After Silicon Valley, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) may be the most future-oriented and optimistic place on the planet. Futurism and techno-optimism are natural mindsets in a country which has pretty much invented itself from scratch in two generations. During this period its people have progressed from a mediaeval lifestyle to being 21st century metropolitans. So it is unsurprising that the UAE has been quick to spot the enormous future significance of artificial intelligence to all of us, and to pioneer its deployment.

It is not just the UAE. The leaders of all six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC – Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, as well as the UAE) see AI as an important component of their mission to transition their economies away from reliance on fossil fuels, and improve living standards for their people. They are looking to AI to help them develop alternative energy sources, create smart cities, improve government services, and build world-class industries in fintech, healthcare, and tourism.

Especially today, the oil-rich members of the GCC have both the financial resources and the ambition to become major players in the development and deployment of AI. Their revenues are boosted by Putin’s war in Ukraine, which has driven up the price of oil. Their ambitions are encouraged by the shocking capabilities of the generative AI systems which started grabbing headlines a year ago.

The Gulf states have an additional advantage over most other jurisdictions: their large expatriate workforces mean that they can automate fearlessly. To put it bluntly, if machines do end up taking more human jobs than they create, they can send their excess workers back home. This may help explain why the ordinary people of the GCC seem less afraid of AI than the populations of many other countries.

Back in 2017, Dubai, the second-largest emirate within the UAE, appointed the world’s first Minister for AI. This year, Abu Dhabi’s Technology Innovation Institute (TII) released Falcon, a Large Language Model (LLM), or generative AI model, which many think is the most powerful open-source LLM in the world. Saudi Arabia wants to leapfrog the UAE in AI development and deployment, and both nations are buying as many advanced computer chips as they can get their hands on.

AI hubs are springing up all over the region. The UAE has an AI university, and Saudi and Qatar are not far behind. The Saudi Data and Artificial Intelligence Authority (SDAIA) was established to help realise the Kingdom’s ambitious Vision 2030 initiative, spearheading rapid advancements in artificial intelligence. IDC, a market research firm, forecasts that GCC spend on AI will exceed $6bn a year by 2026, which represents faster growth than anywhere else in the world. Some insiders suspect this may turn out to be a gross under-estimate. PwC, the audit and consulting firm, predicts that AI will add $320bn to the GCC economies by 2030.

Despite being generally optimistic about the future, the Gulf states are also profoundly socially conservative. People outside the region often focus on this aspect, with accusations of repressive attitudes towards women, the use of the death penalty, laws against being gay, arbitrary arrests and detentions – and sometimes murder – of both nationals and foreigners.

Reform is under way in much of the region, and progressing faster than most outsiders realise. This is especially true in Saudi Arabia, where women can now drive, and are increasingly strongly represented in the workforce. Listening to pop music was banned a few years ago; now young people congregate freely at music festivals. Inbound tourism used to be virtually impossible; now it takes just a few seconds to obtain a tourist visa online.

Critics are quick to point out that there is a long way to go, and the region’s rulers will often agree. In a recent interview, Mohamed bin Salman, the Crown Prince and de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, said that he does not like the law under which a Saudi man has been condemned to death for posting criticism of the government on Twitter. He argued that it would be unlawful for him to intervene, but he hopes that a different judge will accept the man’s appeal.

Alongside their reform programmes, the region’s rulers are practising cultural diplomacy. Abu Dhabi spent around $1.4bn establishing a branch of the Louvre, and this figure is dwarfed by the sums spent by the region’s rulers on football and other sports at home and abroad. Lavish technology summits seem to take place in the region every month – sometimes weekly.

The Gulf’s rulers and people are justly proud of much of their heritage and their culture. They bridle at criticisms from countries which have yet to apologise for committing some of the worst crimes in human history – crimes which are not part of some long-distant distant past, but which were committed against people still alive today. GCC rulers are increasingly willing to wield their financial clout to emerge from the geopolitical shadows and assert their independence. New alliances are being forged, and traditional dependencies are being tested.

Whether it is fair or not, as the world increasingly understands the enormous importance of AI in our future, many people will be disturbed if some of the world’s most powerful AI systems are developed by the Gulf states. The region’s leaders may be tempted to dismiss these concerns as racist froth, but if they want to join the ranks of the leading AI countries, they will have to compete for top AI talent. This talent is highly mobile, and cannot always simply be bought. It needs to be seduced.

There is a tremendous opportunity lurking in this situation. The Gulf countries can most easily attract talented AI professionals by offering them the opportunity to solve truly significant, global problems. There is no shortage of major challenges to address. Advanced AI presents many risks, but it can also help us to solve the climate challenge. It can help us improve healthspan and lifespan. It will make all industries more efficient, raising living standards for everyone. It can automate the drudgery out of our everyday lives, and raise standards of education to levels previously undreamed of.

The rulers of the Gulf should use their wealth and ambition to launch a series of moonshots, seeking solutions to some of our most pressing problems, and placing themselves at the forefront of AI development in the process.

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