UAE minister says US fears over Middle East becoming an AI proxy for China are valid

But we're America's friends, insists Omar Al Olama

Fears that China could be using Middle East countries as a proxy to overcome US sanctions on machine learning accelerators are justifiable, according to the United Arab Emirates minister of AI and digital economy.

Speaking on Bloomberg TV, Omar Al Olama, said American officials had good reason to be concerned about the region.

"I think concerns about chips coming to the Middle East and going to China are valid concerns for any country that has adversaries," he told Bloomberg, casting the UAE as a sort of exception to this.

"We think that the UAE has proven to be a strategic partner with the US. Sometimes you are a victim of the neighborhood you are in," he added.

Olama’s comments come as the UAE’s AI ambitions clashed with US efforts to staunch the flow of machine-learning accelerator chips to China.

Over the past few years, the UAE-backed G42 has emerged as an AI leader in the Mid-East region. The mega-corporation has acquired large numbers of GPUs from the likes of Nvidia and fueled the growth of California upstart Cerebras Systems, which develops supercomputing clusters of wafer-size chips.

However, US intelligence has reportedly raised red flags over G42's ties to Chinese firms, voicing fears it could be furnishing Chinese interests with the supercomputing power necessary to further Beijing's agenda.

Since taking office, US President Joe Biden has played a game of whack-a-mole in an attempt to stifle Chinese AI development. These efforts have included enacting performance-based export restrictions on high-end AI accelerators and other advanced silicon.

Last summer, the US Commerce Department extended these export restrictions to several Mid-East countries after it was reported that Saudi Arabia and the UAE were buying up thousands of Nvidia's most powerful accelerators.

It's our understanding that these restrictions are not an outright ban and instead require exporters to undergo additional scrutiny and obtain special licenses to sell their chips in the region.

While these efforts have been successful in curbing exports of the US's most potent chips, there's still a bit of a hole the Biden administration has yet to close. Chinese interests can still log-in to foreign clouds and train their models there.

According to Olama, it was only natural for the US to take these steps.

Facing pressure from the United States, G42 has reportedly cut ties with its Chinese partners, including Huawei. Meanwhile, US investment in the state-backed G42 has increased with Microsoft injecting $1.5B into it in April.

More recently, the UAE has revealed its intention to become a leading producer of high-end semiconductors.

In light of these developments, Olama expressed confidence that future relations between the US and the UAE will be quite positive. ®

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