Gulf News

Gulf States Pioneer the Implementation of Metaverse Technology

Emerging “metaverse” technology is becoming a reality. In recent years, Middle Eastern governments have enthusiastically embraced the new space. How might power dynamics shift as Gulf states align themselves with other digital authoritarian superpowers?

Art from Egypt’s “Metatut.” Via @tutera.egypt on Instagram.

July 22, 2023 04:42 EDT

Compared to two years ago, interest in the metaverse has been waning amongst tech giants. The virtual environment concept has not stuck as some industry leaders had hoped. According to a Wall Street Journal piece titled “The Metaverse Is Quickly Turning Into the Meh-taverse,” companies such as Disney are even eliminating or downsizing their metaverse departments. 

In the Middle East, however, the metaverse continues to be embraced by governments with enthusiasm. Israel has opened its first metaverse embassy in South Korea. Saudi Arabia has been engaged with companies such as The Sandbox, planning for long-term collaboration. Saudi Arabia has even opened the region’s first metaverse academy to provide training in the new technology. Scholars opine that NEOM, the planned smart city in Tabuk Province,  is building “the first metaverse that actually is a metaverse.” 

In February 2023, global professional services firm KPMG announced that it would establish a Centre of Excellence (CoE) in Saudia Arabia with the aim of speeding up the application of the metaverse in the country as well as the wider Middle East and North Africa region. 

KPMG will be collaborating with a broad collection of suppliers including Microsoft, Ericsson and Metakey. Microsoft will be responsible for providing the gaming platform and infrastructure; Ericsson will utilize its 5G technology and network; Metakey will be in charge of creating 3D objects.

Virtual tourism, services and more

The metaverse technology is set to transform the global competitiveness of companies, and Saudi Arabia is embracing this vision. Spearheading the initiative is the Royal Commission for AlUla, which has unveiled a captivating metaverse experience. Users can now virtually explore and interact with the Tomb of Lihyan, Hegra’s largest tomb, providing a unique glimpse into the country’s rich history.

Egypt has also embraced the metaverse revolution, launching its first city called Metatut, inspired by its ancient civilization that continues to attract numerous tourists each year. The virtual city combines elements of ancient Egyptian culture with a futuristic touch, commemorating the 100-year anniversary of the discovery of King Tutankhamun’s tomb.

Notably, the Metaverse Tunisian Summit took place in 2022, emphasizing the region’s growing interest in this technology.

Countries like the UAE, Bahrain and Qatar have shown serious interest, with Dubai and Abu Dhabi being selected as the first global cities to launch within the virtual world by Metaverse Holdings.

Various sectors are jumping into the metaverse bandwagon. Qatar Airways introduced the Qverse platform, offering customers a virtual reality experience. Users can now explore the airline’s premium check-in area and even tour the interior of their aircraft cabins, enhancing the travel experience.

Virgin Mobile Kuwait emerged as the first telecommunications company to secure its position in The Sandbox, a virtual game environment. 

The UAE’s Thumbay Group aims to bring innovative healthcare solutions to the virtual realm, while the Ministry of Health and Prevention has established a customer happiness service center within the metaverse. Furthermore, the UAE’s Ministry of Economy has opened its third office in the metaverse, offering services such as consumer protection, trademark and patent services, and industrial designs.

In collaboration with Multiverse Labs and the Sharjah Commerce & Tourism Development Authority, the UAE has launched Sharjaverse, the world’s first government-backed metaverse city. This ambitious project features a “Virtual Transaction Center” for official document processing and aims to boost the country’s digital economy and local tourism. The minister even announced that the UAE’s economic progress will now be measured using the Gross Metaverse Product (GMP) metric, replacing the traditional Gross Domestic Product (GDP) metric.

Digital authoritarianism on the horizon

The rest of the Middle East has seen a surge in the adoption of digital technology despite disparities in access. While countries like Yemen struggle with slow internet and limited smartphone usage, wealthier Gulf Cooperation Council nations pioneer the adoption of advanced tech like 5G. Gulf states have rapidly acquired the status of premier digital superpowers in the region.  

However, during the World Economic Forum, the UAE’s Minister of State for Artificial Intelligence warned about the concept of “cyber murder” in the metaverse. He called for international standards to prohibit such acts. However, human rights activists have criticized the proposal as a veiled attempt at censorship.

The emergence of digital totalitarianism appears increasingly likely as well. We may see countries such as Saudi Arabia, Israel and the UAE align themselves strategically with other formidable digital authoritarian superpowers, including China and Russia.

The stage is set for a high-stakes power play in the digital realm, where the rules for global dynamics are being written in the Middle East. The debate surrounding international standards for the metaverse will likely intensify as more countries and organizations grapple with the ethical and social implications of this emerging digital frontier.

[Naveed Ahsan edited this article.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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