The Rise Of Job Automation In The Mideast  

Middle Eastern workers may soon face robots as competition

The ‘Automated Age’ may arrive in the Middle East sooner than expected, posing a significant threat to employment according to McKinsey & Company’s report, “The Future of Jobs in the Middle East,” presented this month at the World Economic Summit.

Dr. Jan Peter Moore, Associate Partner at McKinsey & Company and co-author of the report, told The Media Line that “artificial intelligence (AI) and workforce automation technology [is] developing quickly in the Middle East. Based on technical, economic and social factors, our model predicts that the adoption in some Middle Eastern countries like the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Kuwait and Bahrain could actually happen faster than the global average of 2030,” he asserted.

Currently, in the six Middle Eastern countries covered in the report—Bahrain, Egypt, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia and the UAE—some 20.8 million full-time jobs have components or elements that are automatable.

Dr. Moore explained that AI will master “types of activities, rather than entire jobs, with those most susceptible to automation being physical ones in highly structured and predictable environments, such as manufacturing, food service and retail trade, as well as in data collection and processing.” But, he qualified, “it’s not just low-skill, low-wage work that could be automated; middle-skill and high-paying, high-skill occupations, too, have a degree of automation potential.”

While there are many inherent risks to AI, Dr. Moore noted the abundant expected benefits. “With the associated productivity gains there is a potential opportunity to work smarter and less and allow different forms of specialization,” he explained. “Based on past episodes of rapid technological innovation there is hope that in the medium- to long-term AI will have a net-beneficial impact on employment, as the unlocked productivity and economic growth will create new demand for employment and labor.”

Another major value of AI lies in its ability to make accurate forecasts, according Dr. Joshua Gans, Chair of Technical Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto and co-author of Prediction Machines. “AI is mitigating risks like those involved in oil, which impact on the quality of oil shipped,” he wrote to The Media Line in an email, adding that this could yield great benefits for the Gulf region.

To fully maximize this potential will require a change in the way business is perceived and conducted and depend on strategies implemented at the macro and micro levels, by governments all the way down to individual employers. “The education and training systems need to adapt quickly to equip and retrain workers with the right skills throughout their entire career to benefit from changing workplace requirements.” Dr. Moore stressed.

The technology is already making its mark in the region, with the UAE having opened in October an Artificial Intelligence Ministry to prepare for the next revolution in industry. In turn, 27-year-old Omar Bin Sultan Al Olama was appointed the world’s first Minister of AI.

The race to develop automation is also being driven by social factors, in particular the goal of certain regional governments to curtail the high numbers of foreign workers residing in their countries. Indeed, the McKinsey report showed that 93 percent of automatable jobs are currently performed by expatriates.

Elaborating on this reality, Dr. Alexander Coman, a Technology Value Creation expert at Israel’s Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya (IDC), reinforced to The Media Line that “when it comes to the UAE, for example, much of the workforce is not local. There are a lot of labor migrants and the government is really keen to remove them, which is now enabled by the concept of artificial intelligence.”

Dr. Coman noted that Israel has been a pioneer in the development of artificial intelligence, whereas the rest the Middle East remains well behind. On the flip side, he contended, “automation will replace jobs much faster in Israel than elsewhere in the region, as wages are high in Israel, thus creating a great incentive for AI. The opposite holds true for quite a few Middle Eastern countries.”

Overall, Dr. Coman believes that by 2030 artificial intelligence could become a “massively disruptive trend,” and, in Israel’s particular case, “no doubt unemployment will increase and [render] many, many jobs [obsolete].”

For his part, Professor Shaul Markovitch, an artificial intelligence expert at the Technion—The Israel Institute of Technology, is sceptical that AI will have a significant impact in the immediate future. “I think the issue is very much over-hyped in the media and the scare of automated jobs is greatly exaggerated,” he expounded to The Media Line. “I don’t even think that major figures like Elon Musk [CEO of Tesla] and others dealing with computer science, understand how huge the gap is between what we have and what we need to achieve. And we need more researchers to do so.

“It is a very difficult task and we do make progress, but very slowly,” Prof. Markovitch continued. “People say the implementation of AI is around the corner, especially in terms of self-driving cars, but I think it will be quite difficult especially on the roads when facing unexpected scenarios. I don’t say that we won’t be able to do it eventually, but there are many other steps required.”

By contrast, Veniz Kupeli, an Account Manager at Take Leap, a Dubai-based technology company, is optimistic about the prospects of AI. “That the UAE is the first nation to have a minister of artificial intelligence shows its visionary perspective,” she told The Media Line. “We are teaching the younger generation to become developers. In this era, everything will change but people will adapt much easier with education.”

Kupeli highlighted that artificial intelligence is already widely being used. “Schools, multiple companies and government businesses are adopting artificial intelligence. When you go online, robots are answering. No one actually knows the full capabilities of AI today,” she concluded. “There are endless opportunities.”

(Daniella P. Cohen is a Student Intern in The Media Line’s Press and Policy Student Program)

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