The Need for a Context-Specific Study of AI and Data in The MENA Region


The Need for a Context-Specific Study of AI and Data in The MENA Region

By: Alia Shaddad


Fig. 1
. Contribution of AI to Industry in 2030. Adapted from
The potential impact of AI in the Middle East. PwC. 2018.


On the 30th of April, 2023, Business Today Egypt published an article shedding light on the impact of AI on the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, referencing predictions from a recent report published by global consulting firm PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PwC). Reports such as the aforementioned predict that AI will make a growing contribution to the global economy, channeling billions of dollars’ worth of benefits to the region over the coming decade. The PwC report predicts that the “average annual growth in the contribution of AI in the region between 2018-2030” will be as follows: UAE 33.5%, KSA 31.3%, GCC4 28.8%, and Egypt 25.5%. 

Another report by the International Data Corporation (IDC) suggests that the MENA region can benefit from investing in and deploying AI technologies in sectors ranging from the financial sector, to public service sectors like education, healthcare, and manufacturing. Other research, such as the paper titled “The role of artificial intelligence and blockchain technologies in sustainable tourism in the Middle East,” suggests that the use of technologies such as AI in the regional tourism sector, for example, could prove to be both environmentally sustainable and economically significant. In 2022, Google also published a report titled “The Future of Artificial Intelligence in the Middle East and North Africa”. The report states that the MENA region is “estimated to accrue US$320 billion by 2030 from value added by AI,” mainly from costs saved through automation, in addition to other improvements across industries. 

On a governmental level, multiple departments and initiatives across the region have already published national AI strategies, and governments have been actively cultivating AI ecosystems in their respective countries. The following MENA countries have developed national AI strategies: Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, and the UAE. Iraq’s national AI strategy is also in progress. All of this has made AI all the more relevant in the MENA — and necessitates a rigorous and collaborative conversation concerning its impact and potential. This conversation becomes even more important in its intersection with the discourse on development. Responsible AI and data practices, the ethics of using both data and AI, amongst other issues, have become a necessary dimension in the recent multi-stakeholder dialogue on development—relevant to the developing MENA countries, and the development of the region as a whole. 

This has been the guiding theme for the “Governing Responsible Artificial Intelligence and Data in the Middle East and North Africa” project—a collaboration between The Access to Knowledge for Development Center (A2K4D) and the Center for Continuing Education at Birzeit University (CCE), funded by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC). The project focuses on research, capacity-building, interdisciplinary collaboration, and policy advocacy, all within the realm of responsible data and AI for development in the MENA region. Rapid growth in the development of AI and its dissemination opens up a lot of potential to address a wide array of developmental goals. However, it also brings a plethora of novel considerations to minimize the potential negative repercussions of utilizing new technologies for development. As previously mentioned, the development and adoption of national AI strategies, along with investments cultivating AI ecosystems, emphasizes the importance of engaging in higher-level discussions contributing to the global discourse on the responsible use of AI. This is happening in parallel to calls by non-governmental institutions and entities for the responsible and ethical deployment of AI globally and regionally. 

This includes, for example, documents by intergovernmental institutions: The WHO guidance on Ethics & Governance of Artificial Intelligence for Health, UNI Global Union: Top Ten Principles for Ethical Artificial Intelligence, The OECD AI Principles, Outcome document: first draft of the Recommendation on the Ethics of Artificial Intelligence, and The European Charter’s European Ethical Charter on the use of Artificial Intelligence in judicial systems and their environment

It also includes, documents by non-governmental and research institutions such as: Amnesty International + Access Now: The Toronto Declaration: Protecting the right to equality and non-discrimination in machine learning systems, IEEE: Ethically Aligned Design: A Vision for Prioritizing Human Well-being with Autonomous and Intelligent Systems, and Algorithm Watch’s AI Ethics Guidelines Global Inventory. Multiple other documents, general and sector-specific, have and continue to be published. 

While global and regional literature continues to increase and develop, the question stands: why is a context-specific approach important and necessary for the MENA region? 

A context-specific approach allows us to explore relevant and key issues instead of simply adapting findings from other contexts to our own realities. This enables a nuanced understanding of the AI ecosystem and its complexities in the region, which also enables a more well-rounded analysis. This, in turn, facilitates further research in the region, and also supports possible recommendations, thereby allowing them to be effective and relevant for policymakers. Additionally, a context-specific approach also fosters mutually beneficial collaboration between countries in the region. This then enables the region to voice its perspectives, analyses, and recommendations, in a more comprehensive manner. This allows for a collective inclusion in the global discourse on responsible AI, an ethical feat that is a necessary precursor to the existence of this discourse.

The other important question that lends itself to the conversation at hand is, what can be done? While there is no one right answer, and no way to possibly encapsulate all possibilities—which in itself is telling of the complexity of the issue at hand—there are efforts worth highlighting, and a lot of valuable literature that can be furthered and incorporated in present and future discussions. 

The Access to Knowledge for Development Center (A2K4D) has contributed to this literature over the years and focused on data and AI and inclusion in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. It has managed to capture nuanced local perspectives and perceptions all the while surveying regional AI strategies. This has included research on the implications for human development of digital platforms, innovation, open data, and artificial intelligence (AI) in the digital economy. Between 2015 and 2017, A2K4D initiated and led the “Harnessing the Economic Power of Data in MENA” project, aiming to raise awareness and generate knowledge on the socio-economic potential of data for development in the region. Subsequently, in 2016, A2K4D became the founding node of the global Open Data for Development network (ODMENA) in the MENA region. Since then, multiple research projects and activities ensued covering topics such as data skills, urban development and mobility, gender and policy. An example of this was the Gender Working Group, initiated to produce context-based research on gender and data. Contribution to the literature on regional context-specific data-driven innovations by A2K4D has also included multiple outputs presented on the MENA Data Platform, covering regional research on topics including transport, education, gender, governance and the environment. This work has also provided an entryway into the field of data for development and artificial intelligence in the MENA region. For this stream of the literature, A2K4D has produced multiple studies, such as the  “A Study of Data and Artificial Intelligence in MENA” which explored data for development in the MENA region by detailing key stakeholders’ perspectives. A series of infographics were also produced to map key stakeholder insights emerging from the interviews conducted, thus contributing to regional mapping efforts. Another study conducted explored open data management practices’ impact on data for development initiatives in Egypt, Tunisia, and Lebanon. Further work has been done to contribute to the amassed literature on data and AI for development in the region, and has included the analysis of various AI strategies, and more recently the “Governing Responsible AI and Data in MENA” project.

The increase in context-specific literature on the use of data and AI in the MENA is not only extremely valuable in tackling present issues, but will also continue to provide a strong base from which more literature can emerge and fuel future global conversations. The MENA AI Observatory aims to serve as a platform for AI and data policy researchers, practitioners, and innovators, to promote responsible AI and data practices, and to facilitate knowledge sharing and collaboration in the MENA region and beyond. Its goal is to provide a MENA-specific perspective on both regional and global issues related to AI. The Observatory pushes forth research that is contextually grounded rather than adapted from other regions, all the while keeping it relevant and engaged with the global discourse.

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