Abu Dhabi petrodollars land in European AI but opacity sparks criticism

Abu Dhabi, a small petrostate, announced a major investment in Artificial Intelligence in Spain. Some academics and activists suspect that the emirate may not be interested solely in furthering scientific research.

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With the money from their oil and gas reserves, the Gulf Arab monarchies have, in recent years, showered various economic sectors in Europe in cash. The latest to join this list is Artificial Intelligence (AI) research. Last March, the government of Abu Dhabi - an emirate that is also the capital of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) - sealed an agreement with Spain to open a European branch of Adia Lab, a research center in AI and data science created by the sovereign wealth fund Abu Dhabi Investment Authority (ADIA).

The agreement states that the Spanish city of Granada will host the European headquarters of the center, Adia Lab Europe. This regional branch of Adia Lab will coordinate several joint research programes between Emirati and Spanish universities. The objective announced by both countries is to promote "scientific exchange and industrial growth" in data-driven technologies.

With this alliance, the Abu Dhabi authorities seek to expand their influence in AI and data science, a field that has become a priority for the royal family of this autocratic state. However, the plans of the powerful sovereign wealth fund ADIA in the field of AI are currently shrouded in opacity and raise serious ethical questions among experts and civil society.

Criticism and human rights violations

The alliance with Adia Lab caused a stir in the Spanish scientific community. In March, in response to this agreement, three researchers left the Spanish government's AI advisory board, created in 2020 to promote the "ethical and safe use" of these technologies.

Carles Sierra, director of the Artificial Intelligence Research Institute (IIIA-CSIC), president of the European Association for Artificial Intelligence (EurAI) and one of the experts who left the board, explained to AlgorithmWatch that his reasons are twofold. First, he refuses to accept "a joint venture in research with an investment fund directly controlled by the UAE government, known for its lack of respect for human rights". Sierra also criticizes the fact that he and the other board members were not informed of such a "sensitive issue" and found out about the deal through the media.

Digital rights organisations in Spain have also taken a stand against this alliance. They refer to reports such as the one made by Amnesty International, which accuses the UAE government of "serious human rights violations" through the arbitrary detention of opponents, the cruel treatment of prisoners, the suppression of freedom of expression and violations of the right to privacy. 

According to the press release issued by Spanish and Abu Dhabi authorities, Spain will host research programs in areas such as "causal discovery and experimental design in public health" and "economic modelling of climate change and its mitigation policies". At the Universidad de Granada (UGR), where the headquarters of Adia Lab Europe will be based, projects will focus on the development of "interpretable AI" and "reliable automation".

A high-level source involved in this agreement affirms that Adia Lab plans to sign new alliances with other universities in Spain and the European Union in the near future. He explains that Abu Dhabi authorities see Adia Lab as "an umbrella under which to connect Emirati universities with Europe". According to the same source, for the moment, the fund has pledged around 5 million euros for its venture in Spain. 

However, the Spanish government has declined to give details of how much money its new partners plan to invest in the country. Adia Lab did  not respond to requests for information from AlgorithmWatch.

In the face of the criticism received, Spanish authorities have defended themselves, saying  that the lines of research that will be promoted in Spain are aligned with an "ethical" and "sustainable" development of AI, in line with the European strategy that the Spanish government aims to lead. "Diplomatic relations are one thing, activism is another, and science is another," said Carme Artigas, the government's secretary of state for digitization, in a recent interview in response to the three experts leaving the advisory board. Artigas also said that the freedom of Spanish scientists participating in these programs to conduct their research under ethical principles is guaranteed. 

But many voices have been warning for years about the UAE government's punitive use of technology to control and monitor opponents and the migrant population that arrives in its territory. In 2021, Rafeef ZIadah, a researcher at the King's College London, described the Gulf state as "an important laboratory for advanced surveillance tools", in which biometric data registration systems have been deployed, both at the borders and within the country, without the necessary guarantees of respect for the rights of the population. And always under the vague argument of protecting national security, she said.

Kristian Ulrichsen, Middle East researcher at Rice University's Baker Institute for Public Policy and author of several books on the UAE and the region, agrees with this analysis. “Within the UAE there is a very wide-ranging attempt to try to predict behaviour and to use AI and big data to almost identify or predict if a crime is going to happen or if somebody is going to start shouting against the government. This is part of the government’s approach to any form of opposition or dissent,” explains Ulrichsen in a conversation with AlgorithmWatch.

“These are things that in a European setting wouldn't be permissible, but in the UAE is part of an attempt to use data to mow and to really shape not just society, but individuals as well. And potentially to create complicated social engineering projects”. 

ADIA: an opaque and powerful sovereign wealth fund

Although the Spanish government presented Adia Lab as a "leading" and "pioneering" center in research on computational science and data, this institute is only a few months old (its activity began in December 2022). Public information on this "independent research institute" is scarce and its institutional communication is focused on attracting international investors to the country, one of the main objectives of the Emirati government.

Adia Lab is entirely driven and financed by the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority (ADIA), which is considered the third largest investment fund in the world - its estimated portfolio exceeds $700 billion in assets, according to the most conservative estimates. In 1976, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the first president and founding father of the UAE, created this sovereign wealth fund to invest surplus oil revenues from Abu Dhabi. The aim was to maximize the return on the manna of money generated by the country's fledgling fossil fuel industry. 

The fact that one of Adia Lab Europe's programs focuses on AI models to combat climate change, given the source of the money that will - at least in part - fund this research, has been one of the recurring criticisms of the alliance.

However, ADIA's internal operations have not been completely transparent. For example, the fund has never reported on its assets under management (AUM) - only 10 of the world's 200 largest funds do not provide this information, according to the Global Sovereign Wealth Fund. "It is seen as a national security concern to provide info about their assets,” says Rachel Ziemba, a country and economic risk expert, and researcher at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS).

Historically considered one of the most conservative funds in the Gulf, in recent years ADIA has diversified its portfolio by starting to invest in innovative sectors in search of higher returns, but it is difficult to know the ultimate origin and final destination of the capital in the hands of this powerful fund owned by the Abu Dhabi government. “This is what happens when you have a state controlled by a family. Abu Dhabi’s ruling family is the state. Decoding where exactly the money for a fund originates is not released and public,” says Ulrichsen. 

He compares this opacity to other more well-known investments of the emirate's royal family, such as the 2008 takeover of Manchester City football club, currently under the scrutiny of the English football league authorities.

Nor is it easy to know the criteria – and ultimately the medium- and long-term plans – by which ADIA's owners operate. “Again, this is not something very easy to determine, partly because there is no fixed institutional process to determine it. That's what happens when the state is controlled by a family, and you have individual members of that family extremely powerful, who are able to potentially direct state resources from one arm to another, with very little oversight”, points out Ulrichsen. 

An enforcement arm for royal family interests

In March, the Abu Dhabi government reshuffled the leadership of its main sovereign wealth funds and appointed Sheikh Tahnoun bin Zayed Al Nahyan as the new chairman of ADIA. Sheikh Tahnoun is the brother of the current UAE president, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, and is considered one of the most powerful figures in the country, with an extensive business (and political) conglomerate under his command.

Ulrichsen notes that, since Sheikh Tahnoun's ascension to the emirate's highest echelon of power, the government's economic investments and geopolitical objectives have aligned as never before. “AI is probably something that the leadership has identified as a priority.” A strategy in which the creation of the Adia Lab and its European branch makes perfect sense.

The Abu Dhabi royal family's ambitious plan around data-driven technologies began to take shape in 2017, the year of the launch of the UAE National Strategy for Artificial Intelligence 2031, with the aim of turning the country "into a world leader in AI" in less than two decades. That same year, a specific ministry was created within the government to design and deploy policies that, according to the national strategy, will enable the use of AI in priority economic sectors and government services.

Education is another major area of action in this long-term strategy. In 2019, the UAE inaugurated the Mohamed bin Zayed University of Artificial Intelligence (MBZUAI), an institution focused exclusively on this field and named after the country's current president and emir of Abu Dhabi.

MBZUAI is already playing a key role in the plans of the Adia Lab and its European headquarters, according to the sources interviewed. Furthermore, Ulrichsen explains that the partnership with the Spanish government and universities is, from the perspective of the Emirati authorities, the fastest way to grow in AI research and development, a field in which international competition is increasingly intense. Or to put it another way: UAE provides the funding and the European centers the human capital needed to compete in this race.

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