The digital revolution has become a cornerstone of economic diversification efforts in emerging markets, particularly in countries seeking to reduce their dependence on oil and gas production. Among these nations, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia stand out for their ambitious smart city initiatives, integral to their broader strategies for economic transformation. These initiatives include Dubai Smart City and various projects laid out under Saudi Arabia's Vision 2030 long-term economic development plan, such as, most prominently, the groundbreaking $500 billion NEOM project. Both countries, through international partnerships with tech giants, are at the forefront of leveraging digital technologies to redefine urban living and enhance governance. However, as these nations embrace the opportunities presented by developing smart cities, challenges such as cybersecurity and infrastructure sustainability must be addressed through strategic policies and trusted partnerships to ensure a secure and sustainable digital transition.

The journey of emerging markets into the digital era has been nothing short of transformative, marked by a surge in technological advancements, heightened internet penetration, and the ubiquity of mobile devices. This shift has reverberated across various sectors of their economies, influencing finance, commerce, communication, and education.

At the forefront of this digital revolution are several key developments:

  1. Digital health revolution: Telemedicine and health monitoring apps have significantly improved access to healthcare services, especially in remote or underserved areas.

  2. Connectivity catalysts: Enhanced internet infrastructure and the greater affordability of smartphones have been instrumental in empowering people in emerging markets to step into the digital realm. Mobile internet, in particular, has played a pivotal role in connecting a broader population to the digital world.

  3. Social impact through technology: Digital technologies are being harnessed to address social challenges, tackling issues such as poverty, inequality, and access to basic services. Initiatives like mobile-based healthcare interventions and digital ID programs are noteworthy examples.

  4. Tech entrepreneurship surge: The tech sector in the Middle East has witnessed a flourishing of entrepreneurial spirit, with startups leveraging digital technologies to address local challenges in healthcare, agriculture, and education. From streamlining healthcare access with platforms like Vezeeta to optimizing agricultural practices with Pure Harvest, these startups are leveraging technology to improve lives across the region.

  5. Smart city revolution: Leading emerging market cities are embracing smart city technologies to revolutionize urban planning, transportation, energy efficiency, and public services. Governments are increasingly adopting digital technologies to improve governance, deliver public services more effectively, and enhance transparency.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE are frontrunners in the global race to develop smart cities. Saudi Arabia, through its Vision 2030 plan and the massive NEOM project, aims to be a hub for innovation, technology, and sustainable development. International technology partnerships with companies like Orange, Atkins, and others underscore Riyadh’s commitment to infusing expertise and innovation into these transformative projects.

Similarly, the UAE has also been a pioneer in smart city development, with initiatives like Abu Dhabi's Smart Solutions and Dubai Smart City. Major international technology companies, including IBM, Siemens, and Huawei, play a significant role in providing solutions and expertise for smart city projects in the country.

The transition to the digital era in emerging markets presents a huge opportunity to drive economic growth, innovation, and an improved quality of life. Smart cities leverage technology to help achieve these goals, optimizing resources, attracting investments, fostering collaboration, and creating a vibrant hub for entrepreneurship and advancement. Real-time data fuels evidence-based decision-making and further innovation, making them a powerful tool for progress, especially in emerging markets. These cities empower citizens with safer communities, cleaner environments, and improved access to essential services, providing a unique path to leapfrog infrastructure challenges and achieve sustainable development. However, this transition will also come with great challenges and addressing these will require thoughtful policies and robust infrastructure development to ensure equitable access and sustainable progress across the region.

As digital adoption surges, concerns about cybersecurity and data privacy intensify. The Saudi government's proactive stance in establishing regulatory frameworks and policies to safeguard digital assets and sensitive information is commendable. Integrating network and device security measures, especially in 5G infrastructure, is crucial to preventing unauthorized access. Robust cybersecurity measures, including end-to-end encryption, regular security updates, and the ability to detect and respond to incidents, are imperative.

The move toward smart cities amplifies the need for comprehensive incident response plans from local governments, developed in collaboration with partners. A "trusted partner" approach is indispensable for the long-term security and sustainability of smart city infrastructure. While cost-effectiveness may tempt decision-makers toward cheaper options, the importance of integrating trusted partners in 5G and digital infrastructures cannot be overstated.

The prevalence of Huawei and ZTE in the Middle East is alarming, however, given U.S. concerns about backdoors and vulnerabilities. Despite attractive pricing and service offerings, the ties of these companies to the Chinese government, coupled with a lack of transparency about internal processes and supply chain issues, pose a significant threat to the digital security of smart cities. Of course, bilateral ties with the United States may be impacted as China is gradually becoming an integral partner in major technologies.

Trusted partners offer government and state and local organizations reliability, providing resilient technologies while adhering to strict data security and privacy policies in compliance with international standards and regulations. Though cheaper options may seem alluring in the short term, they lack sustainability. Trusted partners, through clear contractual obligations and service-level agreements, guarantee accountability for the performance and security of their products.

In the realm of smart cities, the resilience of critical infrastructure is paramount, and cutting corners on technology may lead to system failures or vulnerabilities. The road to smart cities is undoubtedly transformative, but success hinges on the commitment to secure, innovative, and sustainable practices.


Mohammed Soliman is the director of MEI’s Strategic Technologies and Cyber Security Program, and a Manager at McLarty Associates’ Middle East and North Africa Practice. His work focuses on the intersection of technology, geopolitics, and business in the Middle East and North Africa.

Alicia Chavy is a non-resident scholar within the Strategic Technologies and Cyber Security Program at the Middle East Institute, where she focuses on policy and national security implications of critical technologies, such as AI, quantum innovation, and cybersecurity.

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