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The Middle East’s dive into Artificial Intelligence needs balancing measures to succeed

Countries of the Middle East are racing to harness the powers of Artificial Intelligence and transition into knowledge-based digital economies geared for efficiency, productivity, and geopolitical primacy. The effective role of Al in driving innovation, decision-making, and risk management in governance has been given  increasing attention throughout symposiums held in the last few years alone.

The Middle East is in a race against time, with dwindling oil reserves put at risk by undiversified rentier economies and fluctuating global energy prices. To add to this, a burgeoning young population and record levels of unemployment throughout the region have combined to create a keen interest in AI-driven performance, seen by many as a panacea to the myriad challenges they face.

Slow to start, but no less ambitious

Of late, development, quality processes, profitability and competitiveness have become targets of key interest for many Middle Eastern countries, with increasing momentum and progress to show for it. Forecasts predict that by 2030, AI will contribute $15.7 trillion to the global economy, with over $320 billion in windfalls for the Middle East. The United Arab Emirates is committed to leading the AI push in the Middle East by 2030, where it expects AI to be responsible for 13.6 percent of its total GDP. This is closely followed by Saudi Arabia, with its ambitious target of 12.5 percent. The establishment of the Mohammed bin Zayed University of Artificial Intelligence is presently underway and aims to integrate AI into every facet of life and public service. In a landmark move, the UAE has further pioneered establishing the first Minister of Artificial Intelligence, while launching a National Artificial Intelligence Strategy.

Egypt, no less ambitious in growth, research, and development of robotics, expects 7.7% in GDP growth derived from AI & robotics by 2030, making the integration and application of artificial intelligence a national priority. In early 2019, its Minister of Information and Communication Technology was reported to have said: “We are very late, but late is better than never. Other countries have already looked forward in this route and we are due.” The country inaugurated its first-ever faculty of AI at Kafr El Sheikh University in 2019.

Not to be outdone, Qatar also established a Center for Artificial Intelligence (QCAI), citing the Gulf blockade of June 5th 2017 and “data attack” on Qatar’s information infrastructure as a reason to embrace AI. In Kuwait, a national symposium saw Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Jaber al-Ahmad al-Sabah emphasize the pivotal role of AI in transforming Kuwait into a financial, commercial, and technological hub.

This interest is widely echoed across Middle Eastern states seeking rapid financial growth, including the Sultanate of Oman which seeks to majorly boost its IT market in the hopes of staying afloat in a post-oil future and further achieve its 2040 Vision. In early 2020, its Ministry of Technology and Communications signed an MOU with Gulf Business Machines and Research Council to implement AI projects for solutions and knowledge sharing in the country with further projects on 4th Industrial Revolution (IR) technologies expected to launch in upcoming months. According to Khalid Al Rumaihi, Chief Executive of Bahrain’s Economic Development Board, Bahrain has earned a reputation as the Middle East’s testbed thanks to an innovative regulatory framework, strong technology ecosystem and rapid shift to e-Governance.

Another regional player worthy of note is Israel which has been described as both a breeding ground for AI, and according to data presented in a recent European Union report, leading the world with the amount of AI players per GDP innovation. This has not stopped human rights groups from expressing deep concern regarding Israel’s use of artificial intelligence for militarized autonomous weapon platforms and reported violations.

OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría puts the onus on governments to ensure that AI systems are designed in a way that respects values and laws, so that people can trust their safety and privacy. AI can still play a major role in creating more inclusive, equal, and safe communities, while removing all barriers to stability, prosperity, and happiness. For this, a well harnessed collective commitment may lead to phenomenal positive impacts on the present and future of societies. However, like other technologies, it could also further tensions, division, disparity, and, if unchecked, risk violations of human dignity and freedoms.


With great power comes equal responsibility

Despite its outstanding benefits and promise, AI raises a broad array of serious ethical challenges and necessitates greater investments in a collective discourse on Trustworthy Artificial Intelligence as necessitated by the European Commission AI Ethics Guidelines.   These Guidelines state seven key AI systems requirements, including proper oversight mechanisms, resiliency, security of technical robustness, reliability, accuracy and reproducibility. These requirements seek to prevent or minimize unintentional harm and promote privacy and data governance, transparency, diversity, non-discrimination and fairness, societal and environmental well-being, as well as accountability. AI requires trust, fair access, and equity in benefits and non-maleficence so as to not cause unforeseeable harm. Middle Eastern investments and interest in AI remain novel, but risk harm through impetuous actions if inconvenient questions regarding AI legislation, accountability and privacy are not raised from the onset.

For instance, in collaboration with data science company Nexquare, the Dubai Knowledge and Human Development Authority is using AI and machine learning to predict students at risk of dropping out, future student employability, and chances of employed teachers’ success in schools. The model builds on variables such as socioeconomic background, behavioral issues, scores, attendance, among other data points, in order to make predictions. Assistant Director General of Smart Dubai (a collaboration initiative between the city’s private and government sector) Younus Al Nasser, describes a unique approach in launching an AI Ethics Self-Assessment Toolkit to curb tension with societal values and regulate future developments. The project reported that its Ethical AI Self-Assessment Tool has been used across 18 use cases in the Emirates.  15 were designated to the Roads and Transport Authority with the remaining three developed with the Knowledge and Human Development Authority. In Qatar’s Center for Artificial Intelligence, a 16-page national AI strategy was published in February 2019 highlighting the “Ethics and Governance of AI” with a framework rooted in local context and aligned to international guidelines.


Broadening the stakeholder pool

For genuine demonstration of ethical commitment in the design and implementation of AI in various sectors of life and development, one cannot overlook the importance of regulatory frameworks, laws and conditions to bind parties together on the ethicality of use. Government-driven policy on AI may pose serious problems with interpretations of regulatory frameworks and decision making based in advantage or dominance.

To this end, Governments need to demonstrate greater compliance with AI regulatory and legal frameworks, and more importantly, invest in AI ethics with the same dedication they hold to reaping AI’s economic benefits and improved quality of life. Preliminarily, data protection and anonymity legislation needs to be adopted, as the data architecture transforms to accommodate for nation-level AI applications and research.

It appears however, that multinational technology giants such as Microsoft, ESRI, VMware and Teradata should bear a burden no less than that of Middle Eastern state actors in upholding and enforcing ethical standards expectations and rules. Microsoft expects 29% of large-scale enterprises in the Gulf region to adopt AI in the near future, with the likelihood many will participate with Microsoft, setting an equal ethical responsibility on Microsoft’s shoulders.

As it stands, minimal attention is devoted to the study of AI or big data ethics. In Egypt’s first AI faculty, the entire program provides only one course on human rights, while CILE, a renowned center on ethics, gives no attention whatsoever to AI, machine learning or technology for that matter. The Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), consisting of 57 Muslim countries, which makes it the second largest intergovernmental organization after the UN, has a major role to play in introducing resolutions and legislation on ethical AI use and the promotion of necessary knowledge. Intergovernmental bodies like the OIC, the Muslim World League, and Arab League are well positioned to further the discourse on AI and ethics.

The present-day Middle East is in need of further discussion of ethics on state and private sector levels, alongside a dire need for academic engagement with the matter. This requires the introduction of think tanks, civil society, and lobbying groups dedicated to coordinating with global institutions and groups on an issue that is local but ultimately global, affecting humanity in its entirety.

Benaouda Bensaid

is an Associate Professor in Islamic Studies and Advisor to the President of Istanbul Sabahattin Zaim University in Istanbul, Turkey. His research and teaching focus on Muslim spirituality, Islamic Ethics and Law, and Sustainable Development. Professor Bensaid has published in numerous journals and previously taught at International Islamic University Malaysia, and at Effat University in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. He received his PhD in Contemporary Islamic Thought from McGill University, Canada.

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