Guest author: Maryam A Hassani, AI-startup co-founder and CEO of Zaia by Zealous.

In the same league as the United States with 62% of respondents using artificial intelligence (AI) in at least one of their business functions, progress in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) can be seen — but there’s still significant untapped potential. Already AI is poised to deliver over 9% of the Middle East’s Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries’ combined GDP, and the swift progress of generative AI implies that the figure will be quickly exceeded.

While many energy and materials companies, operating and competing internationally, are keen to raise production, distribution, and maintenance efficiency with AI, retail sectors are racing ahead; having long-mined consumer data to inform pricing and promotions. However, for industries like construction, getting started is a little more tricky since they either cannot yet collect the data required to train AI models or need additional technical expertise.

Going deeper into the business functions, marketing and sales is the most common application of AI across MENA industries. What needs to be done to tap into other functions, such as supply chain management, risk, and corporate finance? The answer lies in the intersection of cultural, regulatory, and infrastructure changes — which are individually complex, if not thought out carefully. 

Bridging the Cultural Divide for AI in MENA

While McKinsey’s report highlights the need for internal transformation across the GCC, the UAE stands out as a leader in fostering the right culture and workflows to embed AI tools seamlessly.

As part of the region’s strategy to ensure students and employees have access to the right training and knowledge to build digital-native enterprises, the UAE established MBZUAI. This university educates and develops skills in computer vision, machine learning, natural language processing, and beyond.

When it comes to making cultural shifts, it’s critical to ensure senior leadership is aware and on board with the scope of AI potential in each business function to justify budgets and needs holistically. Leaders must get the right training and unite board members to develop a business-led use case roadmap.

The ideal blueprint comes with clear communication of the benefits of workflow changes, and what they mean for individual roles. As part of the change management process, appointed leaders that open multi-channel two-way communication can formally collect feedback and informally gather worker perceptions, praising or addressing any ideas and concerns. Involving team members in the process this way helps to boost acceptance and engagement with the strategy.

Working with MBZUAI students will help UAE businesses build an AI-focused culture from the beginning. Businesses in the region may choose to invest in upskilling, collaborating with graduated tech specialists, or consider offshore services to bridge any talent gaps — although, this is where the regulatory challenges come in.

Clearing the Red Tape: Streamlining Regulations for MENA’s AI

Stringent data storage regulations in many MENA countries restrict companies from leveraging public cloud options abroad. This, coupled with a lack of globally established AI risk frameworks, creates roadblocks for organizations seeking to deploy AI, despite its perceived value.

For this reason, Gartner predicts a significant rise in security and risk management (SRM) spending across the MENA region. Their forecast expects a 12.1% increase in 2024, reaching a total of US$3.3 billion. Investment in AI-powered SRM helps regional leaders to reduce the threat landscape, proactively identifying potential vulnerabilities or malicious behavior across their digital ecosystems.

Organizations must establish policies that govern application usage and also implement training on cybersecurity incidents associated with employee behavior in their change management strategy. This will help minimize the risks of privacy and copyright infringement and align with the GCC’s latest data protection laws for handling personal data of identifiable individuals — which require MENA organizations to maintain a higher standard of data privacy and cyber security measures.

With increased security, training, and governance, MENA companies reduce the risk of collaborating overseas, enabling them to maximize the global market.

Building the Infrastructure for High-Speed AI

It takes agile companies and infrastructure to scale globally. Yet, only 35% of companies in the MENA region feel they have the technology infrastructure and architecture to support AI. UAE paves the way with the recently announced creation of MGX, a company focused on investing in:

  1. AI infrastructure: data centers and connectivity
  2. Semiconductors: logic and memory chip design and manufacturing 
  3. AI core technologies and applications: AI models, software, data, life sciences and robotics

Data needs to flow through data pipelines like items on a production line. You can add parts and modify them to different customers or business use cases, but the core product is the same. This type of data structure is beneficial in the short term as it makes data transfer seamless. It also provides longer-term value by making it easier to integrate new technologies later down the line.

This is where the UAE’s advanced training programs set the region as an AI frontrunner, ensuring regional data users understand how to navigate data pipelines efficiently. This is a two-pronged effort of flexible technological architecture and user-friendly analytics. With the right training and API-based middleware, employees can maximize a combination of intuitive applications across IT and business teams. These modern-built apps are rich in automation, helping teams alleviate manual, technical tasks and improve the employee experience. 

AI adoption in MENA is in full swing, with industries across retail, energy, and financial services looking at ways to increase efficiency. A solid change management plan rooted in the company culture makes a successful rollout possible. Strong regional performers will have a well-informed leadership team, clear AI objectives communicated, and investment into agile and scalable infrastructure.

Maryam A Hassani is an AI-startup co-founder and CEO of Zaia by Zealous, an app that uses AI to help users better network at events.