New research shows the state of AI within businesses across the UAE is expected to improve dramatically over the next three years, particularly as a growing number of executives look to AI to drive their digital agendas. Already, 18% of businesses in the country consider AI their most important digital priority. This is according to the AI Maturity Report in the Middle East and Africa (MEA), a new study commissioned by Microsoft and conducted by EY.
Much of the UAE’s progress in elevating the AI agenda is a direct result of leaders across the country recognising that the technology is quickly becoming a key differentiator across all sectors and actively pursuing their AI agendas accordingly. In fact, 94% of companies in the UAE report involvement in AI at the executive management level – the highest percentage of any surveyed country in MEA.
“When we examine companies with high AI maturity, it’s clear that the technology is driven directly by the CEOs themselves. This high level of involvement typically results in greater investment in AI, broader adoption and a greater number of successful implementations,” says Sayed Hashish, regional general manager at Microsoft Gulf.
Leadership capability in the UAE is also rated high when compared with other countries in MEA. While 64% of respondents believe they have moderate, little or no AI leadership competency, 24% of executives in the UAE rated themselves as highly competent, with another 46 percent indicating they are either competent or very competent.
Most companies still consider themselves to be in the planned phase of AI maturity, meaning AI has not yet been put to active use. On the opposite end of the spectrum, just 8% of businesses perceive themselves as advanced in their application of AI.
It’s not surprising that the UAE is the second highest regional investor in AI over the past ten years, investing $2.15 billion in total. The bulk of this investment went towards social media and Internet of Things (IoT) transactions. This was followed by notable spend across a further eight technologies, including smart mobile, gamification, and machine learning.
In fact, respondents ranked machine learning as the most useful AI technology, with primary emphasis placed on decision support solutions. This was followed by smart robotics and text analysis, where customer interactions were the key focus.
The UAE’s open culture around AI is another highly positive indicator of the health of the technology within the country. 94% of UAE companies have ‘AI Strategy’ as an important topic at C-suite level and a significant 35% of companies say AI discussions are filtering down from top management right the way through to non-managerial levels.
As a result, employees in the UAE are less afraid of losing their jobs to AI than employees in other countries. In fact, they embrace opportunities to participate in skills training and pilot programmes. Though UAE executives are providing clear direction for the development of AI within the country, converting this vision to actionable output remains a challenge. This is largely because many UAE companies are still building the foundations needed to develop AI maturity, including suitable infrastructure and good quality data.
“The biggest problem to date with AI is that it isn’t always right – AI has given us the ability to make data-driven predictions, decisions and actions faster than ever before, but it is only as effective as the data and algorithms it relies on,” says Steve Plimsoll, MENA Data & Intelligence advisory leader, EY. “So, while it’s great to see local companies investing in the adoption of AI, the focus must be on building trust – that the underlying data and algorithms are reliable, the models ethical and the predictions are measurable and as accurate as they can be. Without trust, AI will be never fully moved from fiction into reality.”
“Executives across the UAE are already investing significantly in the training and education of their employees. At the same time, businesses are engaging with external parties to promote skills transfer and making a concerted effort to identify relevant use cases for AI,” continues Microsoft’s Hashish. “In the past, organisations have undervalued the importance of their data assets, meaning their competencies around structured data governance and data stewardship are still developing. And it will take time for businesses to start producing large volumes of high quality, well-managed data. The country has made significant progress in elevating its AI agenda over the past three years, and all indicators point to the near future bringing significant improvement in the application of the technology as well.”
UAE companies are, in general, heavily focused on customer engagement when it comes to AI. The use of chatbots in the marketing space has become common, largely because they enhance the customer experience, ultimately demonstrating obvious value to management. As with most other businesses across the region, UAE respondents expect AI to deliver greater operational efficiencies, drive down costs and, most importantly, enable them to be more competitive. Specifically, companies within the Emirates view prediction (76%) and automation (76%) as the most relevant applications of AI for their businesses.
Despite such challenges, 65% of UAE companies rate themselves as high to very competent when it comes to drawing on external alliances to strengthen their AI capabilities. Ultimately, this enables executives to kick-start AI programmes, leveraging external competencies while growing their internal capacity.