Middle Eastern Nations Aim to Become Force for Innovation

©Iakov Kalinin

The Middle East has long been reliant on an old resource to power its economy: Oil

But despite the region’s reliance on a resource the rest of the world is looking to replace, Middle Eastern nations have invested heavily in newer, greener technologies. Digital transformation is changing the look of cities in the region, and it has emerged as a surprising leader of smart cities and other newer technologies. Here are a few of the initiatives and trends to keep an eye on when looking at the Middle East.

Smart City on a Massive Scale

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has long sought to parlay its oil fortunes into sustainable, long-term infrastructure. The NEOM project is perhaps the most ambitious infrastructure problem in the world, and it aims to transform the region. Extending to both Jordan and Egypt, the NEOM project seeks to create an economic zone and metropolis covering 10,000 square miles.

With $500 billion of funding behind the project, the government is spending on par with its much more populous counterparts. Despite the region’s dependence on oil, the NEOM project is expected to be powered completely by renewable resources; sustainability is one of the project’s primary goals. Furthermore, all services are aimed to be automated, with artificial intelligence playing a core role in the region’s development. Saudi Arabia is a major thoroughfare connecting the West and the East, and easy connectivity to Egypt and Jordan will give the region a distinctly international appeal.

Dubai Takes Center Stage in 2020

Dubai has long been a tech leader in the Middle East, and it will have a chance to shine in 2020. Home to one of the world’s most spectacular skylines, Dubai has emerged as a tech leader across the globe, yet it still remains somewhat unknown to much of the world, especially in the West. When Expo 2020 launches, however, all eyes will be on the United Arab Emirates city.

With the theme “Connecting Minds, Creating the Future,” the Expo will attempt to position Dubai as a natural connection for Eurasia and beyond and further cement the city as one of the most advanced in the world. Similar to Saudi Arabia, Dubai will focus on areas that might seem surprising coming from an oil-fueled economy: Opportunity, Sustainability, and Mobility. Technology will power the expo: Attendees will have access to 5G mobile connections, and a unique “smart site” will demonstrate energy-efficient buildings, gamified experiences, and new mobile experiences. Dubai won its bid for the expo by a large margin, and it’s easy to see why. The city itself is already a prime example of how digital transformation can affect cities, and the expo itself looks much like a natural extension of Dubai’s ongoing progression. A new term associated with the expo explains Dubai’s project succinctly: The Internet of Everything.

Up Next: Qatar

After Dubai’s chance to shine, Qatar’s preparations for the 2022 World Cup will be well under way. Despite the controversy surrounding Qatar receiving the chance to host the world’s largest sporting event, the digital infrastructure supporting the competition will be remarkable. Qatar aims to provide a fully connected smart grid to power the event, which will bring digital transformation to power delivery. Furthermore, full Internet of Things integration has a chance to provide a truly digital means of delivering services to attendees. Much like Dubai, Qatar is still fairly unknown in much of the West. One of the criticisms of Qatar’s bid was the fact that stadiums will need to be built exclusively for the tournament, only to be deconstructed once play ends. Digital tools are helping architects design state-of-the-art stadiums that will be easy to build and take down. The opportunity to host the premier international tournament for the world’s most popular sport provides Qatar with a chance to position itself as a region worth visiting and investing in, and digital technology will be the main driver behind their innovations.

Long-Term Investments

With how often we replace our smartphones and other digital devices, we often think of digital technology as short-lived and replaceable. In the Middle East, however, digital investment is being used to create a future as the region is eventually forced to move away from oil. Durable and expandable networking infrastructure serves as the backbone of many of these new technologies, and the region is positioning itself as a leader in Internet of Things adoption. Furthermore, fast and robust mobile connectivity is convenient for individuals but crucial for digital transformation, as Internet of Things devices used in the field often rely on mobile connections. While the region’s economy has long been supported by oil, it’s also one of the best places in the world for another source of energy: Sunlight. As the region moves beyond oil, large investments in solar infrastructure will pay off over the long term, making the area even more attractive to investors and businesses.

Potential Challenges

Although the Arabian Peninsula and other parts of the Middle East are aware that oil will eventually need to be replaced by other technologies, it’s unclear how smoothly they can make the transition. Advances in solar and battery technology could cause the world to move away from oil faster than envisioned, potentially leading to significant economic stress. Furthermore, the Middle East remains a volatile region, with conflicts continuing to have a heavy impact on the region as a whole. Efforts to change the peninsula’s reputation will have an impact, but just how powerful the effect will be remains to be seen. A poor showing by Qatar during the 2022 World Cup is certainly possible, as hosting a World Cup is never an easy task. Stumbles along the way could slow the region’s transition to a truly digital area. Despite these challenges, experts across a broad range of fields see a bright future for the Middle East as long as conflict doesn’t spread widely. Furthermore, the investments made in digital transformation seem to be especially safe bets. Predicting the future is always a difficult task, but there’s little doubt that the Internet of Things, mobile connectivity, and artificial intelligence will serve as fundamental technologies going forward.

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