Vision 2030 is Saudi Arabia’s radical and ambitious plan to transform its economy, and the lives of its people. Its leaders have identified artificial intelligence as a vital tool to enable this transformation, so they have set themselves the goal of becoming one of the world’s top ten developers of AI systems within a decade. They are making remarkable progress with both AI and the overall transformation, but at least in the West, this is going largely unnoticed.
For reasons we will explore in a moment, the global AI summit held in Riyadh this week received little coverage in the Western media, despite its considerable size and significance. 4,000 delegates gathered in the strikingly opulent Ritz Carlton Hotel, which was built in 2011 as a palace to host diplomats. Partnerships were announced with a range of organisations, notably the Digital Development Partnership with the World Bank. Aramco, the second-largest company in the world, announced the creation of a Global AI Corridor, which will include an academy, a startup incubator, and R&D labs. The role of AI in building the kingdom’s startlingly ambitious new city of Neom was showcased.
The kingdom’s bid for a leadership role in global AI is led by the Saudi Data and AI Authority (SDAIA), which was established in 2019, and is chaired by Mohammed bin Salman, the country’s Crown Prince and de facto ruler, universally known as MBS. No other country has an AI governing body chaired by its head of state. SDAIA sets the strategy, and it is executed by three other bodies, the National Data Management Office and the National Centre for AI, which were established at the same time as SDAIA, and the National Information Centre, which pre-dates them. The National Centre for AI has been described as Saudi Arabia’s nascent version of Google’s Deep Mind. It is busy training and recruiting world-class AI developers.
The precise goals, milestones, and budgets of these organisations are not disclosed, but they are already producing significant results. Machine translation between Arabic and other languages – and also between Arabic dialects – lags behind its equivalents for other languages, largely because of the language’s unique alphabet and structure. SDAIA has developed an AI model for Arabic which has been widely recognised as superior to anything produced by the tech giants – no mean achievement.
An app called Tawakkalna was launched to help prevent the spread of Covid, and is being adapted as a national database for all healthcare records. Harmonising and analysing all health data is a holy grail for governments around the world. Because of the resources being applied, and the absence of ingrained bureaucracies, vested interests, and obsolete equipment and software, the kingdom is far better placed than most countries to achieve it.
The development of cutting-edge AI today is pretty much a duopoly between the USA and China. A gaggle of countries including the UK, Canada, and others are competing for distant third place. With the resources available to the kingdom, and the determined and hands-on leadership from the top, it would be unwise to bet against it joining this group. It is currently the fastest-growing of the world’s 20 largest economies, partly because of a boom in oil prices thanks to Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine.
However, Saudi does face significant challenges to achieving this goal, not least the difficulty of attracting top international AI talent to live in a country where they can’t drink alcohol, which faces serious PR issues, and which is still in the process of liberalising.
The country has long been one of the most traditional of the Gulf states. Its rulers based their legitimacy on an alliance with the hardline Wahhabi religious sect of Sunni Islam, which formed an alliance with the head of what is now the country’s royal family back in the 18th century. Members of the royal family enjoyed lavish lifestyles, but fundamentalist Islam was strictly enforced. In particular, there were severe limits on the freedom of Saudi women, and a religious police force called the mutawa enforced religious morality in public with arbitrary beatings and arrests. The rulers generally resisted the Westernising approach pioneered first by Bahrain and then most dramatically by Dubai.
This became increasingly untenable after the attacks on New York in 9/11, most of whose perpetrators were Saudi citizens, including Osama bin Laden. Succession within Saudi Arabia is not automatically to the oldest eligible heir, as in most monarchies, but is at the discretion of the king. In 2017, King Salman surprised the kingdom and the world by appointing his seventh son as the Crown Prince and heir apparent. Since then, MBS has pursued a policy of modernisation with remarkable efficiency and resolve.
Saudi women now walk the streets unaccompanied and unveiled, and have relaxed conversations in public with male friends. They are allowed to drive – indeed it is not uncommon to see a woman taxi driver. You might also see a female boss directing and even chastising her male subordinates. It used to be forbidden to listen to or dance to pop music, and now there are massive raves. Cinemas are opening up, and foreign tourists can obtain a visa to visit the country – online, in a couple of minutes. The religious police are nowhere to be seen.
The changes are astonishing to people who know the region. They have taken place at lightning speed, and it is widely agreed that they are now irreversible. To adopt a local metaphor, this genie is not going back into its bottle.
To achieve all this, MBS has deployed a mixture of charm and political guile: he is a trained lawyer, and has been both a businessman and a government adviser. He has also deployed brute force. In 2017 he arrested over 200 prominent businessmen and members of the royal family, and held them captive in the Ritz Carlton (yes, the hotel which hosted the AI summit) in what became known as the “Sheikhdown”, as he obliged them to disclose and surrender their allegedly ill-gotten gains. Accounts vary as to the harshness of this episode, and as to whether it was simply a way to consolidate his power, or a genuine move to stop the widely acknowledged problem of corruption. Dissidence of any kind is not tolerated.
Initially, this behaviour raised few objections in the West. Then-President Trump had no interest in human rights, and MBS formed a close relationship with the President’s nephew, Jared Kushner, the so-called Trump whisperer. This all changed in October 2018, when Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist and columnist for the Washington Post, was brutally murdered in the Saudi embassy in Istanbul. The CIA concluded that this crime was approved by – or at least condoned by – the Saudi authorities, a charge which they still reject. Since then, MBS has been shunned by many Western leaders and by its press. The way that Saudi has prosecuted its war in Yemen has aggravated the problem.
Saudi Arabia is determined to play a prominent role in realising the benefits offered by our most powerful technology, and in particular to share them with the developing world. Sooner or later, the West should acknowledge and welcome this. It does not have to sacrifice any principles to do so. Seven people died on January 6 2021 because the then President launched an attempted coup. The rest of the world is not shunning the USA as a result.
The rush to develop ever-more powerful AI and the applications it enables is not really a race: there is no finish line, and it is not a zero-sum game. AI techniques, tools and applications will benefit people all over the world, whether they are developed in China, America, or Saudi Arabia. The best approach for all of us is to cultivate and harness the capabilities of all countries and all people.