The Global AI Summit:
How Saudi Arabia Is Pushing Forward In AI
By Sophie Smith
Earlier this month, from 13 to 15 September, Saudi Arabia hosted the Second Global Artificial Intelligence (AI) Summit in Riyadh.[i] The event brought together prominent individuals and organisations in the field to discuss how AI can be used as a force for good. It resulted in several concrete initiatives by the Kingdom, including the announcement of AI Ethics Principles for public consultation, designed to integrate AI ethics throughout the AI system development life-cycle. In parallel, Saudi Arabia also inked agreements with IBM and Google, centred on using AI to promote sustainable solutions in different sectors, and joined the World Bank’s digital development partnership to support safe and inclusive digital transformation in developing countries.[ii]
Propelling Artificial Intelligence Development
The resulting initiatives from the Summit speak to Riyadh’s larger ambitions in AI. Its recently released National Strategy for Data and AI – also known as ASPIRE – aims to realise these ambitions to be a global leader in AI by focusing on developing and enhancing the skills of the population, partnerships, investments, regulations and the ecosystem.[iii] To implement this, the Kingdom established the Saudi Data and Artificial Intelligence Authority (SDAIA) with three sub-entities: the National Centre for AI (NCAI), the National Data Management Office (NDMO), and the National Information Centre (NIC).
Accordingly, the SDAIA has focused on AI-related education and training to cultivate the skill set of the population. Several schools have introduced AI into the curriculum, while universities are also offering science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) and AI-related degrees and training, with the hopes of making 40% of Saudi Arabia’s workforce data- and AI-literate by 2030.[iv] In that light, there is also an emphasis on research with the establishment of the AI Center of Advanced Studies (Thakaa) and the AI and Data Analytics Lab to foster a quality research environment.[v] A further nascent advance is the implementation of policies to regulate AI and create a more conducive environment for its development. This includes its Personal Data Protection Law, effective from March 2023, which sets out to protect individuals’ data and regulate the collection of data.[vi] The Kingdom is equally investing in domestic industries, specifically pledging $20 billion (USD) to establish 300 data and AI-related start-ups by 2030.[vii] Additionally, Saudi Arabia has also focused its energy on applying AI-based technologies to different sectors, such as transport and energy, including climate change. Its smart city Neom, for example, is a high-tech metropolis designed to be a hub for digital innovation.[viii]
Why Invest In AI?
All this falls in line with its development plan, Vision 2030, which aims to diversify the economy away from its heavy reliance on hydrocarbons. AI is a key pillar of this as it is forecast to contribute 20% to 34% per year to the annual growth of the region.[ix] Indeed, the Economist Intelligence Unit predicts that the economic impact of AI in Saudi Arabia would boost the country's GDP by $200 billion if the government advances policies to build talent and capital.[x] It will shift the economy towards the knowledge-based sector while creating new job opportunities. Focusing on AI will allow Riyadh to enhance its economic competitiveness in a field aside from oil and attract new foreign investments in an effort to become a regional and global hub for technological innovation.
What Does The Future Hold?
With Saudi Arabia building its capacity in AI, it is heading in the right direction. According to the Global AI Index –– which measures the development of AI through implementation, innovation, and investment in 62 countries –– it comes in first place for its operating environment and third for its government strategy.[xi] That said, overall, the Kingdom still ranks 26th, pulled down notably by its available talent to provide AI solutions, while it averages on research and development, infrastructure, and commercial initiatives vis-à-vis start-up activities, investments, and business. To that end, Saudi Arabia should focus on investing further in education and research to build the capacities of the local population, promoting STEM skills development starting from the primary school level. Moreover, to attract more foreign investment, the Kingdom should consider addressing the challenges that businesses have voiced.[xii] This includes the ‘Saudisation’ policies that require businesses to employ a certain number of Saudi workers, as well as further enhancing the transparency and easing the bureaucratic process of the regulatory system. Doing so will allow Saudi Arabia to fully reap all the benefits of the AI sector and realise its ambitions to become a global and regional hub for AI.
30 September 2022
[ii] Zawya, ‘2nd Global AI Summit concluded in Riyadh,’ Zawya, 18 September 2022, https://www.zawya.com/en/press-release/events-and-conferences/2nd-global-ai-summit-concluded-in-riyadh-xvhoer4s.
[iii] Saudi Data & AI Authority (SDAIA). Realizing Our Best Tomorrow. Riyadh: SDAIA, October 2020. https://ai.sa/Brochure_NSDAI_Summit%20version_EN.pdf.
[v] Small & Medium Enterprise General Authority, ‘Thakaa Center,’ Small & Medium Enterprise General Authority, n.d., https://en.thakaa.sa/; Prince Sultan University, ‘Artificial Intelligence and Data Analytics Lab,’ Prince Sultan University, 2019, https://ric.psu.edu.sa/aida-lab.php.
[vi] SDAIA, ‘His Excellency the President of Saudi Data & AI Authority Expresses his Appreciation to the Leadership Following the Issuance of the Personal Data Protection Law,’ SDAIA, 14 September 2021, https://sdaia.gov.sa/?Lang=en&page=SectionNews&Details=News&ID=89.
[vii] SDAIA. Realizing Our Best Tomorrow.
[ix] The Economist Group. Pushing Forward: The Future of AI in the Middle East and North Africa. Economist Impact, 2022. https://impact.economist.com/perspectives/sites/default/files/google_ai_mena_report.pdf.
[x] The Economist Group. Pushing Forward.
[xi] Tortoise, ‘The Global AI Index,’ Tortoise, n.d., https://www.tortoisemedia.com/intelligence/global-ai/.
[xii] US Department of State, ‘2021 Investment Climate Statements: Saudi Arabia,’ US Department of State, 2021, https://www.state.gov/reports/2021-investment-climate-statements/saudi-arabia/.