In an effort to boost its economic competitiveness, Qatar is hedging its bets on emerging technologies. The Gulf sheikhdom, eager to diversify its gas-dependent economy, is cultivating various technological areas, notably artificial intelligence (AI). To secure a slice of the dividends promised by AI-enabled industries, the Qatar Center for Artificial Intelligence (QCAI) released a national AI strategy in February 2019. The 16-page blueprint, endorsed by the Qatari government on Oct. 30, 2019, proposes a number of measures — attracting top AI talent, developing IT curricula, and inaugurating research programs — critical to fostering a domestic AI ecosystem.

The landmark AI strategy has six pillars: 

  1. Talent
  2. Data access
  3. Employment
  4. Wealth creation
  5. Embracing an AI + X future
  6. Thought leadership in AI ethics

Qatar aims to harness human capital to advance its AI ambitions, with a particular focus on two key demographics: students and foreign talent. The AI strategy recommends Doha develop technology curricula for K-12 students. The proposed curricula feature lessons on AI basics, computational techniques, and applications to nurture an AI-inclined talent pool. Another objective is adapting university curricula to foster an AI workforce. To this end, the blueprint plans to supplement traditional modes of higher education by incorporating apprenticeships into required curricula. The goal is to propel pupils to engage AI actors and accumulate industry knowledge while boosting student and workforce competitiveness. 

In a bid to further raise its AI prospects, Doha seeks to draw foreign AI talent. To this end, the AI strategy recommends a series of measures: doling out corporate incentives, refining data regulations, and swiftly integrating local AI solutions. Despite high hopes, challenges abound — chief among them, an embryonic research ecosystem. According to a 2015 survey, R&D spending is low, accounting for a mere half a percentage point of GDP. Thus, luring top-tier talent away from well-endowed U.S. and European universities remains a dim prospect. But Qatar can boost its appeal yet. To burnish its AI credentials, Doha may expand R&D largesse, coordinate AI research, and forge research partnerships with foreign universities. The QCAI, a branch of the Qatar Computing Research Institute, is well-positioned to shepherd such efforts. 

Alongside talent, data is a critical propellant of the AI industry. Policymakers fret that the country’s limited population may hamper the development of an indigenous AI sector. To shore up data reserves, the AI strategy suggests Qatar strike digital trade pacts. While a relatively new diplomatic-cum-commercial practice, digital trade arrangements are not without precedent in the Gulf. In July 2018, the United Arab Emirates, which also harbors lofty AI ambitions, inked an AI agreement with India. The accord makes provisions for an AI Working Committee charged with fostering bilateral collaboration in the field. Among its tasks is promoting the development of technical capabilities to facilitate the cross-border exchange of datasets. Qatar may opt for similar cooperative frameworks.

While establishing conditions for the inception of an AI industry, Qatar is already crafting policy to reap the benefits of AI, and integrate them into government, business, and society. The AI strategy features a host of policy recommendations to accelerate the commercial embrace of AI-enabled technologies. The Qatari government intends to craft AI guidelines and extend technical expertise to private sector firms adopting AI. Doha may also dispense financial incentives to stimulate the transition. Expediting the adoption of AI across strategic industries is a priority. In this regard, the blueprint cites the development and employment of AI within the energy sector as warranting substantial attention and investment.

The AI strategy also exhibits welcomed foresight. As AI-enabled technologies reach ubiquity, states — and militaries — are preparing to tackle the ethical quandaries they pose. The blueprint identifies spheres in which AI agents are especially ripe for abuse — and regulation: health care, law enforcement, armed conflict, and the judiciary. In anticipation of looming policy dilemmas, the document proposes Doha establish an AI governance framework to draw up ethical guidelines. Qatari authorities are also encouraged to refine privacy safeguards and data sharing policies. 

Qatar is poised to assist, and potentially steward, the fashioning of global AI standards. As states continue to identify areas of comparative advantage in the evolving AI landscape and establish niches along far-flung value chains, norms will play an increasingly prominent role as a mediating determinant of economic and security interactions. Instituting norms can boost the integrity of supply chains and generate trust among stakeholders, enabling scientific collaboration. Amid a growing inclination to insulate value chains, norms may restore confidence in the transnational circulation of knowledge and give rise to alternative centers of innovation, a boon to aspiring technology upstarts. For the aforementioned reasons, Doha seeks to jumpstart the norm-making process. Its AI ambitions may hinge on such a feat. 


Sevan Araz is a Graduate Fellow with the Cyber Program at MEI and an analyst at Catalisto, a New York-based cybersecurity firm. Mr. Araz also conducts research with the Defense Innovation Board. The views expressed in this piece are his own.

Photo by Valery Sharifulin\TASS via Getty Images

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