Artificial Intelligence in the Middle East

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Author: Layal Alghoozi | University of Glasgow

During the 21st-23rd September, Bahrain hosted the 3rd Smart Cities Symposium on Artificial Intelligence in collaboration with the University of Bahrain and the Institute of Engineering and Technology.

The event focused on providing an information-sharing outlet for a range of academics and scholars from Bahrain, the UAE, India, Pakistan and other states. Sharing the drive towards ‘smart cities’, speakers paid particular attention to transportation, energy consumption, improving the health-care sector, improving air quality in light of Bahrain’s high pollution rate, and pushing economic advancement in the Middle East. The symposium itself is apt and forward-thinking, focusing on training and harbouring skills and resources, as well as advancing higher-education learning of Artificial Intelligence (AI) Indeed, the notion of ‘smart cities‘ is developing at a rapid pace globally, and the Middle East region has the opportunity to transform its structures and systems following the footsteps of the developing world.

AI is underdeveloped and inadequately resourced in the Middle East, despite its rapid growth and the sense of urgency accompanied by developing technologies. States like China, the US, the UK, Russia, and South Korea are leading the Artificial Intelligence race, with generous investments and budgets focused on transforming society. This provides further incentive for Middle Eastern countries, particularly the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries to invest, research, and develop AI. This article aims to discuss the rise of AI and prospects of building sustainable systems in the Middle East, focusing on Bahrain’s recent symposium and its goals.

Urbanization and changing sphere of Artificial Intelligence

The interconnectivity of urban society and reliance on the internet and globalism means that an attack in one area may as well have an impact on other areas. The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed just how interconnected and vulnerable the world is, as is the growing challenge of climate change and transboundary harm. Relevant to AI, urbanization is driving the growth of smart cities, including smart homes, smart cars, sensors and cameras, smart buildings technology, and smart grid utility companies, making the cybersecurity landscape relevant.

In his segment on the second day of the virtual conference on ‘Deep models and AI in Cybersecurity’, Keynote speaker-Sayed M. El-Alfy noted that the Middle East is slowly progressing in the area of AI, with the United Arab Emirates aspiring to move the debate on AI towards concrete legislation and regulation of such technologies. Its national AI programme: BRAIN (Building a Responsible AI Nation) engages with both private and public sectors, and frames its policy objective as becoming a ‘leading participant in the responsible use of AI and its tools globally’. The United Arab Emirates’ 2031 initiative aims to push Artificial Intelligence to the forefront of its economy.

Likewise, Bahrain’s Polytechnic University has opened its AI Academy for the first time to students, creating an “integrated specialised programme based on enhancing innovation and creativity in the field of AI.” The overarching goal seems to align with that of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals focusing on health care provision, renewable and clean energy, responsible consumption and making cities sustainable and resilient.

Why is this urgent

Adapting AI technology to societal functions can contribute to a sustainable environment and a productive economy. For example, AI can enable low-carbon emitting systems by advocating for circular economies, that is, a system based on the long-term regeneration of resources as opposed to the consumption of finite resources. AI can enable this by operating autonomous electric vehicles to avoid congestion and ‘wasted fuels‘ by improving coordination in driving, for example. Indeed, AI can lead to decarbonisation by encouraging alternative modes of access to lower-carbon emitting technologies and building resilience and adaptation capabilities for climate change mitigation.

The keynote speech by Dr Bijan Pio Majidi, CEO of Dinamica International Ventures Development WLL shifts focus towards concrete goals Bahrain should be adapting. Bahrain, despite its small geographic size, ranks the seventh-worst air quality index and pollution rate globally as of 2019. Indeed, Bahrain’s air quality has been deemed unhealthy and exceeding up to four times the level of exposure recommended by the World Health Organization’s guidelines. Indeed, Bahrain lags in regulating waste disposal, and its Askar landfill is notorious for harbouring this waste problem. Likewise, the increase in vehicle emissions and nitrogen oxides and ozone gas is the leading source of pollution on the island according to a 2017 Report. This has led to rises in traffic congestion, motor-way accidents, and air pollution. Bahrain’s plan to build a metro seeks to ease this pressure and provide convenient transport for pedestrians.

Heavily reliant on its crude oil and petroleum exports, Bahrain’s move towards building a ‘smart city’ aligns with the UN Sustainable Development goals. To tackle generations of pollution, though, it must act now. Its neighbouring GCC countries must likewise collaborate to ensure a steadfast transformation of how business and life is conducted. Dr Majidi proposes investing in Electric Vehicles and charging stations by drawing to the stark rise in electricity consumption in greater Asia. He uses Norway as a case study example to point out that despite its population of 5.4 million in 2020, its CO2 emissions per capita consists of 9 tons (2018). In contrast, Bahrain alone, a population of 1.7 million produces 26 tons of CO2 (2013). These figures, therefore, point towards the urgency of transforming GCC states to AI-enabled smarter and safer societies.

Not only will this promote sustainable living and quality of life, but it will also expand business opportunities for the Gulf. Its small size and scarce resources should not impede its goals, as long as it is prepared to invest and devote itself to this new sphere seriously.

Politics and law

While Artificial Intelligence relies on ICT and Engineering, this also brings forward the need to regulate and legislate, especially in light of cyberattacks and international security. The attacks of Estonia in 2007, Ukraine in 2015, and Sweden’s transport in 2017 have all raised concerns about the disrupted normal functioning of everyday activities like communications and transport. Indeed, growing urbanization means the infrastructure is increasingly vulnerable. This mutual vulnerability requires information sharing practices and skill-building and training, as well as fostering confidence-building measures.

The lack of adequate regional and collaborative institutions in the Gulf is one of its greatest vices. Led by strongman and stubborn politics, the GCC conferences have been stifled with leaders failing to show up, inconclusive meetings, and issuing blockades against members. This cannot continue if the GCC plans on transforming the region. Developing ‘smart cities’ requires transparency, information-sharing, and confidence-building measures to foster comprehensive growth. It requires cooperation, something the Middle East fails miserably at doing. This may mean that for now, the GCC must put aside its differences and come together to achieve this greater goal towards sustainability and technology.


The Middle East is stepping up to the rapid move towards AI-enabled technologies and the generation of ‘smart cities’. Bahrain, in particular, has shown its serious will to become a key actor in this movement, given its poor track record of environmental harm. Given the security threats inherent in AI necessitating cooperation and trust between states, the GCC countries must cooperate to facilitate a regional power structure and enhance the AI-movement comprehensively.

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