The first country to grant citizenship to a robot was Saudi Arabia (at the annual Future Investment Initiative (FII) 2017). 

Created by Hanson Robotics, “Sophia” is equipped with Artificial Intelligence (AI) so she can hold eye contact, recognize faces and understand human speech[1]

The same year, 2017, the UAE appointed a state minister for AI — Omar bin Sultan Al Olama – the first country in the world to have its own ministry for AI and to develop a long-term national strategy to develop AI. 

In their different ways, both countries were not only asserting their commitment to AI, but also demonstrating to the rest of the world that the Middle East would be at the forefront of the ‘fourth industrial revolution’ (a term coined in 2015 by the World Economic Forum executive chairman, Klaus Schwab)[2].

According to a PwC study[3], the potential contribution of AI to the global economy will peak at almost US$ 16 trillion by 2030 and the Middle East is expected to accrue around 2% of those benefits – equivalent to around US$ 320 billion. 

The largest gains are expected to be in the UAE, where AI is predicted to contribute close to 14% of its GDP, and Saudi Arabia, with close to 13 % of GDP driven by AI in 2030.  The contribution of AI to the economies of these two countries are on par with economies in Southern Europe and developed Asia.  The other most significant relative beneficiaries in the region will be Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman and Qatar, which together will enjoy a boost of US$ 45.9 billion, states the report, the equivalent of 8.2%.  Overall, AI’s contribution to GDP is forecast to grow at a rate of between 20% to 34% per year across the Middle East region

PwC is not the only global consultancy predicting large productivity gains from AI.  McKinsey Global Institute has also published a report[4] estimating that AI has the potential to incrementally add 16% or around US$ 13 trillion by 2030 to current global economic output.  Meanwhile, the World Economic Forum (WEF) reported[5] that 46% of all work activities in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia are suitable for automation, as are 47% in the UAE, 49% in Egypt, and 52% in Qatar.  In addition, whether jobs are declining, stable or growing due to the impact of AI, they are going through major changes in terms of their skills profile.  The WEF Future of Jobs[6] analysis found that, by 2020, 21% of core skills in the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) will be different compared to skills that were needed in 2015. 

For governments in the region, there is both a carrot and a stick element to this focus on AI.  Invest in AI and you both boost and future-proof your economy.  Ignore it and you risk being left behind. 

This certainly will not be the case for Saudi Arabia and UAE and other Middle East countries, which have continued to invest in their AI propositions despite delays caused by the recent pandemic.

Saudi Arabia shows the way

Saudi Arabia has laid out how it sees AI developing in its national development strategy, Vision 2030.  This envisions a central role for AI in influencing public health, welfare and education services, as well as being fundamental to the development of smart cities like NEOM.  Vision 2030 is designed to transform the country into one of the most competitive countries in terms of scientific innovation.  So much so that the Saudi government has earmarked US$ 20 billion for the advancement of AI alone[7].

Its first step was to establish a national data and AI authority, the Saudi Data and Artificial Intelligence Authority (SDAIA), which it launched with the bold motto “Data is the oil of the 21st Century”[8].  Its mandate is to establish the country as a global leader among the league of data-driven economies.  

In 2020, the SDAIA announced its National Strategy for Data and Artificial Intelligence (NSDAI)[9],  which  sought to attract US$ 20 billion in foreign and local investments by 2030 as part of its plan to become a global leader in the field.

So far it has already set up a national data bank that incorporates 30% of government digital assets (more than 80 government datasets) and taken steps towards e-government through setting up the G-Cloud.  The target is to merge 83 data centers owned by more than 40 government bodies to form one of the largest clouds in the region.  It has also used AI-analyzed data to detect opportunities that could generate more than US$ 10 billion in government savings and additional revenues.

The three core entities within SDAIA are the National Data Management Office (NDMO), the National Information Center (NIC), and the National Center for Artificial Intelligence (NCAI). These three organizations are all designed to help deliver the promise of a data-driven and AI-supported government and economy.

The NDMO digitizes national data as a national asset, while the NCAI focuses on driving advancements in AI innovation by orchestrating AI research, developing AI solutions, providing AI strategic advisory services to the government, and enhancing AI education. The NIC provides the latest technology services and digital solutions for the country’s government agencies[10].

The Saudi Company for Artificial Intelligence (SCAI) is charged with shaping the future of AI through targeted investments and partnerships with leading edge companies, as well as identifying gaps in the global market that are worth tackling with the country’s own strategic capabilities.  One of its solutions is an AI-based document extraction platform that automatically extracts text and data from scanned documents.  Another is an audio analytics platform that uses voice or speech recognition to receive and interpret dictation or understand and carry outspoken commands.  The SCAI also has natural language understanding platforms that focus on reading comprehension and semantic analysis.

In addition, Saudi Arabia is investing in a series of innovation labs for students and entrepreneurs to increase information about innovation and encourage entrepreneurs to develop business models for digital development.  

An example is the newly established lab called ‘FekraTech’ (meaning “your idea” in Arabic), that received 40,000 proposals in its first round.  Another development is the establishment of the new IP Authority (SIPA), which is tasked with creating a national intellectual property ecosystem that will encourage business development and innovation, attract foreign investment, and support the growth of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).[11]

Deputy Minister of Technology, Industry and Digital Capabilities, Dr Ahmed Al Theneyan, has said the Government’s aim is to train around 20,000 students and create 20,000 jobs, while doubling the participation of women in the ICT field[12].  At the same time, the Ministry of Education is introducing digital skills such as such as AI, data science, and data security into K-12 education to meet future needs.

Vision 2030 makes it clear that Saudi Arabia wants to accelerate its development of AI through partnerships with leading companies.  The most recent of these partnership agreements with Huawei, International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and Alibaba Cloud respectively, were announced at the 2022 Global AI Summit in Riyadh.

The NCAI signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with Huawei[13] to enable strategic cooperation on the country’s National AI Capability Development Program.  Under the MoU, Huawei will train Saudi AI engineers and students, and also address Arabic language AI-related capabilities.  NCAI and Huawei will also “explore the creation of an AI Capability Platform to localize technology solutions”.

The SDAIA signed a MoU with the ITU, a specialized agency of the UN, to collaborate in optimizing the benefits of AI technologies and applications for sustainable development[14]. Saudi Arabia has agreed to support ITU in developing projects, activities, and initiatives that will enable multi-stakeholder participation, international cooperation, and knowledge sharing.

SDAIA also signed an MoU with Alibaba Cloud[15] to develop digital and AI services in such areas as safety and security, mobility, urban planning, energy, education and health.  The SDAIA said:

This partnership with Alibaba Cloud will support the acceleration of the transformation of our cities, through enabling intelligence-driven technologies and AI techniques that will fuel sustainable economic development and a high quality of life to our citizens.”

The White Paper delivered at the summit, A Smart Vision for a Smart Nation: Building a Nation for the Future[16], firmly set out the country’s ambition: “smart cities form a crucial enabler in achieving its vision of creating a vibrant society, a thriving economy, and building an ambitious nation.” 

This is already showing results.  According to the Smart City Index by the Institute for Management Development (IMD)[17], Riyadh ranked as the third smartest city among the capitals of G20 states and 30th globally in 2021, jumping 23 positions from the previous year.  The city of Madinah also entered the index for the first time, ranking 73rd globally.

The epitome of the smart city is NEOM. This US$ 500 billion city being developed in the north-west of the country is envisaged as the most advanced smart city in the world, accommodating 9 million people in a car-free, carbon-neutral environment controlled and enhanced through AI.

While NEOM is under construction, the country is forging ahead with AI in other areas of government.  AI has been implemented in health care, justice, tourism, utilities, and public administration.  For example, the Ministry of Health launched Seha Virtual, the first virtual hospital in the Middle East, which provides virtual services for electroencephalogram patients, stroke patients, critical care patients, and radiology patients.  The Virtual Enforcement Court launched by the Ministry of Justice uses AI to shorten litigation procedures from 12 steps to just two[18].

UAE prioritizing AI

Saudi Arabia is not the only GCC country staking its claim as an AI global hub.  Elsewhere in the region, the UAE has a growing reputation for being one of the most adaptive nations for AI, thanks in part to the Centennial 2071 project “to make the UAE the best country in the world by 2071”[19].  AI will play a large part in achieving this ambition, which complements the Artificial Intelligence Strategy launched in 2017.

UAE AI Strategy 2031Through this strategy, the UAE aims to be the world leader in AI by 2031 and boost its GDP by around 35% (US$ 96 billion) using AI technologies[20].   It will help the country reduce its government spending by up to 50%, saving approximately US$ 3 billion, through reducing the number of paper-based transactions.  The AI Strategy is also intended to boost the economy by raising individual productivity by 13% and reducing the number of foreign workers, which in turn will reduce the value of financial transfers sent abroad.

In the years since the AI Strategy was launched, the UAE has become one of the few countries that has included AI in everyday life, and not just in the industrial sector.  During the recent pandemic, for instance, Al played a crucial role in controlling the spread of COVID-19, including extensive use of robots and drones in sanitizing the streets and dispensing hand sanitizers[21].  Dubai Police’s Oyoon (“eyes” in Arabic) project uses an AI network of smart cameras for surveillance that has proved successful not only in maintaining law and order, but also in catching offenders, while Dubai Airport has installed 112 smart gates[22].  These use facial recognition technology as part of an automated self-service border control system that enables passengers to zip through passport control in seconds.

The UAE is also investing in upskilling its population[23], as it is adopting an AI curriculum in the higher education system, constructing 73 robotics labs in Emirati schools and launching six smart platforms to integrate technology within the education system.

MBZUALIt has also established the world’s first AI university, the Mohamed Bin Zayed University of Artificial Intelligence (MBZUAI). MBZUAI ranks 30th globally among institutions that conduct research in AI, computer vision, machine learning and natural language processing, according to computer science metrics-based platform CS Rankings[24].   Other support and educational programs include the UAE AI Camp, the UAE AI Internship Program, the “Think AI” initiative and the UAE AI Skills Academy.

Abu Dhabi’s Inception Institute of Artificial Intelligence[25] is led by Professor Ling Shao, who was previously Chair Professor of Computer Vision and Machine Learning at the University of East Anglia, UK.  Its applied research teams are working with experts in different areas to contribute to real-world solutions, such as applying cutting-edge machine learning and computer vision techniques to revolutionize the healthcare industry through medical image computation and analysis.

The use of AI in medical imaging is a key area of investment for Abdul Latif Jameel Health, the healthcare arm of Abdul Latif Jameel.  The mission of Abdul Latif Jameel Health is to “accelerate access to modern medical care, for those who need it most.”  One way to achieve this is to explore emerging trends and innovation in technology, therapeutics and business models to hasten affordable accessibility – and inclusiveness – in growing markets and developing economies.  It has partnered with innovators in a series of AI-driven healthtech, such as the Butterfly iQ+TM handheld ultrasound device and Holoeyes extended reality (XR) 3D virtual environment surgical technology.

Another Abdul Latif Jameel business, Fotowatio Renewable Ventures (FRV) (part of Abdul Latif Jameel Energy) through its innovation arm FRV-X, also harnesses the power of AI deploying the Tesla auto-bidding software used in their battery storage systems (BESS) in the UK (Holes Bay, Dorset; Contego, West Sussex; Clay Tye, Essex) and in Australia Terang, Victoria, and a hybrid plant at Dalby, Queensland.

And Almar Water Solutions, also part of Abdul Latif Jameel Energy, recently invested in a technology company that provides end-to-end IoT products and services for digital transformation in the water, energy and mobility sectors: Datakorum.  Datakorum subsequently secured a 5-year project with leading communications operator, e& Enterprise, (previously Etisalat Digital) facilitating the digital transformation of the water and energy management systems in the City of Abu Dhabi, UAE.

From left to right: Guillermo Escobar, Datakorum General Manager; Rodrigo Segovia, CTO, Almar Water Solutions; Jesus Vicente, Industry and Technology Division Manager, Almar Water Solutions; and Vicente Escobar, Datakorum Board Member

This agreement will strengthen the process started by the Abu Dhabi National Energy Company (TAQA) to provide connectivity to its advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) as they deploy the communication network and an advanced IoT platform for advanced metering infrastructure, with the goal to both ensure improved efficiency for their customers and contribute to the digitization of the infrastructure, accelerating operational improvements and preparation of the smart grid.

Keeping AI in check

The challenge of what is also known as the “Second Machine Age” is that as the machines become more sophisticated, the more jobs they will take from humans.  AI, humanoid robotics, and quantum computing are evolving to perform not only simple repetitive tasks, but increasingly can take over more complex work activities that many people would consider attractive and interesting parts of their own job[26].

The population of the Middle East is youthful and growing.  Saudi Arabia, for instance, has a population of 35 million[27], of whom more than two-thirds are under the age of 35.  A report from McKinsey[28] points out that jobs that require less than a university degree are at the most risk of being replaced by automation, while a higher education degree or equivalent levels of professional experience are still the best guarantee to secure a job in the future labor market.  The average automation potential drops from more than 50% to ~22% for employees holding a bachelor or graduate degree.

The challenge facing governments across the globe is not only how best to harness the hugely positive potential of AI, but to do so in a way that does not leave real people behind.



[2] World Economic Forum (2016), “The Fourth Industrial Revolution, by Klaus Schwab”; available at:


[4] McKinsey Global Institute (2018), “Modelling the global economic impact of AI”. Available at:






[10] Page 25








[18] Page 20






[24]The competitive outlook for AI in MENA’, Oxford Business Group


[26] Future of Jobs in the Middle East, McKinsey & Company, page 7


[28] Future of Jobs in the Middle East, McKinsey & Company, page 5