GCC Is A World Leader In AI Usage — But That Comes With Risks

Regional firms should match the intense interest in generative AI among workers with sufficient training to use the tools safely.

gulf coast, artificial intelligence, worker training

This article originally appeared in Arab News on February 14, 2024.

Generative AI was one of the hottest topics at the World Governments Summit in Dubai this week. And it is no wonder: The launch of ChatGPT in November 2022 sparked a frenzy of interest in generative AI around the world that has only grown stronger since.

But few regions have shown more excitement for the technology than the Gulf Cooperation Council area. In the UAE and Saudi Arabia, for example, 74 percent and 68 percent of workers respectively said they use generative AI in some capacity at least once a week.

That is according to a 19-nation survey of more than 25,000 employees conducted in November by my firm’s think tank, the Oliver Wyman Forum. Only India was higher, at 83 percent. The global average, meanwhile, was already high at 55 percent.

This strong showing for the GCC region has been years in the making. Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have all been leaders in establishing national AI strategies, which were in place long before the arrival of ChatGPT.

Countries in the region are also investing heavily in generative AI foundational models.

But while the GCC is a world leader in generative AI adoption, regional companies are not always keeping up in training employees to use the tools safely.

In the UAE and Saudi Arabia, 61 percent and 57 percent of workers respectively said the training their companies provide was insufficient, according to the survey data. In Qatar the figure is 62 percent, tied with Mexico for third place in the world behind China and Singapore.

The combination of intense interest in generative AI among workers and sometimes insufficient company guardrails poses potential risks for GCC business leaders, from data loss and misinformation to talent retention.

Most urgently, companies need to provide clear guidelines and high-quality training to protect sensitive data. Some 92 percent of UAE workers, for example, said they have exposed company data by using generative AI tools at some point.

These capabilities, like analyzing a dataset, summarizing internal reports or transcribing meeting notes, promise massive returns in productivity. But they also bring data risks that business leaders must manage both quickly and aggressively.

And then there is the issue of talent. Despite GCC workers’ intense interest in generative AI and its potential to enhance productivity, they are also among the most anxious about its consequences.

Some 82 percent of UAE workers, for example, said they are concerned that generative AI will make their jobs redundant — greater than the global average of 60 percent.

Employers also need to be transparent about how generative AI will impact hiring and capacity to discourage workers from fleeing unnecessarily.

They can address the issue by providing clear and regular communications about how the technology will change the world of work.

Companies could follow the proactive example of one global tech company, which recently decided not to fill positions that generative AI is likely to eliminate in the next five years.

Firms should also consider ways to retrain existing workers at risk of AI displacement. One major retailer, for example, recently launched an AI bot that can handle run-of-the-mill customer questions, so it retrained call center workers to become interior design advisers.

Foreseeing and responding to such challenges clearly has a vital role to play in policymaking, as does defining clear goals and objectives. As such, governments across the region have been planning for this transformation for years.

Qatar’s National AI Strategy includes pillars on talent attraction strategies and the changing landscape of employment. The UAE’s strategy, launched in 2017, has eight key objectives, including those on strong governance, developing a fertile ecosystem and enabling world-class research.

In Saudi Arabia, the National Strategy for Data and AI has set clear objectives, including attracting $20 billion in investments in data and AI, enriching data and AI entrepreneurship to create 300 startups, and empowering institutions so that the country ranks among the top 20 in terms of scientific contribution. All of these goals are earmarked for 2030.

Used wisely, AI can be a powerful tool to enable the global workforce to get more done. But to unlock its full potential, business leaders must provide the upskilling, clear protocols and transparency necessary to ensure those workers are reassured, educated effectively and well-prepared for the future.