Russia using AI diplomacy to increase its influence
Expo 2020 Dubai is the first event of its kind to be held in an Arab country and the first universal exhibition in the Middle East, North Africa or South Asia. For Russia, it offers opportunities to build closer relations with the region, expanding its already considerable presence culturally, socially and economically. At the state level and for ordinary tourists, it is a vast and fascinating display of the expertise and attractions of the region.
Russia’s presence at Expo 2020 is deliberately eye-catching, using a matryoshka doll design for its pavilion, which is located in the event’s Mobility District. The pavilion promotes “Russia’s latest achievements in manufacturing, science, technology and art,” according to Deputy Minister of Industry and Trade Alexey Gruzdev. The pavilion’s main theme is how creative minds are driving the future. Innovation and future-shaping technologies in Russia are strongly foregrounded. These may support further collaboration on, among other things, artificial intelligence.
Russia’s pavilion also demonstrates its various regions’ potential and their latest developments. For example, among the first exhibition topics was the Republic of Tatarstan (along with Moscow). This is no coincidence, since Tatarstan is regarded as the IT capital of Russia and one of the most dynamic, economically mature and politically stable regions of the country. It is also well situated as an experimental platform for innovative projects. Tatarstan President Rustam Minnikhanov took part in an Oct. 1 expert discussion titled “Application of artificial intelligence technologies in solving global problems,” which showcased Expo 2020 as a platform for sharing the latest innovative developments. Russia has its own National Strategy for the Development of Artificial Intelligence Through 2030, which was adopted in October 2019. This includes initiatives such as Sberbank, the state-owned bank, having established a road map for developing AI in Russia in collaboration with other corporations, including Yandex, the Mail.ru Group, and the Gazprom Neft energy company.
Expo 2020 offers the opportunity to increase collaboration between the MENA region and Russia through this newly emerging arena — AI diplomacy. The US and China have already realized the value of AI as a tool in global power competition and are, in many ways, better placed to exploit it effectively in the MENA region. For example, AI dominates China’s technological investments in the Gulf states (and Serbia). AI-based surveillance is projected to be a $62 billion industry by 2023. Expo 2020 is being used to illustrate Russia’s potential — in Moscow and other less well-known regions — as a partner and development site; and AI is regarded as a viable lever to further Russian influence in the region.
The Mobility District, where Russia’s pavilion is located, also includes some of the latest developments in space exploration, including the UAE National Space Programme and the Emirates Mars Mission. In February, the UAE’s historic Hope probe reached Mars and communicated back to Earth, claiming the Mars mission as a success for all Arabs and signaling the region’s emergence as an important global player. Russia has its own extensive history in the Cold War-era Space Race — a competition that has lost some prominence but has not gone away. The latest news from the country stresses developments in this field, heightened by the upcoming release of the movie “The Challenge,” which puts Russia ahead of the US in the latest chapter. Beyond national self-promotion, these displays are designed to facilitate collaboration. A joint agreement has already been drafted between Russia, Kazakhstan and the UAE that may mark the start of long-term space collaboration.
As well as these high-level negotiations, Expo 2020 is an opportunity for person-to-person diplomacy and, of course, tourism. Dubai is already a favorite destination for Russian tourists. January to June 2021 showed a 15 percent year-on-year increase in Russian tourists to Dubai, moving the country from fourth place to second in terms of tourist origins. Particularly notable are the 40,900 visits in May 2021 — more than any other country — and 25,100 in June, a 91 percent increase on 2020. The number of tourists during Expo 2020 will probably further increase, as it offers Russian tourists the opportunity to view the world’s most advanced technology in action, including in autonomous vehicles and cutting-edge mobility devices.
Expo 2020 offers an opportunity for Moscow to increase its collaboration with the MENA region.
Dr. Diana Galeeva
As well as glimpses of the future, visitors can also witness cultural displays at the MENA region’s pavilions. Egyptian achievements past and present can be seen in the form of three original antique pharaoh statues. Handwoven Persian carpets decorate the pavilion of Iran. Kuwaiti culture is presented through traditional music and poetry. The ancient remains of Leptis Magna, Cyrene and Sabratha, rising from beneath the Sahara, can be discovered at the Libya pavilion. The aromas and tastes of Palestine are celebrated with examples of traditional cuisine. A collection of Saudi artists have displays in the Vision space, including a multi-faceted 30-meter globe with an interactive floor, which takes visitors on an audio-visual journey through the Kingdom’s creative scene. The “Hurrian Hymn,” the oldest surviving musical notation in the world, can be heard at the Syria pavilion. And the “Miraculous Book of Al-Wisabi,” an ancient handwritten manuscript, can be seen at the Yemen pavilion.
In other words, Expo 2020 offers tourists a feast celebrating the richness, variety and excitement of the whole region, all in one place. It is an invitation to Russian tourists to explore and connect.
- Dr. Diana Galeeva is an academic visitor to St. Antony’s College, Oxford University, having previously also been a scholar-in-residence at the Oxford Center for Islamic Studies. She is a co-editor of the book “Post-Brexit Europe and UK: Policy Challenges Towards Iran and the GCC States” (Palgrave Macmillan).