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Event Recap

March 1, 2024

Integrating AI innovations into the SME industry in the UAE 

By JP Reppeto

On February 21st, the Atlantic Council’s WIn Fellowship, in collaboration with United States Embassy to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and ADGM, held a workshop exploring how women entrepreneurs in the UAE can integrate innovations in artificial intelligence (AI) to their small and medium enterprises (SMEs).  

The panel, which was moderated by Sarah Saddouk, Director of Innovation at Entrepreneur Middle East IMPACT, featured three successful executives with backgrounds in finance, healthcare, and tech; all have harnessed cutting-edge AI and digital advances to drive their companies forward. Speakers included Abir Habbal, Chief Data and AI Officer at Accenture Middle East; Amnah Ajmal, Executive Vice President for market development for EEMEA at Mastercard; and Salim Chemlal, Director of Product at AI71. Tanya Cole, Senior Commercial Officer at the United States Embassy to the UAE, provided the opening remarks. 

Tanya Cole opened the event with welcome remarks, noting that partnerships like the WIn Fellowship encourage innovation and sustainable growth and undergird the rich commercial exchange between the United States and UAE. She observed that one of AI’s principal benefits for SMEs is enhancing operational efficiency, allowing small teams to allocate time and resources to higher-level work like business strategy. Cole acknowledged initiatives by the United States government to promote greater global representation of women in tech but noted that stronger efforts were needed to promote gender equality in the AI sector. She concluded by encouraging the audience to continue breaking down barriers to women in STEM fields and ensuring that women continue to steer and benefit from the growth of AI. 

The panelists leveraged their experience working with AI to cover several areas of concern for entrepreneurs, such as risk, regulation, scalability, and equity. They identified key trends in its uses across the private sector and provided guidance for SMEs hoping to improve their workflow with AI. The speakers also emphasized the need for women to shape the future of the field. 

Main Takeaways

Amnah Ajmal pushed back on skepticism that recent advances in AI are overestimated, asserting that the increasing accessibility and efficiency of computing power make the technology commercially viable. She highlighted the relevant challenge posed by AI adoption in the private sector: the burden of unlearning and relearning technologies as they evolve and integrate into new fields. Ajmal spotlighted two trends in AI usage she observed among SMEs: risk management centered on combatting scams and fraud, and personalized marketing communications. She stated that the critical edge provided by AI is best understood in terms of scalability and speed, freeing up human capital for other tasks.  

Abir Habbal explained that by keeping abreast of AI advances and integration, actors can actively shape the future of policy and governance around the technology. She distinguished between “narrow AI” capable of single tasks versus “generative AI” capable of multiple tasks at once. The latter is expected to be heavily disruptive; research conducted by her firm indicated that most professions can expect 40 percent of their working hours to be affected by AI. Habbal added that financial services have particularly high potential for AI automation, but opportunities exist in every sector. 

Salim Chemlal mentioned that AI innovation should be propelled forward alongside regulation, rather than waiting for regulation before research continues, as experts have proposed. However, he also advocated for stronger international coordination to ensure AI safety, with a special emphasis on adaptability given the many variables in the field. Amnah Ajmal also offered her thoughts on regulation, proposing that businesses should gather industry stakeholders and experts, define the problem they wish to solve, and build the regulation themselves rather than waiting for a regulator to act. She added that regulators perform a service to society and governments will often embrace the suggested frameworks. Ajmal concluded by noting that traditional financial institutions have failed to uplift SMEs and women entrepreneurs, with all-women teams receiving a maximum of 2.7 percent of global VC funding. 

Abir Habbal turned to the risks of AI and how regulation can help mitigate them. She explained that risks in the field include both structural issues, such as systemic biases and inaccurate results, as well as intentional misuses. With fast-evolving technologies such as AI, regulation may stifle innovation, creating a need for “sandboxes” for advanced testing. The industry’s appetite for regulation stems from a desire to effectively govern AI to manage these risks— and fear of financial and reputational harm if they are not mitigated. Salim Chemlal added that different societies should have their own AI systems, arguing that AI deployed outside of the context it was trained in (such as Western products now used in the Middle East) lack context to adequately serve their current users.  

Amnah Ajmal emphasized that women must challenge the status quo in the AI field. She suggested that women are sometimes apprehensive about engaging deeply with new technologies, and she consequently urges other women in the field to be confident in their abilities. AI is trained on old data, which inherently introduces biases against women. Ajmal gave the example of office thermostats, which when adopted in the 1960s were calibrated for men; women, who radiate 35 percent less body heat, are now often left—literally—in the cold. Women should feel empowered to confidently steer the future of AI to prevent further inequity. Abir Habbal highlighted the coalescence of different skillsets in the AI field, which requires expertise in data science, engineering, business, and design. AI democratization is also on the rise, allowing users from outside the field to access and experiment with AI tools. Ajmal urged novices to utilize publicly available tools to experiment and learn more about AI.  

The Way Forward

There has never been a better time for entrepreneurs in the Emirates to integrate AI into their businesses, owing to the UAE’s growing role as a global hub for AI and the country’s booming SME sector. AI adoption will remain a powerful force in the national economy in the near future, with some forecasts expecting close to 14 percent of Emirati GDP to stem from AI by 2030. Meanwhile, government initiatives continue to promote the growth of small and medium enterprises, with a set target of 1 million SMEs in the country by 2030.  

AI has huge transformational power across sectors, particularly in facilitating speed and scalability. Technology may best serve entrepreneurs by freeing up human input otherwise spent on labor-intensive tasks, such as customer service or targeted marketing. However, adopters should ensure that they have defined a problem that AI can solve, as not all facets of business require automation. The risks inherent to AI, such as biases, malfunctions, and privacy concerns should also be evaluated when considering integration.  

Large scale adoption of AI could worsen global gaps in digital skills between men and women, creating an imperative for women to steer the future of the technology in their country and abroad. Currently only 25 percent of AI specialists and 14 percent of cloud computing specialists are women, demonstrating that much work remains to be done to create a more inclusive field. However, the democratization of AI and the UAE’s SME boom represent an opportunity for women entrepreneurs to both capitalize on the business potential of AI and gain expertise that could positively shape the field. Since AI reflects the input and biases of its maker, better systems will require both diverse architects and inclusive design principles. Women at the helm of successful AI-augmented enterprises will be well positioned to advocate for these changes, resulting in a more equitable future for all.  

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empowerME at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East is shaping solutions to empower entrepreneurs, women, and youth and building coalitions of public and private partnerships to drive regional economic integration, prosperity, and job creation.