Digital Governance in the United Arab Emirates
By Imane Hmiddou*
On 1 August 2022, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Cabinet approved the creation of the Higher Committee for Government Digital Transformation to strengthen the development of services and operations’ digitalisation for the government and businesses and introduced the UAE Digital Government Strategy 2025.[i] The Committee is part of a larger umbrella of other frameworks, legislations and institutions to enhance competitiveness, readiness, and digital robustness in the UAE.
Based on the IMD World Digital Competitiveness Ranking 2021, the UAE ranks 10th in digital competitiveness worldwide. This ranking is based on three factors: knowledge, technology and future readiness.[ii] In fact, the UAE has been engaged in developing a robust digital transformation and is one of the leading digital economies in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). By 2024, investments in the Information and Communications Technology (ICT) in the UAE are projected to reach $23 billion (USD), focusing on Artificial Intelligence (AI), Cloud Computing, 5G and the Internet of Things.[iii]
The digital transformation engages all members of Emirati society, from senior officials in Government to businesses and civil society, striving to take advantage of the opportunities offered by ICT while tackling their challenges. So how does the UAE balance between using and governing digital transformation?
National Digital Strategies and Policies
Over the past decades, the Fourth Industrial Revolution — powered by new technologies, which further advance the digital transformation — has been unfolding.[iv] Starting with the invention of the home computer, followed by access to the internet, the age of information emerged and skyrocketed with the inclusion of Artificial Intelligence. The increased usage of technologies such as ICT, 5G, virtual reality (VR) and AI by governments, businesses, and civil society underscores the necessity to govern their use efficiently. Several countries have sought to take the lead in the industry, contributing to an increasing number of national AI strategies. The UAE has shown engagement in developing a safe digital economy. The OECD lists nine AI initiatives taken by the UAE covering AI research, ethics, legislation, businesses, and institutions.[v] In 2007, the UAE launched an ICT Fund, the first Arab initiative investing in Research & Development and promoting innovation in the field to enhance the efficiency and scope of tasks where ICT can be implemented.[vi] Ten years later, the UAE took the lead in creating a Ministry for Artificial Intelligence, becoming the first country to establish an exclusive ministry dedicated to AI.[vii] The Ministry then expanded to other areas, and in 2020, during the global pandemic, it developed into the Ministry of State for Artificial Intelligence, Digital Economy and Remote Work Applications Office.[viii]
The economic growth generated by AI and ICT comes with challenges, especially to data privacy, representativity, and robustness. In this regard, the UAE has legislated data privacy to follow a unified system of how to use, collect, and exchange personal data for businesses based in the UAE and the ones operating in the country’s digital space.[ix] The Personal Data Protection Law (2022) resembles the European Union’s (EU) General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in terms of how privacy should be protected through personal data collection.
The Emirate of Dubai has another data-related legislation as part of the smart transformation. The Dubai Data Law (2015) tackles data in general, creating a secure, open, harmonised, and efficient legal framework to govern data dissemination in the emirate, and created the Digital Dubai Data to spearhead the ambitious initiative.[x] It concerns individuals dealing with data creation and exchange, governmental institutions, and businesses operating in the Emirate.
Governmental e-Services in UAE
The Emirate’s digital transformation is not only reflected in legal developments but also through the governmental use of ICT in their services. Tech tools enable efficient task accomplishment and consequently increase service quality. Therefore, many governments are step by step including these tools to ameliorate their public services. The UAE is also taking part in this global initiative. For instance, the Emirati government has digitised access to official policies as well as a set of publications that concern citizens’ digital awareness.[xi] Furthermore, it has established the UAE SmartPass system, a mobile application for national digital identity and digital signature that simplifies bureaucratic tasks and allows citizens and residents to access public e-services.[xii] Today, 40% of the UAE population use e-Gov services at least once in 7 days, taking advantage of these improvements.[xiii]
The Need for a Harmonised Global Approach
Digital Governance in the UAE has been managed with high standards. By establishing comprehensive policies to promote the development of ICT while implementing ICT strategies for public services, the UAE is coping with the international dynamics of Digital Governance and established a comprehensive set of policies to govern the Fourth Industrial Revolution. It took advantage of the efficiency of new technologies in transforming e-government services into a fast and secure process for Emirati citizens. These efforts generate national support for research and development and contribute to building an encouraging business environment to grow the implementation of new technologies. This multi-dimensional strategy reflects the decision-makers’ commitment to diversifying the Emirati economy by nourishing a rigid digital economy and presents an opportunity to enlarge the already wide portfolio of foreign businesses by attracting new tech industries.
Each state may customise its digital priorities depending on needs and resources. Nevertheless, the international community faces common legislative challenges brought by ICT and, particularly, AI. Since digital technologies are interconnected in borderless spaces, national legislations are not sufficient to efficiently tackle cyber threats and data security breaches. This borderless character becomes more dangerous once merged with the efficiency of new technologies, specifically the algorithm-driven ones, in disrupting cyber security, harming strategic infrastructures, and getting insights into personal data that can be used manipulatively. These challenges cannot be solved at national levels and require international cooperation, policies, and agreements to harmonise digital behaviours. In the context of the fourth industrial revolution, it is crucial that all countries are involved in negotiating a harmonised framework for AI, VR, and new technologies in general. The UAE is uniquely positioned thanks to its resources and influence to assume a leadership role in helping to bring others to the negotiating table to formulate global digital governance principles.
11 October 2022
*Imane Hmiddou is a Master of International Relations and European Studies and a second year MA student in Regional Studies and International Business, specialising in multidisciplinary research of Artificial Intelligence.
[i] Gulf Today, ‘UAE to set up Higher Committee for Government Digital Transformation,’ 1 August 2022, https://www.gulftoday.ae/news/2022/08/01/uae-to-set-up-higher-committee-for-government-digital-transformation.
[ii] IMD World Competitiveness Centre, ‘IMD World Digital Competitiveness Booklet 2021,’ https://www.imd.org/centers/world-competitiveness-center/rankings/world-digital-competitiveness/.
[iii] GlobalData, ‘ICT spending in UAE will reach US$23bn by 2024, says GlobalData,’ 12 March 2020, https://www.globaldata.com/ict-spending-in-uae-will-reach-us23bn-by-2024-says-globaldata/.
[iv] Klaus Schwab, ‘The Fourth Industrial Revolution: what it means, how to respond,’ World Economic Forum, 14 January 2016, https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2016/01/the-fourth-industrial-revolution-what-it-means-and-how-to-respond/.
[v] OECD.AI (2021), ‘Database of National AI Policies,’ https://oecd.ai/en/.
[vi] UAE Telecommunications and Digital Government Regulatory Authority (TDRA), ‘ICT Fund Introduction,’ https://tdra.gov.ae/en/ictfund/about/ict-fund-introduction.
[vii] Dim Galeon, ‘The United Arab Emirates is the first country in the world to hire a minister for artificial intelligence,’ Business Insider, 16 December 2017, https://www.businessinsider.com/world-first-ai-minister-uae-2017-12?IR=T.
[viii] Artificial Intelligence Office, United Arab Emirates Ministry of State for Artificial Intelligence, Digital Economy & Remote Work Applications Office, https://ai.gov.ae/about_us/.
[ix] UAE Government, ‘Personal Data Protection Law,’ Digital UAE, https://u.ae/en/about-the-uae/digital-uae/data/data-protection-laws.
[x] ‘Law No. (26) of 2015, Regulating Data Dissemination and Exchange in the Emirate of Dubai,’ The Supreme Legislation Committee in the Emirate of Dubai, https://dlp.dubai.gov.ae/Legislation%20Reference/2015/Law%20No.%20(26)%20of%202015.pdf.
[xi] UAE Government, ‘Digital UAE,’ https://u.ae/en/about-the-uae/digital-uae.
[xii] UAE Government, ‘The UAE Pass app,’ https://u.ae/en/about-the-uae/digital-uae/the-uae-pass-app.
[xiii] Mohamad Majid, ‘Mohamad Majid (KPMG) on digital pillars of UAE's public sector,’ Consultancy-me.com, 4 August 2022, https://www.consultancy-me.com/news/5308/mohamad-majid-kpmg-on-digital-pillars-of-uaes-public-sector.