Intelligence by design: A new university consolidates the emirate’s position at the forefront of artificial intelligence innovation


With the world’s first graduate-level, research-based artificial intelligence (AI) university slated to open in the emirate in 2020, Abu Dhabi is setting the standard in global AI research. The Mohamed bin Zayed University of AI (MBZUAI) aims to be a centre of excellence for collaborative research, bringing academics, businesses and policymakers together to develop practical and innovative AI solutions for sustainable development across all sectors. MBZUAI forms part of broader efforts to establish the UAE as a world leader in AI applications.

Strategic Direction

Underpinning these efforts, in April 2019 the government launched UAE Strategy for AI 2031, a policy agenda for the development of the segment overseen by the Office of AI. Under the strategy, which is the first of its kind in the region and world, the UAE government aims to increase the efficiency of government services, while also harnessing AI technology across key economic sectors such as transport, ICT and health, among others. It comes as the government recognises the opportunities presented by AI both in terms of cost savings and increased productivity. According to government estimates, AI could reduce annual government expenditure by 50%, while increasing the UAE’s GDP by 35% by 2031 through increased productivity.

Government initiatives like the AI Lab (AIL), which is overseen by the Abu Dhabi Digital Authority, are taking a lead role in developing AI use case studies for the government. Launched in October 2019, the AIL hosts a co-working space for the government and the private sector tasked with developing practical applications for AI. The lab offers high-performance computing abilities to all Abu Dhabi government entities and gives them access to AI experts. Training is also central to its work; as of early 2020 it had trained around 190 Abu Dhabi government employees in how to incorporate machine-learning techniques and create simulation and predictive models with data sets. Private sector initiatives in AI are complementing the government’s work, and the UAE is already a regional leader in terms of private investment in and uptake of AI. According to a report by Microsoft, around $2.2bn in AI transactions – including mergers and acquisitions, venture capital funding rounds, angel or seed investment, and accelerator funding – was recorded in the UAE between 2008 and 2018, placing the country second only to Turkey ($3.5bn) in the MENA region. AI is also becoming an accepted part of business practice, with 94% of firms engaging with AI at the executive management level, according to the same report.


In 2019 two of China’s largest so-called unicorn AI companies, UBT ech Robotics and SenseTime, inked major investment deals with the Abu Dhabi government. UBT ech Robotics is investing $362m to set up AI teaching labs at 1310 primary and secondary schools in the UAE. Meanwhile, SenseTime is establishing its regional research and development centre in the emirate, and expects to create up to 3000 direct and indirect jobs over five years. AI is already being employed across several sectors in the emirate. For example, Abu Dhabi-based Etihad Airways is undertaking significant investment in Al as it rolls out digital solutions across its business. Its initial focus is on training employees and developing use cases for AI in its operations. Meanwhile, China’s tech giant Huawei, which is a key partner for the UAE Strategy for AI 2031, is using its AI-enabled products and solutions to deploy its 5G network across Abu Dhabi and the UAE. Looking to the years ahead, the emirate wants to further cement the UAE’s reputation as a global centre for AI research and solutions. “Our goal is for people to associate the UAE with AI; we want to export our AI solutions to the world,” Omar Sultan Al Olama, minister of state for AI, digital economy and teleworking applications, told OBG.