Narrowing the AI gap

Eman Ragab
Tuesday 30 Jan 2024

Arab countries must play an active role in the development of artificial intelligence and devise strategies to incorporate it into their economies, writes Eman Ragab



he World Economic Forum (WEF) in the Swiss resort of Davos this year included discussions of artificial intelligence (AI) that reflect a growing awareness of both the risks and potential benefits of AI and other emerging technologies.

While there are ongoing concerns over how incorporating these technologies into the workplace will eliminate jobs, there is also an increasing focus on how they could enhance human capacities rather than replace them.

This has given rise to a crucial issue known as the “AI gap,” or the gap between those in today’s world who can use AI and integrate it into various activities and those who do not yet possess these abilities and between those who manufacture products with AI components and the consumers of these products.

Many decision-makers pay no attention to this gap, perhaps because they are unaware of the difference between rates of AI usage and rates of the usage of communications technologies as a whole, such as the Internet, mobile phones, and social media platforms. But AI and IT are not the same thing.

Since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, the gap has widened between those countries that are able to utilise AI in their economic, financial, and banking activities, or in their health, education, or other public-service sectors, and those that are less able to do so.

As the world began to recover from the pandemic, it became possible to observe the palpable difference between countries that had redirected their investments to this technology, and are now at the forefront of AI development as a result, and those that poured huge sums into integrating AI into various sectors but did not allocate budgets to developing their human resources and equipping them with basic knowhow related to AI programming and applications.

The difference between these two sets of countries is like the difference between people who buy the latest model of a car, but then have to hire a driver because they have not learned how to drive, and people who have learned to drive before buying a car and are therefore equipped to drive the latest model out of the showroom.

The Global AI Index is a useful source of information on the efforts of 62 governments that have invested in AI. It ranks them on the basis of three “pillars of analysis”: investment, implementation, and innovation.  In the fourth and latest version of the Index, published by Tortoise Media in 2023, it ranked the US first in all three pillars followed by China, Singapore, the UK, and Germany. The Arab countries included in the Index ranked as follows: UAE at 28th place, Saudi Arabia (31st), Qatar (42nd), Egypt (52nd), Tunisia (56th), Morocco (57th) and Bahrain (58th).

Not surprisingly, the AI gap between these countries corresponds to disparities in their levels of competitiveness. A higher ranking means the creation of human resources that will enable them to become more competitive in economic and other activities that integrate AI technologies. Countries with a lower ranking on the Index have not made this investment.  

The gap is also mirrored in disparities in achieving high levels of sustainable development. It has been shown that AI technologies can accelerate development if used in projects aimed at addressing such challenges as poverty elimination, helping vulnerable groups, making public services universally available, and maximising and rationalising the utilisation of limited resources, something which is particularly crucial for the developing countries.

The growing awareness of the importance of AI technologies in today’s world undoubtedly motivated the AI for Sustainable Development Initiative, which seeks to maximise the advantages of AI towards achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030.

The WEF also launched the AI Governance Alliance, which brings together government, civil society, academic, and industry leaders to create AI systems for all and to develop AI governance frameworks. The alliance’s steering committee consists of 16 representatives of the WEF member states, of which only one is Arab: the UAE, represented by its Minister of State for Artificial Intelligence.

The Arab countries need to take two courses of action. First, they must strive to become part of these global initiatives and take an active part in defining their priorities and hoped-for outcomes. Second, they must develop national AI strategies that focus on educating their peoples on the basics of AI and how to devise solutions that incorporate these technologies.

At the same time, the Arab governments need to invest in developing the necessary infrastructure to integrate AI and related technologies such as Big Data management and analysis into the business environment, state services, and other crucial areas.

AI strategies must also be linked with the current national strategies to attain the SDGs as outlined in these countries’ national development plans.


The writer is director-general of the Regional Expertise Centre for Combating Drugs and Crime at NAUSS.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 1 February, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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