Though AI activity over the past 10 years in Saudi Arabia has been relatively quiet – total investment reached around $585 million – the Kingdom emerged strongly again in 2018.
Across industries, there is significant buzz around the topic of AI. Around 42% of companies report that AI conversations are already taking place at non-managerial levels – the highest percentage of non-managerial participation recorded by any country in the Middle East and Africa.
AI development, though in its earliest stages, is underway. At least 26% of businesses report they are planning AI activity, while at the same time actively investing in relevant skills. Pockets of excellence are also emerging, as evidenced by 16% of companies reporting AI is already contributing significantly to their business processes.
Though Saudi executives intuitively sense the value of AI, they are conscious that getting too caught up in the hype of AI might blind them to the dangers of investing in technology that is only just starting to demonstrate its commercial value.
As it stands, the number one concern for businesses in implementing AI is the diffusion of their resources. At least 32% of Saudi companies are cautious of spreading their budgetary and human resources too thin, all while pursuing AI simply because it’s exciting. Rather, executives know they need to remain focused on their business objectives and not be influenced by the hype.
As such, the primary focus for most Saudi businesses is digitization. While 37% of companies view AI as an important priority, it is not their most urgent priority. Instead, they are actively building the infrastructure needed for digital transformation, starting with good quality data.
“The biggest problem to date with AI is that it isn’t always right - AI has given us the ability to make data- driven predictions, decisions and actions faster than ever before, but it is only as effective as the data and algorithms it relies on,” said Steve Plimsoll, MENA Data & Intelligence advisory leader, EY. “So, while it’s great to see local companies investing in adoption of AI, the focus must be on building trust - that the underlying data and algorithms are reliable, the models ethical and the predictions are measurable and as accurate as they can be. Without trust, AI will be never fully move from fiction into reality.”
Saudi organizations are aware of the work that needs to be done before they are ‘data-ready’ for AI development. While most businesses have access to large volumes of data, they are still building the structures needed to enforce strict data processes.
Aside from data management, Saudi companies indicate they are still developing several other capabilities key to AI maturity, including the integration of emotional intelligence with AI. This is not surprising given organizations are still prioritizing foundational competencies.
However, Saudi businesses have always been strategic in engaging a wider ecosystem of consultants and advisors, enabling them to access the skills they need to execute AI projects and upskill internal resources.
In general, Saudi businesses are upbeat about the future impact of AI on their businesses – 37% expect AI to impact their core business to a very high degree. Respondents are also particularly positive about the potential of AI to assist employees in executing their daily functions more effectively.
Currently, prediction is the most relevant application of AI for 79% of Saudi businesses, with companies using AI to predict risk and fraud or combining it with intelligent automation to assign workloads to individuals, ultimately optimizing business processes. Another 68% of respondents indicate that automation is one of the most relevant applications of AI in their pursuit of operational efficiency.
“Saudi Arabian companies are gearing up to take their AI agenda to the next level and moving forward by leveraging AI technology in alignment with the National Transformation Program 2020 toward achieving the 2030 vision. Though they are still near the beginning of the maturity curve, they are well positioned to leverage global experience in AI, which could ultimately enable them to leapfrog other countries in the next few years,” said Thamer Al Harbi. — SG
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