Each January, the global technology industry gathers in Las Vegas to unveil its latest innovations at the Consumer Electronics Show. Given the increasing interest over robots in the workforce, it was no surprise that robotics innovation and artificial intelligence took center stage at this year’s exhibition. The advancements were unmistakable, but they didn’t reveal an imminent robotic workforce ready to take over millions of jobs (as some might fear) and usher in a new age of productivity (as others might hope).
While it might sound counterintuitive, this was a disappointment for those Gulf countries eager to embrace a robotic workforce. Countries such as Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have long been associated with a large, indigenously staffed public sector, as well as large numbers of foreign workers. Since the discovery of oil and natural gas in the 1950s, Gulf countries have created a unique social contract in which hydrocarbon wealth is shared with citizens through an extensive social-safety net that provides citizens with secure jobs in the public sector. And with most of the local population working in public-sector jobs, Gulf countries import labor from around the world to cover other economic areas, from hospitality to construction. This situation skewers the balance in the economy toward the civil service, and few Gulf countries have been able to create a healthy private-sector counterweight, despite impressive efforts.
In the interest of rebalancing that mix, would Gulf countries benefit from, well, fewer people? Do they need such large expatriate workforces as they currently host? After years of low oil prices, several countries have looked to diversify their economic output with a focus on the so-called knowledge economy. Going forward, robotics will be key.
Any viable robotic future will require advanced artificial intelligence (AI), which, in turn, relies on ample amounts of data. This is one reason China has been a global leader in AI; it has the ability to amass data on its 1.3 billion citizens. While Gulf countries don’t have nearly the same number of people, they do have near-total control over data.
Several writers and commentators, most notably the Scottish economist Mark Blyth and technology writer Mynul Khan, have argued persuasively that we have nothing to fear from a robotic workforce. Innovation has been transforming the workforce since people first began working. Just as technology changed work forever during the Industrial Revolution, so too will robots change how we work today. Jobs have been made easier or redundant in the past, but work has never been fully eradicated. In fact, as Blyth noted, the economy could see a new hiring spree as companies focus on new areas of productivity once robots have taken over menial jobs.
In a future where robots are able to drive taxis or build skyscrapers, Gulf countries would be able to divert resources away from the management of millions of foreign workers and focus more intently on the creation of knowledge inputs in GDP. The recruitment process could be modified to focus on importing the best tech talent from around the world.
Crucial to this scenario, Gulf countries have the ability to adapt legislation – enacting, amending or removing old ones – with great speed. As such, these countries are an ideal testing ground for robotic workforces. Already there have been attempts by Dubai to implement robotic police officers, but they have been viewed more as an attraction rather than an innovative approach to law enforcement. And as part of the recent Future Investment Initiative conference, Saudi Arabia became the first country in the world to grant citizenship to a robot. While most wrote off the incident as a public-relations stunt, the robot, known as Sophia, has actually begun gently asking for more women’s rights in the kingdom.
Ultimately, there is no avoiding our shared robotic future. It is not all doom-and-gloom as modern-day Luddites might believe. The history of work has ebbed and flowed as new innovations have made some jobs easier, others redundant and created entirely new industries. With the right investments, Gulf countries could be at the forefront of development in robotics, since they mostly have small populations, nimble legal systems and plenty of resources. Moreover, they have clear incentives to lead the world into a robotic future, given their overdependence on hydrocarbon revenues, the need to diversify their economies and to stimulate job growth. Foreign labor could soon be replaced by robots in a brave new Gulf.
Joseph Dana, based between South Africa and the Middle East, is editor-in-chief of emerge85, a lab that explores change in emerging markets and its global impact.