Saudi deal with Huawei for Arabic-specific AI Risks U.S. wrath


Saudi Arabia said it would partner with Huawei Technologies Co. to develop Arabic-language recognition in artificial intelligence and train Saudi experts in the field, potentially putting the kingdom at odds with the U.S., a key partner that’s pushing its allies to avoid the Chinese company. 

Majid Altuwaijri, chief executive of the National Center for Artificial Intelligence, said that the project had already started working on artificial intelligence technology specialized in the Arabic language, both spoken and written.

Arabic is “really under-served when it comes to AI technologies,” and Saudi Arabia wants to be a world leader in the field, Altuwaijri said by phone on Thursday. “For us to kick-start and expedite our move toward those ambitious goals, we needed really strategic partnerships.”

The kingdom also announced a memorandum of understanding with China’s Alibaba Cloud to collaborate on smart cities technology, and another with International Business Machines Corp. for collaboration in artificial intelligence with a focus on health care, Altuwaijri said.

The Huawei agreement could potentially put the kingdom under pressure from U.S. officials, who argue the company is a threat to security for the fifth-generation, or 5G, wireless systems beginning to be deployed around the world. Altuwaijri said the Saudi accord is unrelated to 5G and focuses solely on artificial intelligence.

“I understand the sensitivity around 5G, but this is around Arabic language character recognition and AI algorithms and tools — that should be scientifically driven,” he said.

Because Huawei is subject to control by China’s ruling Communist Party, it can be compelled by law to cooperate with the country’s security apparatus, and has been implicated in espionage, according to the State Department.

Huawei has denied allegations of spying, saying it would lose customers if it weren’t trustworthy. The Shenzhen-based company says it’s a private business that can’t be directed by Beijing, and that no Chinese law requires private national companies to engage in cyber-espionage.

During the virtual announcement on Thursday, Charles Yang, Huawei’s regional president for the Middle East, said it was “a new day” for cooperation between Saudi Arabia and Huawei.

“We will make AI, 5G and cloud become the engine and new driver for the Saudi new digital economy,” Yang said.

The agreement also includes developing expertise within Saudi Arabia, and how the kingdom can benefit from Huawei hardware.

Alibaba Cloud will work on using data and artificial intelligence to make Saudi cities smarter “while improving their safety and security,” according to a statement. Part of that will involve facial recognition technology, Altuwaijri said, explaining that the project will begin with the capital of Riyadh, adapting Alibaba’s “City Brain” product to the Saudi context.

“We have our own specifics in terms of population,” he said, pointing out that men wear traditional headdresses while many women cover their faces, which will “require us to provide more additional training to the algorithms.”


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