Throughout history, the world has witnessed numerous industrial revolutions and major transformations. They were not just confined to the industrial level, but rather extended to include all other levels. Then, the development of industry and the related sciences and technology was reflected in all aspects of life and created new patterns of culture, politics, economics, and social relations.

The First Industrial Revolution took place in the 18th century, when mankind discovered how to use steam to generate energy and operate machines. The Second Industrial Revolution was coupled with the discovery of electricity in the beginning of the 20th century — which could be called the electrical revolution. The Third Industrial Revolution is the communication, technology and information revolution that began in the 1970s. I have already explored these three stages in detail in my 2018 book Events that Changed History, where I examined the historical events that caused radical changes in the world, including these industrial revolutions. Today, the world is witnessing the advent of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), to which this article is devoted. It is sometimes known as the digital revolution, and its primary characteristics are: 3-D printing, the Internet of Things, Big Data Analysis, robots, cloud computing, competition between human beings and machines, and many other declared and non-declared manifestations.

If the previous industrial revolutions brought about radical transformations at different levels in societies around the globe, the transformations that the 4IR has triggered, and is expected to trigger, exceed the potentials of human perception or imagination because they take place at an unprecedented tempo with a content that gets closer to fiction. It can truly be called the revolution of transforming fiction into reality. Up until recently, who could have predicted that robots would compete against, occasionally replace, and prevail over human beings in some jobs? Who could have imagined seeing a driverless car in the street, buildings being built via 3-D printing techniques, surgeries carried out by robotic doctors, or digital currencies in circulation although they only exist virtually, as well as many other things?

Although we still view some of the achievements or outcomes of the 4IR as if they were miracles or science fiction, the future is full of surprises, and the upcoming developments may exceed what we have witnessed during the course of this revolution. So, what we see now is minimal compared to what is yet to come or what is being researched in the laboratories and research centres of the developed world. This is mainly because of the fact that knowledge is increasing and accumulating in an unprecedented manner that history has never experienced before — even studies indicate that knowledge doubles on a yearly basis. Klaus Schwab, the founder and executive president of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, rightly predicted in his book The Fourth Industrial Revolution that this revolution does not at all resemble any other experience that humanity has undergone. Because this revolution is so rapid and profound that it is incomparable to any of the previous stages of industrial development.

In this article, I do not intend to present or describe the aspects of the technological advancement triggered by the 4IR as this is the task of experts on the subject matter. Instead, in this context, I want to draw attention to some of the issues that need be attentively addressed at the Arab level.

First, many people in the Arab world view the 4IR and the resulting inventions and achievements from a mere technological perspective, and they are deeply preoccupied with this perspective, despite the fact that this revolution carries with it other highly important aspects and dimensions that cannot be neglected or ignored. This revolution does not only pose technological and scientific challenges to the Arab world and many other countries across the world, but it also constitutes social, cultural, and legal challenges among others.

It creates new situations that shake the foundation of many established conventions. Therefore, the need arises for new approaches, systems, and legislations to deal with this. For example, if you look at one of the aspects of the Industrial Revolution, the legal aspect, this casts a number of questions, such as: what law will deal with crimes committed by robots, or accidents caused by driverless cars? Can robots be granted a legal personality? What is the legal framework for dealing with digital currencies?

At the social-cultural security level, the 4IR raises several questions: how to deal with millions of employees who are expected to be made redundant because of the expanded automation of businesses and the increasing reliance on robots to replace humans in some jobs? How will the 4IR influence the system of values of different societies? What will its impact be on security? What is its effect on the nature of human relationships? These and many other questions will undoubtedly arise in the upcoming period.

Second, the debate about the 4IR focuses more on risks and concerns rather than on opportunities and positive aspects. Unfortunately, this represents an age-old Arab approach in dealing with any change. However, this approach should be abandoned for good if Arabs want to secure a foothold in the global map of advancement.

Third, feelings of shock and disbelief still overcome some people in the Arab world when it comes to dealing with the 4IR. Every debate about this revolution is seen as some kind of fiction, even though it is becoming an undeniable or undoubted reality. Therefore, it is time to overcome this state of surprise at this revolution and to believe that it is a reality we have to deal with.

Fourth, many Arab countries lack clear visions to address the outcomes and achievements of the 4IR; they all argue and forewarn, but nobody thinks seriously about how to deal with this revolution, which has a rapid and unprecedented advancement that can neither be stopped nor slowed.

Fifth, some Arab societies have yet to catch up with the Third Industrial Revolution, or possibly even with earlier stages thereof. Hence, how can these countries be included in the debate about them joining or dealing with the 4IR? This a serious problem that critically deepens the existing gap between the developed and the developing societies, including some Arab societies.

Despite the fact that the Arab world as a whole is still facing a dilemma in coping with the 4IR — whether at the levels of infrastructure, mentality, or forward-looking visions — some of the Arab countries are showing a deep understanding of the development course of this technological revolution, and they are taking the necessary preparations to join and explore its future. The UAE is one of these countries. It recognised at an early stage the nature of the global industrial and technological changes and is dealing with them on the basis of clearly defined strategic visions and institutional frameworks.

In this context, the UAE has established the UAE Council for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the Emirates Scientist Council, and the Fourth Industrial Revolution Protocol in collaboration with the World Economic Forum (WEF) in 2017. The Protocol covers three pillars: establishing a robust, integrated, and secure data environment; formulating the policies and legislation of the 4IR; and building a unified system of values and ethics to guide the 4IR.

Moreover, there is the UAE space project, the Mars 2117 Project. This, which is the first Arab space programme, aims to build a habitable human settlement on Mars. Additionally, there is also the National Innovation Strategy, which introduces many initiatives and plans of action. They aim at enhancing innovation and creativity in the different government sectors through a number of tracks: First, establishing a stimulating environment for innovation; second, developing government innovation; third, encouraging private sector innovation; and fourth, preparing individuals with highly innovative skills. Furthermore, significant measures have been put in place to develop education, which is the real and fundamental key to progress and active engagement with all aspects and dimensions of the 4IR. These include the UAE Ministry of Education Strategy 2010-2020 and Higher Education Strategy 2030, as well as other strategies that will prepare national cadres and future generations to deal with the changes of tomorrow’s world at the levels of education, employment, and services.

All this confirms a fundamental fact: the UAE is a role model for all Arab countries in dealing with the 4IR, and the Arab world should follow in its footsteps.

Dr Jamal Sanad Al Suwaidi is a UAE Author and Director-General of the Emirates Centre for Strategic Studies and Research.