there’s no simple answer. WIRED Middle East asked me whether I was optimistic about the future of tech in the region. The short answer is that I am very optimistic, although the tech sector is not without its challenges.

It is true that much of the technology sector has been hit hard by the knock-on effect of lower oil prices on GCC IT spending, increase price competition and the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on decision making, new projects and project spending. Multinationals and regional technology firms have cut budgets, including staffing and other expenses as a result. However, one really has to drill down to specific technologies, solutions and the current technology needs of customers in the region to fully understand what’s going on. All types of technology business are not contracting. In fact, far from it, some tech firms are growing fast and many of those are working with new emerging technologies for automation, data analytics, AI-powered digital services and other disruptive services and solutions.

There are also contradictory trends when looking at the impact of 2020’s turmoil on jobs and the region’s need to compete for the right tech talent. There are three key driving forces here shaping the region’s tech talent pool: 1) global trends creating new tech jobs and decreasing demand for tech jobs that are being obsoleted and/or impacted by automation, 2) the GCC’s belt-tightening of the past few years due to lower oil prices, forcing public and private sectors to be more cost-effective and 3) the unexpected consequences of Covid-19, which include the accelerated demand for some emerging technologies.

Along side the economic ups and downs, and the surprises brought about by the pandemic, there are the heavily funded innovation and technology initiatives that have been put in place by Saudi Arabia and the UAE. For example, the massive open data projects in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the recently announced $20 billion Saudi National Strategy for Data & AI (NSDAI), Abu Dhabi’s increasing investment in R&D, and numerous smart city and smart city services projects. We’ve also seen an upswing in the numbers of tech startups outside of the popular ecommerce, delivery, travel and transport segments.

However, the one change that I’ve noticed over the past few years, may be the crucial one for the GCC technology ecosystems. I believe that there has been a clear attitudinal change among GCC citizens themselves, that has helped to make technology a more attractive sector for jobs, entrepreneurship and investment. In years past, a traditional career in technology has been a safe government IT job, whereas today locals are joining the tech sector in larger numbers, there is a new generation of tech startups founded by GCC citizens and we’re starting to see more interest in startup venture capital investments from Gulf investors.

Huge, well thought through government tech initiatives, the recent acceleration of demand for emerging technologies and the increasing engagement of GCC nationals in the tech sector are the three top reasons why I believe there has never been a more exciting time for the region’s tech industry.

Read Ashleigh Stewart’s full article on WIRED Middle East.


October 21, 2020
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The Saudi national AI strategy was announced today at the virtual Global AI Summit by Saudi Data and Artificial Intelligence Authority (SDAIA) president Dr. Abdullah bin Sharaf Al-Ghamdi. The National Strategy for Data & AI (NSDAI) includes ambitious goals for skilling-up Saudi talent, growing the nation’s startup ecosystem and attaining global leadership in the AI space. It also aims to raise $20 billion in investment for data and AI initiatives.

Dr. Abdullah bin Sharaf Al-Ghamdi, President of the Saudi Data and Artificial Intelligence Authority (SDAIA) today gave a brief introduction to some of the key goals of Saudi Arabia’s national AI strategy, now named the National Strategy for Data & AI (NSDAI). Speaking at the inaugural Global AI Summit, he advised that Saudi Arabia has set ambitious targets for its national AI strategy, including a goal of attracting $20 billion in investments by 2030, both in foreign direct investment (FDI) and local funding for data and artificial intelligence initiatives.

As detailed by Dr. Al-Ghamdi, the Kindgom aims to rank among the top 15 nations for AI by 2030, it will train 20,000 data and AI specialists and experts and it will grow an ecosystem of 300 active data and AI startups. He also urged participants in the virtual event to challenge themselves, to think and work together, and to shape the future of AI together for the good of humanity.

Formed last year, with a mandate to drive the national data and AI agenda, the SDAIA developed a national AI strategy which was approved by King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud in August 2020. No details of the National Strategy for Data & AI were shared until today.

According to an official SDAIA statement, the NSDAI will roll-out a multi-phase plan that both addresses urgent requirements for the next five years and contributes to Vision 2030 strategic development goals. In the short term, the strategy will aim to accelerate the use of AI in education, energy, government, healthcare and mobility sectors.

Saudi National Strategy for Data & AI goals
Source: Saudi Data and Artificial Intelligence Authority (SDAIA)

Six strategic areas have been identified in the NSDAI:

  • Ambition – positioning Saudi Arabia as a global leader and enabler for AI, with a goal of ranking among the first 15 countries in AI by 2030.
  • Skills – transforming the Saudi workforce and skilling-up talent, with a target of creating 20,000 AI and Data specialists and experts by 2030.
  • Policy & regulation – developing a world-class regulatory framework, including for the ethical use of data and AI that will underpin open data and economic growth.
  • Investment – attracting FDI and local investment into the data and AI sector, with a goal of securing a total of $20 billion (SAR 75b) in investments.
  • Research and innovation – the NSDAI will also drive the development of research and innovation institutions in data and AI, with an objective of the Kingdom ranking among the top 20 countries in the world for peer reviewed data and AI publications.
  • Digital ecosystem – the new national AI strategy also aims to drive the commercialization and industry application of data and AI, creating an ecosystem with at least 300 AI and data startups by the year 2030.

Over the past year, SDAIA has established three specialised centres of expertise: the National Information Center, the National Data Management Office and the National Center for AI. It has also begun building perhaps the largest government data cloud in the region, merging 83 data centres owned by over 40 Saudi government bodies. More than 80 percent of government datasets have so far been consolidated under a national data bank.

The formation of the SDAIA follows the adoption of the government’s ‘ICT Strategy 2023‘ in 2018, which aims to transform the kingdom into a digital and technological powerhouse. The government identified technology as a key driver for its Vision 2030 blueprint for economic and social reform. Digitisation and artificial intelligence are seen as key enablers of the wide-ranging reforms.

Artrificial intelligence, big data and IoT are also pivotal for the massive $500 billion smart city, Neom, announced by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in 2017. Infrastructure work on the 26,000 square kilometre city began earlier this year.

Meanwhile, the authority has been using AI to identify opportunities for improving the Kingdom’s government processes, which may result in some $10 billion in government savings and additional revenues.

More than fifty government officials and global AI leaders are speaking at this week’s Global AI Summit, which takes place today and tomorrow. The online event coincides with the year of Saudi’s presidency of the G20.

Download the National Strategy for Data & AI Strategy Narrative – October 2020 (PDF)

Watch the NSDAI promotion video from the Global AI Summit (Youtube)

Updated 23 October 2020


September 5, 2020
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The Saudi national artificial intelligence strategy is to be launched at the Global AI Summit, which will now take place virtually from 21-22 October*, according to a statement from the Saudi Data and Artificial Intelligence Authority (SDAIA) on Friday. It was disclosed in August that the national AI strategy presented by the authority (since named the National Strategy for Data & AI) had been approved by King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. PWC has forecast that AI could contribute $135 billion (or 12.4%) to Saudi Arabia’s GDP by the year 2030.

Established by royal decree in August 2019, the SDAIA was given the mandate to drive the national data and AI agenda for transforming the country into a leading data-driven economy, and has developed Saudi Arabia’s national AI strategy over the past year. Although the details of the plan have been kept under wraps, the new strategy is expected to contribute to 66 of the country’s strategic goals, which are directly or indirectly related to data and AI.

The SDAIA has already reached a number of milestones since its inception, establishing three specialised centres of expertise: the National Information Center, the National Data Management Office and the National Center for AI. It has also begun building one of the largest data clouds in the region by merging 83 data centres owned by over 40 Saudi government bodies. More than 80 percent of government datasets have so far been consolidated under a national data bank.

Meanwhile, the authority has been using AI to identify opportunities for improving the Kingdom’s government processes, which may result in some $10 billion in government savings and additional revenues.

Originally slated for March 2020, the Global AI Summit will discuss AI, its applications, impact on social and economic development, plus global challenges and opportunities. The event aims to connect key decision makers from government and public sector, academia, industry and enterprise, tech firms, investors, entrepreneurs and startups.

October’s virtual summit will be organised into four tracks:

    • Shaping the new normal;
    • AI and governments;
    • Governing AI; and
    • The future of AI.

The Global AI Summit aims to tackle the challenges faced by countries around the world, from technical to ethical. Details of the agenda and speaker platform for the Global AI Summit have yet to be announced, although the presentation of the Saudi national artificial intelligence strategy is bound to be a highlight.

*Updated 17 September 2020

Also read: Saudi national AI strategy announced with investment target of $20 billion – 21 October 2020


August 21, 2020
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A great roundup about artificial intelligence in the Middle East by Damian Radcliffe, Carolyn S Chambers Professor in Journalism at the University of Oregon, which quotes me commenting on Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. With IT spending in the Middle East and Africa (MEA) forecast by IDC to reach $83 billion this year, AI is going to become an increasing focus.

IDC also predicts that investment in AI systems across MEA will hit $374.2 million this year, up from $261.8 million in 2018 and a projected expenditure of $310.3 million in 2019. However, with many AI technologies in high demand since the arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic, one has to wonder how this will affect IDC’s forecasts – not just in the MEA region, but globally too.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE had both begun investing in new AI technologies for government use, planning how to encourage AI-powered innovations and looking at regulatory requirements for their Fourth Industrial Revolution future. However, the advent of coronavirus has certainly fueled both interest and investment in artificial intelligence, with public and private sectors investing in automation, data analysis, robotics, health and safety systems, plus technologies to enhance contactless delivery of consumer services.

Despite forcing the cancellation of many high tech events around the region, the pandemic has also, arguably, fast tracked government plans and policies to harness AI and create a business environment conducive to driving successful digital economies. The UAE is reported to have improved plans for leveraging AI consistent with its national AI strategy, while Dubai announced a new comprehensive drone law in July. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia approved its own national artificial intelligence strategy in August – and muted that it would soon introduce a comprehensive law to govern commercial and recreational drone use in the Kingdom.

For more on artificial intelligence in the Middle East read Damian’s full article here.


August 12, 2020
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The Saudi national AI strategy has been approved, according to comments made by Saudi Data and Artificial Intelligence Authority (SDAIA) president, Dr. Abdullah bin Sharaf Al-Ghamdi this week. As reported by the Saudi Press Agency (SPA) on Sunday, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud has approved the Saudi National Strategy for Data & Artificial Intelligence (NSDAI), which has been prepared over the past year by SDAIA.

According to Dr. Abdullah, the new strategy will enable government and private sector programmes to contribute towards the goals of the Kingdom’s Vision 2030. Overall, the authority expects the new strategy to contribute to 66 of the country’s strategic goals, which are directly or indirectly related to data and AI.

SDAIA was established by Royal Order no. 74167 in August last year, giving the authority the mandate to drive the national data and AI agenda for transforming the country into a leading data-driven economy. The decree also ordered the authority to establish three specialised centres of expertise: the National Information Center, the National Data Management Office and the National Center for AI.

Speaking at the launch of the SDAIA’s new brand identity in March, Dr. Abdullah talked of an ambitious and innovative Saudi national AI strategy that would optimise national resources, improving efficiencies and enabling the creation of diversified economic sectors. However, no details of the plan have yet been shared publicly.

The SDAIA has already been using AI applications to analyse government processes and procedures, with its initial assessment being that the opportunities identified could generate more than $10 billion in government savings and additional revenues.

The authority has also established a national data bank consolidating more than 80 percent of government datasets (or 30 percent of total government digital assets) and has rolled-out a G-Cloud (or Government-Cloud) aimed at building one of the largest data clouds in the region through the merger of 83 data centres owned by over 40 Saudi government bodies.

According to a 2017 study by PWC on the global impact of artificial intelligence, AI could contribute $135 billion (12.4%) to Saudi Arabia’s GDP by the year 2030, being the second-highest predicted share for the contribution of AI to GDP in the Middle East region after the UAE.

The timing of the national AI strategy approval comes just a few weeks in advance of the planned Global AI Summit organised by the SDAIA, which is currently scheduled to take place in the Saudi capital of Riyadh, 14-15 September.

Updated 16.57 hrs 12 August 2020

Also read: Saudi national AI strategy announced with investment target of $20 billion – 21 October 2020


April 6, 2020
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CIO Middle East asked me how the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is using technology to cope with impact of the novel coronavirus. The pandemic has, of course, put enormous pressure on business and government to change the way services are delivered and introduce alternatives that meet the health, safety and practical requirements of the emergency, However, Saudi’s previous technology investments have stood the country in good stead. Saudi has been able to move quickly to monitor public places, digitise healthcare processes and ramp up online education as a result of technology initiatives already put in place.

Read the full article here.