UAE minister for AI and digital economy on the opportunities for tech companies to grow in Abu Dhabi

In 2017 the UAE signalled its commitment to technological innovation when it appointed HE Omar Al Olama as the first minister for artificial intelligence of any country in the world.

HE Al Olama spoke to Verdict following a government reshuffle in the UAE which saw his brief expanded to include the digital economy and virtual working. He answered our questions about the future of AI and the opportunities for countries working in this space to operate in the UAE and Abu Dhabi in particular.

Verdict: What does having a minister for AI say about the UAE’s attitude to new technology?

“This position proves to the world that the leadership of the UAE really believes in artificial intelligence as a technology and also want to make sure that we are at the forefront when it comes to this technology.

“In most countries in the world when it comes to forefront technologies there is a reluctance to invest in it and address it. In the UAE the leadership fundamentally believes that we need to be at the forefront of technology, we need to help deploy the technology when it comes to the private and public sector and we also need to ensure that our ecosystem is a compliment to the private sector rather than a hindrance.”

Why should international technology companies consider having a base in Abu Dhabi?

“In Abu Dhabi you have 200 nationalities living in a densely populated city. This concentration of diversity means the data that is available here is really cutting edge and global. There is no other country or city that allows you to create such a wealth of data when it comes to modelling or training your data.

“The other mains points are the proximity to talent and the proximity to markets. The UAE is a hub for the broader region: for the Middle East, Africa and India. So you have ove 2bn people within six hours of the UAE. This allows talent to flow through Abu Dhabi and the UAE in such a seamless manner thay any start-up can access talent in a way that they can’t in more mature markets.

“Through the UAE you can expand into the broader region and have a business that is headquartered in Abu Dhabi but can operate in the Middle East, Africa and India.

“The government and leadership want the UAE to be a testbed – allowing companies to experiment, allowing companies to deploy technologies that are at the frontier.”

What tips would give a tech startup on how to succeed in the UAE?

“There are a lot of programmes created by the government that people can use, like Hub71, that allow people to not just experiment with the market but also to not spend a big amount of money to come into the market. Hub71 specifically is an entity where you really get a concierge service that supports you in everything you need on the ground here in the UAE. You can’t really find that anywhere else.

“Through the different platforms available you can get face time with even the most senior government officials to get what you need done, which is quite unique. If you want to get regulations changed to allow a business to thrive that is something that you can’t necessarily get anywhere else but here leadership is keen to listen and try to change the policy landscape to ensure that you can deploy your business.”

Many see AI as a threat to jobs and are concerned about the prospect of intelligent computers. What do you say to that criticism?

“Any sort of innovation is a threat. Electrification is a threat. Automation is a threat. This is the way that things are and the way that things were for the last 200 years or so.

“There is a monumental amount of opportunity but also some challenges to overcome. That will mean that we need to quite proactively sit with people and come up with a road map that makes sense for them.

“Certain jobs do not need to be replaced by artificial intelligence but the reason some governments and companies do it is because there are quick wins. In the UAE we are trying to ensure that deployment of AI matches what is going to have the biggest impact on the livelihoods of people and is going to have the least impact on job losses.

“In the UAE there is a sense that we may not have all the answers today. So being humble about it and being agile and quite quick in changing your policies and regulations is going to be key if you want to make sure that there is the least amount of disruption when it comes to this technology.

“Every time we think of science fiction there are so many challenges on the horizon that we are scared by and we think about – whether its biotech allowing people to change virus strains or using quantum computing to decipher and hack every computer on the planet – there is no scarcity of challenges out there. But there are many roadblocks that will ensure we don’t go towards superintelligence any time soon.

“We should look at the challenges we have today and try to address them. These include the amount of environmental waste and the pollution that comes from data centres across the world, there are issues around inclusion and women in tech and people of colour in tech. There are so many issues we have that are fundamental issues on tech that are big concerns. If we don’t open this technology and have access to it we always going to have greater issues in the long term than opportunities.”

In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 

The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.