Geopolitical Maneuvering Shapes Middle East’s AI Ambitions

The Middle East’s drive towards artificial intelligence (AI) supremacy is not just a technological race; it’s a battleground of geopolitical interests, where alliances are formed and choices carry significant weight. At the heart of this strategic calculus lie the United States (U.S.) and China, each vying for dominance in AI, considering it not only a technological frontier but also a matter of national security.

The U.S., viewing chip production as crucial for national security, extends its influence into the Middle East, urging alignment with its interests. Conversely, China’s growing presence in the region raises eyebrows in Washington, prompting scrutiny and restrictions.

The Gulf finds itself in the midst of an AI competition between China and the U.S. In August 2023, the U.S. imposed restrictions on shipping thousands of high-performance chips from TSMC in Taiwan to the Middle East, destined for the AI giant Nvidia. Washington officials aim to prevent Chinese firms from using Middle Eastern countries as a conduit to access cutting-edge chip technology.

UAE’s Strategic Alignment with the U.S.

At the heart of the UAE’s AI strategy lies a conscious decision to forge strong ties with the U.S. This strategic partnership is exemplified by the divestment from Chinese companies, a move made clear by Peng Xiao, the CEO of G42, an Emirati AI company and a founding partner of MGX, during the World Government Summit.

G42 is cutting ties with Chinese hardware suppliers in favor of US counterparts, as reported by the Financial Times. The firm sold its shares in Chinese firms, including TikTok owner ByteDance. 42XFund, the $10 billion technology investment arm of G42, has divested from all its investments in China.  G42’s stake in the TikTok owner was estimated at $100 million, as per the report, citing data provider PitchBook.

This move aims to ensure access to U.S.-made chips by allaying concerns among its American partners, which include Microsoft and OpenAI, chief executive Peng Xiao told the Financial Times. “For better or worse, as a commercial company, we are in a position where we have to make a choice,” Xiao told the Financial Times. “We cannot work with both sides. We can’t.”

On the other hand, in an interview with Bloomberg at the World Government Summit in Dubai, the UAE’s Minister of State for Artificial Intelligence, Omar Al Olama, described the UAE as a “very strong partner” to the U.S. “All our technological foundations and infrastructure have been related to American companies, that is not going to change anytime soon,” he said.  But that partnership won’t rule out working with Chinese companies, the minister added. “I don’t think you can say you need one and don’t need the other.”

Saudi Arabia’s Delicate Balancing Act

Saudi Arabia‘s ambitions in AI are entwined with its Vision 2030, a comprehensive plan aimed at reducing oil dependency and driving economic growth through technology-driven diversification. However, Riyadh finds itself entangled in a delicate diplomatic dance as it seeks to balance its relationships with both China and the U.S.

The recent ban on Saudi Arabia purchasing FTX shares in Anthropic due to national security concerns, underscores the complexities Riyadh faces in maintaining its burgeoning ties with China while appeasing U.S. interests. Anthropic’s decision reflects the intricate geopolitical landscape, citing Saudi Arabia’s ties with China and its human rights record as factors influencing the ban.

Earlier, Alat CEO, Amit Midha, told Reuters in response to a question about whether there were concerns about partnering with the U.S.-sanctioned firm, Dahua: “They are the number two company in the world on what they do. We tested the technology, we looked at it and we’re quite happy with it.”

Saudi Arabia’s deepening partnership with China has not gone unnoticed, drawing scrutiny from the United States and other stakeholders. As Riyadh strives to navigate this geopolitical tightrope, the United States’ opposition to Saudi investment in sensitive sectors signals its strategic interests in safeguarding technology and aligning with allies on critical issues.

The pressure on Saudi Arabia to choose sides amidst the U.S.-China rivalry is palpable. The recent ban exemplifies the U.S. efforts to influence Riyadh’s stance, urging it to distance itself from China to maintain strategic alliances. Failure to do so risks strained relations and could hinder cooperation between Saudi Arabia and the United States in their shared AI endeavors.

UAE’s AI Vanguard Sets the Pace

The UAE is making significant strides in the global AI landscape, backed by concrete initiatives and substantial investments. With the National Artificial Intelligence Strategy 2031, the UAE aims to solidify its position as a leading AI innovator.

The UAE’s commitment is evident in its financial investments, as seen in the $500 million allocation announced by the Advanced Technology Research Council (ATRC). This investment encompasses two key initiatives: a $200 million endeavor for technology access and the establishment of the Falcon Foundation, and a $300 million nonprofit organization dedicated to developing open-source generative AI models.

Collaborations with industry giants like Mastercard and Cerebras underline the UAE’s dedication to advancing AI capabilities. Mastercard’s Center for Advanced AI and Cyber Technology in Dubai, inaugurated as part of a collaboration with the UAE government, aims to develop AI-powered financial crime prevention tools.

Similarly, the joint development of Arabic language-trained AI software named Jais by G42 subsidiary Inception, Cerebras, and MBZUAI showcases innovative partnerships driving AI innovation in the UAE. More recently, Abu Dhabi recently announced the creation of its technology investment firm, MGX, targeting deals in AI and semiconductors with aspirations to exceed $100 billion in assets under management.

Saudi Arabia’s Rapid Investment Catches Up

While the UAE pioneered AI initiatives with the world’s first Ministry of Artificial Intelligence in 2017, Saudi Arabia’s ambitious Vision 2030 drives substantial investment in AI, reflected in the establishment of key institutions like the Saudi Data and Artificial Intelligence Authority (SDAIA) and the National Centre for Artificial Intelligence (NCAI). This underscores Saudi Arabia’s commitment to integrating AI into its economic diversification efforts.

Strategic investments, spearheaded by the Public Investment Fund (PIF), underscore Saudi Arabia’s commitment to AI initiatives. With over $900 billion in assets, the PIF has allocated significant capital towards technology, including plans to collaborate with venture firm Andreessen Horowitz to establish a $40 billion AI-focused fund.

In addition to the proposed AI-focused fund, the PIF’s newly formed entity, Alat, has outlined ambitious plans to invest $100 billion in Saudi Arabia by 2030. These investments aim to drive economic diversification, generate skilled jobs, and bolster the non-oil economy. Alat’s collaboration with various partners, including Dahua Technology and SoftBank Group, exemplifies Saudi Arabia’s commitment to leveraging external expertise and resources to advance its AI agenda.

Specifically, Alat’s $200 million partnership with Dahua Technology, one of China’s leading surveillance equipment manufacturers, focuses on producing surveillance hardware domestically. Moreover, Moreover, it has forged a $150 million collaboration with Japan’s SoftBank Group to manufacture cutting-edge robotics within the kingdom. Further collaborations with U.S. firm Carrier and Saudi’s Tahakom are also underway, according to a Reuters’ report.

Overcoming AI Barriers in MENA Amid Geopolitical Pressures

In the MENA region, AI adoption faces a dual challenge of navigating geopolitical pressures amidst the U.S.-China rivalry while overcoming inherent barriers. Despite the region’s burgeoning AI landscape, sectors like construction lag due to data and expertise gaps, compounded by regulatory hurdles and data storage restrictions.

To bridge these gaps, MENA organizations are ramping up investment in security and risk management (SRM), albeit facing technology infrastructure deficiencies. The UAE’s MGX initiative aims to address this by investing in AI infrastructure and advanced training programs, paving the way for MENA to become an AI hub. However, amidst an AI arms race between China and the U.S., MENA grapples with chip design challenges and restricted chip exports.

Despite abundant energy resources which could support the establishment of data centers for AI model training, Gulf states like the UAE and Saudi Arabia require support to develop homegrown chip design capabilities and attract global AI talent. Partnerships with industry leaders like Sam Altman and Masayoshi Son offer potential avenues for bolstering MENA’s AI ambitions amidst geopolitical pressures.

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