Crown Center for Middle East Studies

Beyond Robots: Artificial Intelligence in the Middle East

A Conversation with Nagla Rizk and Omer Shah

Organized and edited by Ramyar D. Rossoukh, Assistant Director for Research

March 18, 2024

Since last year’s release of ChatGPT brought Artificial Intelligence (AI) to public attention, its disruptive and transformative powers have been widely analyzed by experts and the media. These debates, however, have rarely been concerned with the implications of AI for the Middle East, a region of rapidly expanding AI use and development. In this Crown Conversation, we ask Nagla Rizk, professor of economics and founding director of the Access to Knowledge for Development Center (A2K4D) at the American University in Cairo’s School of Business, and Omer Shah, Chau Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Anthropology at Pomona College, to shed light on how AI technologies are being used in Egypt and Saudi Arabia—in areas as varied as agriculture and pilgrimage—and reflect on the possibilities and challenges of AI in the region.

Nagla Rizk’s research area is the economics of knowledge, technologies, and development, with a focus on the governance of data and AI, gender, and inclusive growth in Egypt and MENA. She is a main contributor to Egypt’s 2021 National Artificial Intelligence Strategy and member of the Technical Secretariat of Egypt’s National Council for Artificial Intelligence. Omer Shah is a cultural anthropologist. His current book project, Made in Mecca: Expertise, Technology, and Hospitality in the Post-Oil Holy City, examines recent efforts by the Saudi state to intensify and optimize Mecca’s pilgrimage through new sciences and technologies of crowd management, logistics, and hospitality.

How is AI being used in Egypt?

Nagla Rizk: In 2019, Egypt established an Artificial Intelligence Council and National AI Strategy, and more recently launched the Egyptian Charter for Responsible AI, one of the first efforts in the region to develop a framework for AI governance and ethics principles. The use of AI in government and investment in digital infrastructure projects, like a hyperscale data center to support future AI development, has positioned Egypt among the top ten countries of the region when it comes to global government AI indices.

There is also a vibrant AI startup community in Egypt working across a number of different industries including: agriculture, through projects such as Hudhud, an Arabic mobile application that uses AI to advise farmers on crop management practices through chatbots and monitoring weather conditions; financial and business services, like MerQ, a startup developing cognitive chatbots as virtual assistants, including a credit card assistant named Sally; and healthcare initiatives, like Applied Innovation Center’s efforts to develop a super high precision AI diagnosis model for vision disorders.

Nevertheless, there is an imbalance in the Egyptian AI ecosystem between the adoption of AI by the government and private sector entrepreneurship, especially small businesses. Like elsewhere in the world, there is also a plethora of needed legislation to coordinate work between different agencies. Most challenging is regulation related to data governance; there is a data protection law, but the administrative charter is not yet in place.

How is AI being used in Saudi Arabia?

Omer Shah: Artificial intelligence, robotics, algorithmic control, and other predictive systems are being used toward a wide range of practical solutions in the kingdom. In 2020, the Saudi Data and AI Authority was established by royal decree to regulate and develop artificial intelligence in the kingdom. There is a common, if not cliché, refrain: Data is the new oil. But, of course, all of this artificial intelligence demands tremendous forms of human labor. Saudi citizens (and other residents) are imagined as the vanguard of a knowledge economy. Living between Jeddah and Mecca from 2017–2019, I saw the cultivation of this tech-entrepreneurship firsthand at slickly produced events like startup competitions and hackathons, but also at the university in Mecca where I did the bulk of my research.

The Saudi authorities are framing Mecca as a laboratory for tech-based urban management. Mecca’s persistent challenges of crowding and over-crowding, traffic and logistics, but also other forms of urban uncertainty, are made into a resource for the state as it begins to live out a post-oil imaginary. Data is the new oil, but so is hajj. In Mecca, people often spoke about making the holy city “smart” and of “smart hajj.” A science and technology park at Mecca’s university was described by some as “Google in Mecca.” These were very dynamic spaces animated by Saudi academics-turned-businessmen, young Saudi university students, South Asian engineers, and Meccans whose families were traditional pilgrim guides or mutawwifin.

In Mecca, projects that deploy forms of AI are increasingly commonplace. Startup companies based out of Mecca’s university use computer vision to detect abnormalities in the crowd like overcrowding and disruptions to flow. Some of these companies are also adapting their technologies toward secular scenes and settings—college campuses, traffic roundabouts, shopping malls, and the like. In terms of more visible technologies, robots can be seen distributing bottles of holy water or zamzam to pilgrims. Robots can even be seen offering forms of religious guidance to pilgrims—answering simple questions about Islamic ritual in a range of languages, or otherwise connecting pilgrims to a remote scholar. There is a significant desire for these technologies to be made in Mecca as it were. For example, Bluetooth sensors that assist in hajj-related navigation are engraved with the phrase “Made in Mecca.” But in this in-between time, a lot of the technologies are still made in China or Cupertino.

What do you see as the main obstacles to the growth of AI in Egypt?

Rizk: To expand AI in Egypt, there needs to be a more enabling environment for entrepreneurs, capacity building, training, education efforts, and preparation of skills for the future of work, especially the anticipated job loss with the expansion in technology. All this needs to expand to include more private and not just public facilities.

Why is this important? Because Egypt is a country with a huge youth population and significant challenges related to human resources and skill structure. More than 60 percent of Egypt’s population is under 30 years of age at a time when the country suffers from high rates of unemployment of youth (17.1 percent of the total labor force ages 15–24) , the educated (22 percent of the total labor force with advanced education), and women (15.9 percent of the female labor force). It is also a country of multilayered inequalities and huge economic challenges, especially recently with unprecedented rates of foreign debt, downfall in its currency, and an inflation announced at 40 percent. There is a significant brain drain to the global North and to the Gulf countries, not to mention a sizable digital divide, especially for women and the marginalized.

In addition, there are numerous challenges related to the quality of data and the invisibility of informal workers and communities from the data landscape—what I call “data blindness” and “data blur” inflicting biases on the marginalized. Invisibility in data means invisibility in national policy making. Finally, there is also “data lock” by the state and large businesses, which translates to a barrier to entry and further market concentration.

How is Saudi Arabia’s investment in AI connected to broader national and regional ambitions, like Vision 2030?

Shah: The story of “AI in Saudi Arabia” is not similar or equal to the story of AI in Malaysia or Pakistan or Egypt for that matter. Saudi Arabia is an incredibly important intermediary in global capitalism, of which AI now plays an important role. Artificial intelligence and other digital technologies are an important economic gamble for the Saudi state. As I mentioned earlier, it is a key feature of their attempt to imagine and coordinate a post-oil future. This post-oil imaginary is detailed of course in the Vision 2030 national transformation campaign, a document which I understand to mark a more pronounced shift from the “natural resource” of oil to “human resources” of a knowledge economy. This material and emotional investment in artificial intelligence should be appreciated and understood alongside a range of other projects: new urban schemes like Neom and the Line, futuristic mega-projects unfolding in the northwest of the country; the Entertainment Authority, which regulates and advances Saudi Arabia’s entertainment sector; and the development of museums and contemporary art, tourism, and sports. It also includes what I call in my research a new hajj and umrah industry, the new techniques and technologies of crowd management, logistics, surveillance, and hospitality.

Obviously, these transformations have vibrant repercussions for Saudi citizens and other residents. But when you follow Saudi investments in everything from X (formerly known as Twitter) to AI startup companies like Vectra and Atomwise, a set of global stakes in Saudi Arabia’s post-oil imaginary are vivified. Part of what I’m trying to communicate here is that a project of “AI in Saudi Arabia” necessarily exceeds the Saudi state. And when it is global, it often reaches out and relies on something other than Silicon Valley. As one colleague in Mecca told me, “We know we will never be Silicon Valley, but we want to make people feel as if they are.” But, as I mentioned before, the building of these technologies relies heavily on human labor, like foreign workers from India and Pakistan. It also involves more local, cosmopolitan, and Islamic grammars of knowledge, technology, and expertise in the holy cities and figures like pilgrim guides. There are all these other global connections and intimacies to which we should attend. Saudi Arabia is entangled with Palo Alto, but also with Karachi.

How do you see AI shaping the future of the Middle East?

Rizk: Three tensions shape the future of AI in the region. First comes the paradox of technology in its ability to exacerbate, but also to mitigate, inequality. Second is the historic focus of Arab governments on promoting economic freedoms rather than civil liberties, and encouraging big tech more than promoting small businesses. And third is the threat of technological determinism with investments typically focusing on technology without paying similar attention to complimentary enablers such as the legislative and business environment and human capital. The region’s policy makers need to make a conscious effort to mitigate these tensions and take concrete steps to capitalize on the promise rather than the peril of AI.

Despite all this, I still believe that the region can harness AI as a transformative technology to move towards achieving sustainable development goals and promoting inclusion. We can see this in the promotion of data driven entrepreneurship and innovation, especially offering work opportunities for youth and women given the context of rampant unemployment. This, of course, is conditional on conscious efforts on the part of policy makers to gear the use of AI in this direction, i.e. “AI for Good,” and to work hard to ensure overcoming (not just mitigating) the challenges. It is not an easy task, but it is not impossible. It needs political will.

What I have seen is that political will exists when it pertains to the economic and business components of the equation, usually toward large businesses that cooperate with the government. Small businesses and citizens have not been as lucky when it comes to the use of AI.

Still, I remain optimistic. Demographics are an asset as the region contains a sizable cohort of university educated young men and women. Youth entrepreneurship has been on the rise since the Arab Spring. There also have been ground-up initiatives by entrepreneurs, civil society, researchers, and even artists, along with some champions in policy making that will gradually push for small wins to reap the promise of AI for development and inclusion in the region, like the forthcoming MENA observatory for responsible data and AI. There is also some existing successful infrastructure to build on, especially in entrepreneurship driven by data and AI, and more so in the richer countries of the region.

This, however, is conditional on collaboration, rather than competition, between countries of the region, with rich countries spearheading a regional surge in AI investment. This indeed is the biggest challenge for the region—namely, the will to collaborate to turn the region’s diversity into an asset and develop regional cooperation and harmonization of legislation, especially for data governance like it’s done in Europe. How realistic this is remains to be seen.

Shah: My understanding is somewhat more pessimistic. My concern is that artificial intelligence and the like entrench a set of conceptions about techno-science, capitalism, and the state. It establishes a strange kind of technological solutionism; it is one in which nothing gets solved. As Orit Halpern, Robert Mitchell, and Bernard Dionysius Geoghegan have argued, gone are the days of conscious planning and regulation. Rather, under regimes of artificial and distributed intelligence, crisis and chaos are virtues. We are asked to demo, to update, to adapt, to be resilient. In short, all problem-solving is reduced to a set of technical adjustments to crisis or disaster, as opposed to the development of lasting political or social solutions. Despite this political resignation, a fantastical and breathless exuberance envelops most conversations about artificial intelligence. Evgeny Morozov describes artificial intelligence as continuation and intensification of “digital neoliberalism,” a business ontology defined by entrepreneurship and efficacy. What we call artificial intelligence, of course, hinges on tremendous amounts of human labor. It makes invisible that labor, diminishes it, and disrupts it, all in the name of optimization. These dynamics are on full display in the place I am writing from now, Southern California, where actors, writers, and a range of creative workers are bristling against how these technologies draw from and replace their labor. Meanwhile, in Mecca, the implementation of new projects of artificial and distributed intelligence relies heavily on figures like pilgrim guides. However, the embodied, moral, and cosmopolitan labor of these Meccan knowledge workers is diminished and disrupted by these smart technologies of wayfinding, navigation, and urban logistics.

What is incumbent upon “the region,” and I think quite frankly on all of us, is to question the hype of artificial intelligence and “smartness.” We need to make sure we’re not dreaming an old dream dressed up or sold to us as a new one. Saudi Arabia and the Hejaz region has an incredible moral, technical, intellectual, and political wellspring that can be drawn from. That of course goes for the region at large. Moving forward we need to remember those histories, and we need to ask serious and thoughtful questions about how we want to live, work, worship, create, and imagine.

For more Crown Center publications on topics covered in this Conversation, see: Shut Out of Good Jobs: Contemporary Obstacles to Women’s Employment in MENA” and “​​Implementing Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030: An Interim Balance Sheet.”

The opinions and findings expressed in this Conversation belong to the authors exclusively and do not reflect those of the Crown Center or Brandeis University.