Interest in the Metaverse: A Tale of Two Regions
In recent years, the tech giants’ enthusiasm for the metaverse has dwindled. What was once seen as a promising concept has failed to gain significant traction in the mainstream tech industry. As reported by the Wall Street Journal in an article titled “The Metaverse Is Quickly Turning Into the Meh-taverse,” even companies like Disney have been downsizing or eliminating their metaverse departments.
However, in the Middle East, the metaverse continues to be embraced with enthusiasm by governments. Israel has taken a step forward by opening its first metaverse embassy in South Korea. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia has been actively engaged with various companies, such as The Sandbox, to foster long-term collaboration. The country has even established the region’s first metaverse academy to provide training in this new technology. Scholars opine that NEOM, the planned smart city in Tabuk Province, could potentially become “the first metaverse that actually is a metaverse.”
Recognizing the potential of the metaverse, global professional services firm KPMG announced in February 2023 that it would establish a Centre of Excellence (CoE) in Saudi Arabia. The aim is to expedite the application of the metaverse not just in the country but throughout the wider Middle East and North Africa region. KPMG will be collaborating with a range of suppliers, including Microsoft, Ericsson, and Metakey, whereby Microsoft will provide the gaming platform and infrastructure, Ericsson will contribute its 5G technology and network, and Metakey will be responsible for creating 3D objects.
Metaverse: Transforming Various Sectors
The metaverse technology is poised to revolutionize global competitiveness, and Saudi Arabia is determined to embrace this vision. The Royal Commission for AlUla has unveiled a captivating metaverse experience, allowing users to virtually explore and interact with historical landmarks like the Tomb of Lihyan. Similarly, Egypt has launched its first metaverse city called Metatut, which pays homage to the country’s ancient civilization while infusing it with a futuristic touch to commemorate the 100-year anniversary of King Tutankhamun’s tomb discovery.
Interest in the metaverse is not limited to Saudi Arabia and Egypt alone. The Middle East as a whole has shown a growing fascination with this technology. The UAE, Bahrain, and Qatar have demonstrated serious interest, with Dubai and Abu Dhabi being selected as the first global cities to launch within the virtual world by Metaverse Holdings.
Moreover, various sectors within these countries are also embracing the metaverse. Qatar Airways has introduced the Qverse platform, offering customers a virtual reality experience to explore their premium check-in area and aircraft cabins. Virgin Mobile Kuwait has become the world’s first telecommunications company to secure its position in The Sandbox, a virtual game environment. Thumbay Group in the UAE aims to bring innovative healthcare solutions to the virtual realm, while the UAE’s Ministry of Health and Prevention has established a customer happiness service center within the metaverse. Notably, the UAE’s Ministry of Economy has opened its third office in the metaverse, offering services related to consumer protection, trademarks and patents, 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 includes a Virtual Transaction Center for official document processing and aims to boost the country’s digital economy and local tourism. The UAE’s economic progress will now be measured using the Gross Metaverse Product (GMP) metric, replacing the traditional Gross Domestic Product (GDP) metric.
The Metaverse: Ethical and Political Implications
While the Middle East embraces the metaverse and its transformative potential, concerns about its ethical and political implications loom large. Disparities in internet access and smartphone usage across the region have made the adoption of digital technology uneven. Gulf Cooperation Council nations have emerged as digital superpowers, while countries like Yemen struggle with limited connectivity. However, even within these digital powerhouses, questions of cybersecurity and human rights arise.
The UAE’s Minister of State for Artificial Intelligence has warned about the concept of “cyber murder” in the metaverse and called for international standards to prohibit such acts. However, human rights activists criticize this proposal, viewing it as a potential tool for censorship. Moreover, there is a concern that countries like Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the UAE may strategically align themselves with other digital authoritarian superpowers, including China and Russia, leading to the emergence of digital totalitarianism.
The stage is set for a high-stakes power play in the digital realm, with the Middle East at its center. As countries and organizations grapple with the ethical and social implications of the metaverse, the debate surrounding international standards for this emerging technology is expected to intensify.
[Naveed Ahsan edited this article.]
Note: The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.