Artificial Intelligence and Innovation in the UAE’s National Discourse

For some time now, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has been adopting artificial intelligence (AI) in the public and business sectors. This is part of the Gulf country’s economic diversification strategy, aimed at transforming the UAE away from an oil-dependent economy to a knowledge-based one. Artificial intelligence is generally conceived as human intelligence processes which are simulated by computer systems, including learning, reasoning, problem-solving, planning, predictive analytics, and advanced robotics.

Like other Arab states, the UAE has advanced a public discourse based on a dominant narrative of nationalism which is meant to solidify its image while reinforcing the Emirati rulers’ power and legitimacy. Its foundational theme is made up of different frames such as diversity, tolerance, moderation, international cooperation, humanitarianism, and modernity. State leaders use narratives not only to persuade and influence a national and international audience of its image and self-perception but also as a means to determine its understanding of its place and purpose in the international system.

The Path to Digitization

Branding is relevant to the ways in which countries present themselves internationally and how their reputations can be built or enhanced. By highlighting the ideas, concepts, and policies of AI and innovation, the UAE is signaling its active participation in the digital transformation of the region and its status as a progressive, high-tech, and modernized country. The Emirati leadership is driving this process which seeks to construct a narrative based on the UAE being a nation made up of forward-thinking risk-takers, who actively create opportunities and innovate and ensure that their country becomes an increasingly valuable member of the international community.

The UAE has taken numerous steps to bolster its image and commitment to innovation and technology. The UAE’s ambition is to become one of the global leaders in the field as well as the regional hub of AI. In 2017, the UAE became the first country in the world to appoint a Minister of State for AI. The UAE’s National Artificial Intelligence Strategy 2031 has recognized the growth potential associated with AI and has set out to increase the competitive edge of this sector in the Emirates while establishing itself as an incubator for artificial intelligence innovation.

The UAE has recognized the importance of creating more specialized AI programs and professionals, as well as the AI Ministry’s need for AI consultants, experts, research institutions, and universities that will provide the required skills, knowledge, and expertise. The establishment of the Mohammed bin Zayed University of Artificial Intelligence is an important and innovative step in its quest, which will help facilitate this endeavor. Ajman University has also announced a graduate program in AI, scheduled to commence in the academic year 2020-2021. Dr. Karim Seghir, the Chancellor of Ajman University, said: “It’s not going to be long before AI takes over many aspects of life, including business (products and services), education, defence, entertainment, medicine, law, government, and even politics and social life.”

In March 2014, the government of Dubai announced the Smart Dubai initiative in order to make Dubai a leading smart city. AI has been the trigger and the technology behind the facilitation of Smart Dubai. A smart city requires a digital infrastructure that can link the various sensors, devices, and machines to make up the public system so they can exchange information in real-time. For city governments, the challenge will be to ensure that the huge volumes of data created by smart cities remain safe. Other initiatives created for this purpose are Ibtekr, the first interactive platform designed by the Mohammed bin Rashed Center for Government Innovation (MBRCGI), as well as Dubai Future Foundation, which is focused on innovation. In addition, Mubadala, the UAE’s leading Sovereign Wealth Fund, alone has reportedly invested $15 billion in a technology fund to subsidize its efforts.

The UAE has already used AI applications and systems in various sectors. For example, in security and police services, it developed a police officer robot. In Dubai, the Water and Electricity Authority employed a customer service robot and used a pilotless flying taxi, which are not yet in service. The main focus of AI is on radar, radio communication, a variety of aerospace technologies, as well as transport and aviation.

More specifically, the UAE AI strategy aims to increase government performance, productivity, and efficiency at all levels and sectors. AI also has a tremendous economic potential that remains untapped both globally and at the GCC level. AI is predicted to contribute $15.7 trillion to the global economy by 2030 and $320 billion to the Middle East economy. Online shopping has grown tremendously in the last decade. According to one forecast, in 2021, over two billion people around the world are expected to shop online, leading to a 20 percent growth in digital commerce sales. AI models indicate that retailers could save about $340 billion by implementing AI solutions and reduce the cost by implementing AI in supply chains. Another benefit is having direct control over supply chains, plus greater flexibility to respond efficiently to disruptions in local markets and being able to adjust to potential vulnerabilities in global market fluctuations.

Part of the innovation narrative in the UAE is based on the necessity to remain competitive in the midst of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) and the desire to shift the paradigm of being pure adopters of AI to become developers of this technology. According to the UN’s 2019 Global Innovation Index, the UAE ranked first among Arab countries, and 36th worldwide, in terms of overall performance on the index, climbing nine spots from its 2015 ranking.

However, expectations must be realistic. A recent Economist report, entitled An understanding of AI’s limitations is starting to sink in, warned that despite major advances in the field, “…the fact remains that many of the grandest claims made about AI have once again failed to become reality” and that “the state of AI hype has far exceeded the state of AI science” especially in regard to the actual implementation of the technology on the ground.


Prior to the outbreak of coronavirus, new technologies were already making many jobs, business models, and older technologies obsolete. Yet the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated this trend. Put simply, the pathogen has hot-wired the 4IR, pushing more citizens of the Gulf region—and the world at large—toward the digital sphere. Even after a vaccine for coronavirus is developed, GCC member-states will need to continue innovation-led development as the world’s digital transformation moves forward.

In the Gulf region, where there is a disproportionately young population, the brightest and most innovative citizens have a special role to play as pioneers of the 4IR. The growth of these countries’ high-tech sectors will pay dividends long into the future as the UAE and other countries in the Arabian Peninsula seek to achieve economic diversification and trim down their bloated public sectors by creating more opportunities for tech-savvy citizens in the private sector.