What can we learn from tech initiatives in the Middle East?

There are numerous government initiatives underway to maximize the use of technology in the Middle East

The Middle East is becoming renowned as a technology hub, with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) one of several nations focusing strongly on technological innovation. A number of key initiatives put into motion by the federation of emirates look set to drive technology, with digital transformation taking off in key sectors including government, banking, transportation and healthcare.  

This includes the federation’s Vision program, which aims to put it at the forefront of global trade and innovation as well as reducing its dependency on oil.

“The UAE government considers technological advancement as a key driver for future development,” says Graham Hunter, VP of certification and skills at tech association CompTIA. “It believes that growth and sustainable development based on pioneering technological advancements will pave the way for the UAE to be a world leader in all areas of quality of life.

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“It looks to exploit technology as a way to inspire the kind of innovation that will solve many of the unique issues currently faced in the UAE. Renewable energy and driverless cars, for example, will resolve particular population issues while ensuring that the UAE is one of the biggest players in the industry.”

Nicolai Solling, CTO at security solution provider Help AG believes the UAE is at an advantage in this area “in comparison to many Western countries, since it is not held back by legacy systems.”


High-tech initiatives

The emirates are aggressively pursuing high-tech development plans, with the roll out of use cases expected to accelerate.

“In addition to a national vision that highlights the importance of technology, the government has laid out city, sector and technology strategies and plans,” says Ranjit Rajan, associate vice president of research, at IDC Middle East, Turkey and Africa.

“For example, at a city level, we have the Smart Dubai 2021 Plan, the Abu Dhabi Vision 2030, the Ajman Vision 2021, the Dubai 10X initiative etc. At a sector level, there are the Dubai Health Strategy 2021, the Abu Dhabi Surface Transport Master Plan, the Sharjah Tourism Vision 2021 and others. At a technology level, there are the UAE Artificial Intelligence Strategy 2031, the Dubai Blockchain Strategy and the Dubai 3D Printing Strategy, to name a few.

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Closely monitored KPIs

“While it may seem there’s a sprawl of plans, they help to mobilize various sectors and drive them towards specific goals. What separates the UAE from many other countries in the region and outside is the focus on execution. The plans have KPIs tied to them and the leaders closely monitor progress,” says Rajan.

The government is keeping closely involved, with a number of milestone dates and objectives outlined, as Charbel Khneisser, regional presales director, METNA, at IT company, Riverbed Technology, explains.

“The Dubai government plans on issuing its last paper transaction by 2021, for example, after which transactions will go entirely digital. The emirate also aims to produce 75 percent of its energy requirements from clean sources by 2050 and that by 2030, 25 percent of its total transportation will be autonomous.”


Key focus areas

Technology of all kinds, across all sectors is being pursued, but one of the key focus areas is AI and machine learning, with expectation that use of AI will boost GDP by 26 percent and reduce government costs by 50 percent.

Last year the UAE launched its Artificial Intelligence Strategy 2031 [YouTube video]. To lead this initiative, a minister of AI was appointed and the plan is to set up a national AI council to drive programs, plus develop skills and security guidelines.

“The minister will be heavily involved in working on the UAE Strategy for Artificial Intelligence, a major part of the UAE Centennial 2070 objectives,” says Hunter of CompTIA. “This initiative aims to improve government performance, create an innovative and highly-productive environment by means of investing in AI and position the UAE at the forefront of the global debate.”

Projects are already underway however, for example the development of Dubai Smart Police Stations [YouTube video], and the Dubai Police recently signed an MoU with Riverbed Technology to further develop and upgrade its applications and infrastructure.

“Our objective is to be the best police force in the world and for this we are keen to implement cutting-edge solutions, particularly in the areas of Artificial Intelligence and machine learning,” highlights Brigadier Khalid AlRazooqi, Dubai Police’s general director of artificial intelligence department and CIO.

In addition, interest in cloud and IoT continues to grow with rapid deployment taking place.

“IoT has gained increased traction in the last 18 months, particularly in oil and gas, retail, transportation and logistics, as it’s a key enabler to the UAE’s smart city initiatives,” says Santhos Rao, a research director at Gartner.

Cybersecurity is another area of huge importance, as Hunter points out. “As a financial hub for the Middle East, there is an increased need for the protection of this infrastructure. Cyber defense is a high priority for the government at the moment because it is now a case of ‘when’ not ‘if’ a security breach happens.”

Clearly there will be challenges along the way for such an ambitious digital transformation, but the government is being proactive regarding such issues. For example, as well as responding to the issue of cybersecurity, it is also looking at solutions to skills shortages.

“The demand for skilled resources areas such as cloud, analytics, robotics, AI, IoT and blockchain will increase,” says Rajan. “The development of the local talent pool and efficient sourcing of such skills from other regions will be crucial to the success of these programs.

“Development of the local tech startup ecosystem will also be important. A number of incubators have been established to attract startups, both local and from other countries, to come and use the UAE as the base for their businesses.”

It’s an exciting time for the UAE and it’s got some truly grand ambitions. As well as working towards creating the ‘happiest and most technologically advanced’ nation, it’s got its sights set on even larger goals­ – such as building homes on Mars by 2117.

“There are countless other initiatives happening in the region, some bolder than others. The UAE's investments in space technologies have already exceeded AED20 billion, to support research and the development of space sciences,” says Hunter. “The Mars 2117 Strategy is in place, which aims to build the first settlement on Mars in the next 100 years, with the UAE aiming to build a complex of buildings on the planet called Mars Science City.

“Meanwhile, there are hugely ambition projects such as the Hyperloop and a manmade mountain underway which aim to solve very real crises while also looking to put the UAE on the map.”