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Making R&D a national priority
R&D moves rapidly up national agendas in Saudi Arabia and the UAE
The Gulf Cooperation Council states (or GCC) have long been considered to be backwaters for research and development, investing heavily in foreign technology and expertise, but lacking any long term plans to foster R&D at home. The past five years have seen Saudi Arabia and the UAE, in particular, prioritise R&D, diversifying efforts away from a few well-funded university programmes and begin to align efforts closely with national priorities. During 2022, a number of significant policy moves were announced in the two countries that will help shape national research and development for many years to come.
It's no coincidence that both Saudi Arabia and the UAE have recently put technology at the top of their national agendas and are now also making R&D a national priority. With fluctuating oil prices, finite oil and gas reserves and an increasing number of young people coming into the job market, both countries are looking to science and technology to build new economic opportunity. The two states are creating comprehensive economic development plans that leverage the latest technologies across all sectors, whilst creating new technology-enabled intellectual property and innovation. To support these ambitions, there are also a growing number of large-scale technology education and training initiatives at all levels in national education systems, across government and private sectors.
In the past, R&D in the Arabian Gulf has had the odds stacked against it, although the stories of the member GCC states are different. There have been government-led research and development initiaitves around the region for many years, but most have lacked the funding and political clout to create sustainable programmes.
Saudi Arabia accounts for the lion’s share of R&D
Saudi Arabia has been the biggest investor in research and development and accounts for the lion's share of the GCC's research output. Investment and global cooperation has increased significantly following the founding of the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (or KAUST) in 2009. According to Springer Nature, half of all research outputs from the Kingdom listed on its platforms over the last year (01-Oct-21 to 30-Sep-22) were generated by KAUST.
Although national priorities have informed investments, Saudi's R&D focus has aligned closely with traditional industries, such as the energy sector, with chemistry and petrochemical research being prominent. However, this now seems to be changing. For example, 'chemistry' now accounts for 41% of research outputs on Springer Nature (01-Oct-21 to 30-Sep-22), compared with 58% in 2015. Meanwhile, computational science and life sciences research is growing fast.
Building on the success of its world-class computer science faculty, KAUST launched its Artificial Intelligence Initiative in 2021, naming reputed German computer scientist Jürgen Schmidhuber as its director. The research programme partners with public and private sector institutions in Saudi Arabia - including the Saudi Data and Artificial Intelligence Agency (SDAIA) and Saudi Aramco - to embed AI into areas that have national impact such as security, energy, data analytics and health.
In September, KAUST revealed that it had partnered with Hewlett Packard Enterprise to build its next-generation supercomputer, Shaheen III, which is expected to revolutionise KAUST’s ability to process vast amounts of data at immense speed and scale. To be operational in 2023, the new supercomputer will be the most powerful in the Middle East, expected to deliver 100 petaflop/s of performance.
New Saudi national R&D strategy
What's arguably been missing from Saudi Arabia's R&D is a comprehensive strategy to integrate R&D focus and spending with ambitions for the national economy. This is exactly what Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman announced in June 2022: the National Aspirations and Priorities for Research, Development and Innovation (RDI), which commits an annual investment equal to 2.5 percent of the country's GDP by 2040.
The Aspirations and Priorities for RDI programme takes a holistic view of research needs, prioritising health and wellness; sustainability and the environment, energy, industry and 'economies of the future'. The programme aims to add 60 billion Saudi riyals ($16bn) to the country's gross domestic product by 2040, creating high value jobs in science and technology. It also establishes an RDI authority to shape policy, manage funding and act as a regulator for the sector.
National governance and policy for R&D in the UAE
In the United Arab Emirates, the government formed a new Emirates Research and Development Council (ERDC), which held its first meeting in January 2022. Similar to the new Saudi RDI program, the ERDC aims to foster a national R&D ecosystem that aligns and integrates with the Emirates' economic roadmap. The council will also set national policy, create a governance framework, coordinate funding and help to develop the R&D ecosystem in line with UAE plans to establish itself as a global hub for science, technology and innovation.
The creation of the ERDC follows the early success of Abu Dhabi's Advanced Technology Research Council (ATRC), which was formed in 2020 to provide direction, governance and initiatives to maximise the contribution from the emirate's fast-growing R&D ecosystem. In 2022, Dubai too announcd its own R&D programme to support research initiatives across its economic sectors and to define future policy.
While Saudi Arabia is the largest R&D investor, Abu Dhabi could well be the fastest growing R&D hub in the region. The emirate's ecosystem has been developing rapidly at all levels, as funding and strategic backing has grown. Research universities Khalifa University, NYU Abu Dhabi and UAE University have all expanded their research programmes. In 2019, Khalifa University created the Robotics and Intelligent Systems Institute as a multidisciplinary research unit focused on robotics, intelligent systems, data science, next-gen networks, semiconductor technologies and cybersecurity.
In Abu Dhabi's commercial sector, defence and electronics conglomerate Edge Group (formed 2019) and artificial intelligence and cloud computing company G42 (formed as Group 42 in 2018) have both built significant teams of high tech researchers and developers. G42 also established the Inception Institute of Artificial Intelligence (IIAI) in 2018 and the world's first graduate-level, research-based AI university in 2019, the Mohamed bin Zayed University of Artificial Intelligence (MBZUAI).
In addition, Technology Innovation Institute (TII) was founded under the umbrella of the ATRC in 2020 to bring more focus to key areas of technology research in Abu Dhabi.
More Abu Dhabi R&D investment in 2022
Abu Dhabi's R&D momentum continued in 2022. Among the long list of announcements was the ARTC's new commercialisation arm to bring research solutions to market, and a committment to provice AED 200 million funding across five years for three Virtual Research Institutes (VRIs) at Abu Dhabi universities.
Also in 2022, TII launched three new research centres, bringing its total number to nine and boosting the numbers of researchers and staff beyond 550. It now has specialised research centres for advanced materials; AI and digital science; autonomous robotics; biotechnology; cryptography; directed energy; propulsion and space; quantum computing; renewable and sustainable energy; and secure systems. TII also inaugurated a new Directed Energy Research Center (DERC) with five specialised laboratories, plus an 'impact lab' for its Advanced Materials Research Centre.
The NYU Abu Dhabi Research Institute added four new research centres this year: the Arabian Center for Climate and Environmental Sciences, the Center for Artificial Intelligence and Robotics, the Center for Smart Engineering Materials, and the Center for Quantum and Topological Systems.
However, perhaps the biggest R&D announcement from UAE capital came in October. Abu Dhabi Investment Authority (ADIA) announced ADIA Lab, another large-scale research and development centre for basic and applied research in data and computational sciences. The lab will focus on a variety of areas including climate change, energy transition, blockchain, financial inclusion and investing, decision making, automation, cybersecurity, health sciences, education, telecoms and space.
Although the tech research institutes and research centres set up in Abu Dhabi over the past five years have moved fast to establish themselves and build capability, ADIA Lab could be moving even faster. Headed up by former Berkeley Lab deputy director Horst Simon, operations were launched in December along with an announcement of the appointment of a high profile advisory board,
Thus, Abu Dhabi's R&D ecosystem seems to have grown from one where there were dozens of researchers just a few years ago, to one where those numbers may soon be counted in the thousands.
Attracting R&D talent from around the world
The new focus, funding and strategic backing given to research and development in Saudi Arabia and the UAE is now being recognised where it matters most: by top research talent around the world. The greater awareness of research efforts, carefully constructed research programmes and the recent moves by high profile science leaders are allowing the region to attract the best and the brightest minds. Meanwhile, competition between different research centres in the region is creating an ecosystem that helps to retain and develop that talent. We can expect this momentum to continue unabated in 2023.
Find out more about this story:
Abu Dhabi's latest R&D milestone (Middle East AI News)
OurCrowd to open UAE AI R&D centre (Middle East AI News)
Tech tops UAE economic agenda (Middle East AI News)
UAE puts R&D on the national agenda (Middle East AI News)
This is Part II of my series of 2022 Middle East AI News Roundup articles. You can find Part I here: Saudi Arabia targets slice of global EV market.