In May, to understand the challenges faced by executives in driving AI in their organizations, we held an Executive Dinner Club in the UAE. Business leaders are crystal-clear about the outcomes they want to see from their AI projects. By contrast, in Europe, I often speak to data leaders who may have budgets, but are unsure about what their business wants to achieve.
Why is the UAE so AI ready? Why does its maturity eclipse that of European counterparts on the important dimensions of execution and outcomes? I believe there are four main answers to these questions.
Leadership sets ambitious vision
The UAE government has a track record of matching execution to aspiration, from the establishment of its telecom infrastructure, food security, and the building of a business and leisure travel hub, to the literal moonshot of its successful Mars mission. AI is just the latest in a long line of UAE ambitions that will likely yield impressive fruit.
The nation was the first in the world to create a Ministry of AI, which wasted no time in formulating a roadmap that will propel the UAE towards becoming a knowledge-based society. The UAE National Strategy for Artificial Intelligence 2031 lays out much of this roadmap and its authors expect AI technologies to ‘contribute significantly in education, economy, government development, and community happiness’.
The Ministry for AI was also instrumental in initiating the National Program for Coders, which seeks to plug the AI talent gap by attracting 100,000 people with digital skills through incentives such as golden visas.
The UAE’s commitment goes beyond mere pronouncements and public encouragement. It has allocated budgets in the past to fund long-term investment in a range of technologies. Telecom is one example. Infrastructure was built at scale, accommodating greater capacity than was initially needed, but as telecoms services such as OTT and LTE emerged, that spending paid dividends because the UAE could move faster to implement the latest big thing.
Stakeholders everywhere now recognize that AI needs a strong, long-term commitment and the budget mentality to match. The adoption of some technologies will require fundamental changes to underlying systems, and funding will need to keep pace with these changes.
Infrastructure increases RoI on funding
The leadership and funding have created a fertile ground for the delivery of AI use cases in the UAE. The infrastructure — telecoms, data centers, cloud services — is already present. This contrasts sharply with global peers.
In many Western nations it took a pandemic to refocus funding on the critical infrastructure necessary for capacity-building projects, hindering any pivot to a forward-looking AI stance. In the UAE, communication networks have long been handling the Internet of Things.
Many data lakes are already teeming with years or decades of valuable data ready for advanced analytics and AI; while Internet and mobile penetration figures are high enough to drive a digital-first mentality to customer and citizen services.
Decision-making at speed
Another advantage the UAE has over European peers when it comes to capitalizing on AI opportunities, is the speed of decision-making. Green lights can be given with a nod, while in the West, due to the complexity of AI as a technology, proposals for change become lodged in committee after committee.
The UAE’s incredible growth trajectory suggests that more people (and committees) being involved in the decision-making process does not necessarily mean better decisions.
Today, government officials can make even better decisions using the data they have accumulated. And enterprises across the private and public sectors can act confidently in a culture of ‘fail fast, be agile’. My personal experience is that in most places outside the UAE, that mentality is still too often about branding.
In the next chapter of its AI story, the government will need to look carefully at AI governance, to ensure that all the hard work in technology adoption and solution development does not accrue benefits to a narrow minority, but rather has the wider societal impact that the leadership envisions.
A recent YouGov study commissioned by Dataiku that established the UAE as ahead of other nations on AI also showed that 67 per cent of UAE managers believe AI and data science will impact their roles. But only 44 per cent of non-managers believe the same.
When everyone sees AI as a partner in change, they will come together and collaborate, and broad economic prosperity will be the natural byproduct.