Artificial Intelligence (AI) is becoming an integral part of national innovation strategies. The promising transversal use of the deep learning process implemented in AI holds noteworthy uses in the macro- and micro-levels of society. AI is also an element of strategic leverage. Global actors venture in visionary R&D programmes, echoing an international race to achieve supremacy in the field. Whereas the United States and China hold major stakes in technological advancement scenarios, countries of minor indigenous technology development look at AI as an opportunity to emerge in the global arena and to pursue their visions for innovation and progress.
A Kingdom’s Vision
Saudi Arabia is a case in point. AI is a pillar of Vision 2030, the Kingdom’s strategy to evolve into a knowledge-based society, diversify its oil-based economy and become a global hub for technological development. Remarkably, 70 percent of 96 Vision 2030 strategic goals are closely related to AI. To achieve its mission, Saudi Arabia has led a concerted effort to advance its technological capabilities and to create a domestic AI-enabled digital ecosystem by 2030—driven by a 5G-enabled national ICT infrastructure and a massive use of data.
NEOM represents the emblem of how the Saudi Arabia envisions AI’s future and its own. Worth a $500 billion (USD) investment by the Saudi Public Investment Fund (PIF), the project consists of a futuristic city spanning from Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan. The metropolis will fully integrate AI, robotics and the Internet of Things (IoT) in every aspect of human life. NEOM is projected to be a hub of innovation in a number of vital sectors for Saudi Arabia’s economy, such as energy, water, biotech, health and food; innovations to be fully empowered by AI.
A Grand Strategy for AI
Saudi Arabia’s ambitions for AI are grander than a city. Vision 2030 encompasses a full-scale transition of its economic and public structure towards a new era of AI-driven governance. On that backdrop, in August 2019 the country launched the Saudi Data and Artificial Intelligence Authority (SDAIA), a public body which pursues the development and implementation of national data and AI strategies.  SDAIA runs through three centres:
The National Data Management Office (NDMO), which covers data, AI regulations and standards
The National Information Center (NIC), the operator of data infrastructure and AI-powered analytics
The National Center for Artificial Intelligence (NCAI), the driver of AI innovations, which also provides strategic advice to public bodies and promotes AI expertise.
Within such framework Saudi Arabia has already established a National Data Bank for public entities’ datasets and built one of the largest government clouds (G-Clouds) infrastructures in the Middle East, finalised to merge 83 data centres of 40 government bodies. As data is the main fuel to enable the functioning of AI, the establishment of integrated platforms for its gathering and analysis is crucial. Additionally, the progressive digitalisation of public entities allows an ever-increasing collection of data by public authorities. If ‘data is the new oil’, as defined by British mathematician Clive Humby, Saudi Arabia does not lack either one.
The path undertaken has reached a fundamental step in October 2020, when the SDAIA organised the inaugural edition of the ‘Global AI Summit: AI for the Good of Humanity’. The event was held within the framework of the Saudi G20 chairmanship, gathering major public and private stakeholders and decision-makers in the sector. During the event, the Kingdom launched its National Strategy for Data and Artificial Intelligence (NSDAI), a multi-phase plan that aims to attract some $20 billion (USD) in investments, activate 300 start-ups, train 20000 specialists in the field and to rank Saudi Arabia among the top 15 countries in AI by 2030. In its first stage, the strategy will focus on advancing AI technologies related to five sectors functional for the implementation of Vision 2030: education, government, healthcare, energy, mobility. What will follow will be a reassessed implementation of the strategy according to the foundational achievements.
The 5G Pillar
During the Global AI Summit, a series of noteworthy agreements and partnerships were signed between Saudi Arabia and Chinese companies Huawei and Alibaba Cloud. The first will partner on professional training as well as on Arabic language AI-related capabilities; the Alibaba Cloud will instead cooperate in the development of AI-enabled smart city technologies, particularly focusing on aspects of security, safety, mobility, energy and health. Saudi-Chinese cooperation on the matter is not new, with Huawei conducting its ‘5G Roadshow’ in the Kingdom already in 2019, a tour of promotion and training of the company’s 5G network architecture.
5G itself is a vital element for the implementation of AI-related strategies, as it enables the high-band connectivity for massive levels of data volumes. The domestic regulation of 5G networks in Saudi Arabia has been conferred in October 2020 to the Communications and Information Technology Commission (CITC), a further step towards an institutional restructuring coherent with Vision 2030. Given the strict link between 5G and AI, as well as 5G’s geopolitical and security implications, particular attention must be drawn to its implementation and development. In this sense, it is significant that all three Saudi mobile network operators – Saudi Telecom Company (STC), Mobily and Zain – have chosen the Finnish company Nokia to implement 5G using the company’s end-to-end solutions.
The volume of institutional and economic investment around AI reveal a highly ambitious strategy. Saudi Arabia is adopting a holistic approach to AI, encompassing AI capabilities-building as well as information instruments aimed at dictating norms and standards for the future. It aims to gain the spot in the global arena of innovation and fully enter into a new model of governance: digital, streamlined and innovative. The future of Saudi Arabia rests on AI.
27 November 2020
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