Saudi Arabia’s big AI educational leap

Saudi Arabia’s big AI educational leap
Saudi Arabia is fast moving to an AI future. / CC: SDAIA
By Daniel Rad in Dublin May 18, 2024

The juxtaposition of artificial intelligence and Saudi Arabia might strike most as an unlikely pair, and even this writer, who has been reporting on the Middle East for over a decade, would have agreed not too long ago. However, in the past year or so these seemingly unrelated terms have started to merge, particularly in education, sparking a fascinating shift in the country's focus.

Saudi Arabia, a country that has been prosperous from its oil sales for many years, has recently started to expand its economic activities beyond just exporting oil. With solid relationships with the United States and China, Saudi Arabia is making a significant effort to diversify its economy. The global demand for oil is expected to decrease over the next few decades, regardless of the increasing popularity of electric vehicles (EVs). Still, even if the wheels have fallen off the electrical vehicle revolution in the short term, Saudi again has hedged its bets on autonomous EVs by effectively buying the majority of high-end EV manufacturer Lucid – a $10bn investment – and bringing their production lines to the Kingdom.

Something that not many people know is that artificial intelligence has been part of the makings of this revamped version of Saudi Arabia for the past few years. The Saudi Data and Artificial Intelligence Authority (SDAIA), established in 2019 to serve as the national body overseeing research, innovation and operation in the field of data and artificial intelligence, was given the goal by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MbS) of positioning Saudi Arabia as a global leader in the “elite league” of data-driven economies. Interestingly, the critical push to move the Kingdom from an oil-driven economy to a data-driven one might have seemed far-fetched before the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. In a time before OpenAI’s ChatGPT and Microsoft’s Bing search engine ran off the same system, or Google’s counterpart became common knowledge, Saudi Arabia was laying the groundwork for this new world.

Digitalisation and upgrading of the state

Faced with the impending demographic challenges of a large youth, an economy which for the past twenty years has been relatively dormant compared to its Gulf peers, Saudi Arabia’s royal family saw a need to overhaul the trappings of bureaucracy, itself a fiscal drag on the economy. The push towards AI is backed up by the latest Stanford University International AI Index for 2024, which has ranked Saudi Arabia among the leading nations worldwide for developing a national Artificial Intelligence (AI) strategy.

Now, as I witnessed, computer learning is being implemented into all facets of daily life in the country, from health metrics to even car rentals, algorithmic learning seems to be a real game changer in terms of the country’s efficiency drive. These efficiency drives are part of the wider Vision 2030 plan set out by the MbS goals. Of these, 66 goals of the 2030 plan are either directly related to AI or have some tangential backing from future systems being brought in.

SDAIA’s website states a message from the Crown Prince: “We are living in a time of scientific innovation, unprecedented technology and unlimited growth prospects. If used optimally, new technologies such as Artificial Intelligence and the Internet of Things (IoT) can spare the world many disadvantages and bring enormous benefits to the world.”

AI from kindergarten to college and beyond

One aspect of the wider push to an AI-led society is the broader National Framework for Artificial Intelligence in Digital Learning by the National eLearning Centre. Again, previously created in 2018, before AI was mainstream, the concept was to overhaul education in the Kingdom through employing the power of so-called “AI Learning” as one company works in the country, Ready AI, to describe how children and teens interact with the high-end technology. The AI-led learning has also become a key feature of learning across the board, with active participation from both public and private schools being pushed by the state.

The growing framework around AI education, in a sense, intends to pivot the next generation of the country into the future economy, which, as we are all witnessing, is changing in real time, and this is one of the critical hurdles with actually trying to compact AI learning into the more comprehensive education system, let alone bringing the non-AI aligned educational staff in with it. The framework not only positions the Kingdom as a potential future leader, but it also throws down the gauntlet now to Western and Eastern economies and education systems, which are not yet considering the wider implications of what growing AI integration will mean for the adults of the future. To back the wider push, a new website dedicated to the National Strategy for Data and AI (NSDAI) emphasises education as a primary aspect of digital transformation in the country, alongside healthcare, energy and mobility.

Universities are at the forefront of AI developments in education in Saudi Arabia, with the  King Abdulaziz University of Science of Technology (KAUST) leading the charge. The university, on the edge of the Red Sea and set in sumptuous grounds with palm trees dotting the streets, is home to several AI research areas, including the first Arabic-language large-language (LLM) and supercomputer called Shaheen III, built by Hewlett Packard Enterprises in 2022. Shaheen III is 20 times faster than the preceding system based at KAUST. Built by HPE, the Cray EX Supercomputer has global-leading performance in the “Teraflops.” Moreover, startups are getting backing in the form of new centres being created around campus. As was the case with The Garage in Riyadh, literally based in a repurposed garage, local AI startups are getting backing both financially and technically from local and industry professionals. 

KAUST leading developments

With this in mind, we took a tour of the university complex, where we met Dr Sultan Albarakti, Instructional Assistant Professor at the Centre for Teaching and Learning in the Computer and AI section of the university, who explained the process of creating leading AI education programmes for future generations.

"In the [KAUST] Academy we consider ourselves an educational arm to KAUST. We are a lifelong learning organisation,” he said, adding: “Our goal is to work from K-12 up to professionals. We conducted several programmes in different areas and this year we are sending around 120 students abroad... it's either an internship or a summer school [to regional countries or further]."

What is surprising in the large, sprawling new campus is the number of foreign students, many of whom come from Europe, the US and Canada, as well as East Asia. 

Albarakati summed this up in a succinct way: "The university is truly international, with restrictions in place so that only 30-40% of the students are from Saudi Arabia. We have students from around 60-70 countries, including China, Europe and the US." He further noted: “KAUST is a prestigious university. Getting admission here is really difficult, even more so than MIT. It's the only university in the kingdom with such a competitive cohort of only 400 students per cohort, totalling about 1,800 on campus.”

Albarakati said: "Through collaborations with top universities worldwide, such as Oxford and Duke, KAUST provides its students with internships and summer schools, emphasising practical, hands-on experience in AI, cybersecurity and bioinformatics."

He further noted that the process of raising the bar of education for youngsters was key in bringing the general knowledge of artificial intelligence to broader audiences: "The selection process for these programmes is rigorous, involving online courses followed by intensive in-person training. The most promising students are chosen based on their performance in these courses, reflecting a meritocratic approach to educational advancement."

"Our long-term goal is not merely academic enrichment but also entrepreneurial development. We aim to cultivate a generation of innovators who can establish startups, driving economic growth and technological advancement in Saudi Arabia and beyond."

This pan-regional approach appears to be a vote winner with many regional countries and their growing interest in AI and its integration into the technology sector. As Albarakati noted, Saudi Arabia’s neighbours, including the United Arab Emirates, are also potential areas of expansion of the KAUST Academy projects. The UAE, like Saudi, has been increasingly interested in AI technologies and education; however, until now, regional outreach efforts have been slim on the ground.

"Looking forward, the success of these programmes has piqued the interest of neighbouring countries like the UAE, which plans to implement similar initiatives. This regional collaboration signifies a growing recognition of the importance of AI education in shaping the future of the Middle East," he added.

However, this integration in pre-university and post-graduate education separates KAUST Academy’s plan from many of its international peers. But it also plays into the wider Saudi AI objectives, feeding into the broader Vision 2030 plans.

“So we have a programme, an annual programme, for senior undergrad students. Our plan is to select the best, the best of the best, of the cream of the cream of the students, and give them an excellent opportunity to work with us in the K to 12 programme,” he said. "In Vision 2030, 70% of the elements are linked directly or indirectly with AI, emphasising how essential AI is to Saudi Arabia's future. This is why there's a significant investment in AI, including creating the Saudi AI authority, Sadiya, and a new PIF company focusing mainly on AI."

He added that Saudi Arabia is planning a $40bn push into AI, showcasing the kingdom's commitment to integrating advanced technology into their future development. But as with the KAUST Academy programmes, the push to integrate AI into education is the key in which the country potentially has the edge in the global race to bring AI education and events to raise the technology’s profile. 

Events to push AI education in the Kingdom

In 2023, the World Artificial Intelligence Competition for Youth (WAICY) took place at KAUST. The event was a significant milestone in promoting AI literacy among young people worldwide. Co-organised by the Saudi Data and AI Authority (SDAIA), KAUST and ReadyAI, the global competition attracted over 18,000 participants from 39 countries, underscoring the universal appeal and critical importance of AI in contemporary education.

We had the chance to find out more about what WAICY events meant for the education of future generations in the country with the member of the organising committee and co-founder of the event, Dr Roozbeh Aliabadi, on the outskirts of Jeddah at the KAUST campus.

"The true measure of education isn’t what grades a student gets today but where they are 10 years later. AI education needs to have an impact on learning, not just be high-tech, and this is the spirit of WAICY, reflected in Saudi Arabia. Just look at their remarkable performance in WAICY 2023 and their impressive improvement since WAICY 2018," he said. 

Adding, “The true scarce commodity in education is children’s attention. There’s a difference between education and empowerment, and our approach at ReadyAI/WAICY has been to empower kids using AI. This is a fundamental difference. In every classroom in Saudi Arabia, I tell kids: that education is what others do to you, and learning is what you do for yourself. We are building a big AI learning community, and humans are at its core.

“I want the kids to know that everything we love about civilisation is a product of intelligence. Amplifying our human intelligence with artificial intelligence has the potential to help civilisation flourish like never before – as long as we manage to keep the technology beneficial. I believe in Saudi society and what they are doing. I have been working and interacting in Saudi Arabia for nearly three years, not just from airports to meetings, but driving through every corner and experiencing their culture and hospitality."

“The future is about pairing the artificial intelligence of computers with the cognitive, social and emotional skills and values of humans. Saudi Arabia is doing just that. Regarding important decisions in life, we can and should combine artificial intelligence with human insight and values. My feeling is we won’t be able to fully appreciate artificial intelligence until we define our own genuine human values first. That’s what we are doing here in Saudi Arabia, and I believe we will succeed because I believe in Saudi youth. They are incredible, like youth around the world.”

To back up the WAICY competitions, SDAIA is also supporting 70 Saudi students win the (National Olympiad for Programming and Artificial Intelligence) ATHKA Olympiad Awards, organised over the past few months with the King Abdulaziz and His Companions Foundation for Giftedness and Creativity or “Mawhiba,” and the Ministry of Education.

ATHKA is a programme that aims to develop the next generation in the fields of programming and AI in Saudi Arabia. The programme targets around 3mn intermediate and secondary school students across the country and seeks to enhance their global competitiveness. This initiative is part of Saudi Vision 2030's Human Capacity Development Programme, which aims to achieve national development goals.

AI education across the kingdom

Saudi Arabia is investing in AI education in leading universities and elementary and high schools. Integrating software into the curriculum is becoming increasingly common on multiple levels. Dr Sally Alturki, founder and director of Dharan Ahilya Schools in Dammam on the Gulf coast, speaks highly of the AI education provided in her schools. She stresses the need to keep the curriculum focused on the constantly changing present, given the fast pace of development in the sector.

Dr Alturki has been operating educational institutions across the Kingdom since 1970, during the early years of the oil boom in the country, giving her credible credentials in the field.

Dr Alturki, president of DAS, said that the pace of education and AI integration is moving so fast that education systems in Saudi Arabia are generally not yet prepared for the onslaught of change in society.

The long-time educator’s comments have been echoed by educators in several countries in recent months about the difference in the development of AI, and that education in the traditional sense looks more outdated with every new iteration of systems.

“We are trying to introduce the concept of the self-renewing school, Alturki said, “the cascade idea [of educating] and there’s tonnes of research in this regard” she added discussing the need to tackle the growing gap between educators and new AI technology.

“In our school, we can get a new idea and make it work (due to its independent status within the Kingdom), but to spread this, you first of all need the government to understand this [is a difficult task] referring to the wider national curriculum in the Kingdom.”

DAS head of ICT Ashraf Hamad put succinctly the issues many educational establishments across the world are facing: “There was a time before ChatGPT, and there is now after the introduction of ChatGPT,” he said, adding: “The software is a game changer, then all of a sudden the entire attitude was about cheating and plagiarism, but this is where we are now and we need to work with the current [cohort] of students.”

The educator said that the school quickly realised that they had to approach education in the Kingdom in a number of ways that were different from what used to happen before the advent of AI.

The independent school also teamed up with a UK IT company to develop its own core AI competencies with an understanding of the Arabic language.

“It was a tremendous and expensive educational project, and the Ministry of Education agreed to help develop software.”

With all this in mind and having experienced the sizeable developments in Saudi Arabia in the past week, one can only imagine what the country and the developments coming at pace will do to the Kingdom with every new iteration.