Saudi-China AI Partnership Under Pressure from U.S. Chip Restrictions

Saudi-China AI Partnership Under Pressure from U.S. Chip Restrictions

The Lede: According to a report from Financial Times on Monday, a joint AI program by Saudi and Chinese universities has raised questions regarding access to advanced chips in the region and Beijing's growing influence there as the U.S. and other countries increasingly place restrictions on sensitive technological industries in the rivalry between the superpowers.

What We Know: 

  • American-Chinese mathematician Professor Jinchao Xu at Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (Kaust), has launched AceGPT, an Arabic-focused large language model. The project is a collaboration between the Saudi university and the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Shenzhen, and the Shenzhen Research Institute of Big Data. 
  • Led by German computer scientist Jürgen Schmidhuber, the Kaust AI initiative is developing a powerful supercomputer, Shaheen III, which aims to provide 20 times more computing power than the current system. AceGPT is a chatbot trained in Arabic, Chinese, and English as an individual research project by a Kaust professor.
  • Kaust said that it had contracted Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) for the Shaheen III system. Both the university and HPE have reported that they have been monitoring and complying with U.S. export control regulations in order to deliver and operate the project. Kaust insists that access to Shaheen III is limited to the core labs system administrator and HPE teams. 
  • According to Kaust, 20 percent of students, 34 percent of post-doctoral researchers, and 9 percent of faculty members at the university are Chinese academics. The Financial Times report features conflicting details from Kaust regarding lower stipend payments for Chinese interns and students as well the nature of the work, including the testing of graphics processing units (GPUs) and sifting data among other rote work.

The Background: Saudi Arabia is leading efforts in the regional development of AI technology. It has been working on building large supercomputers and making large language models, the deep-computing technology that enables generative AI systems such as chatbots. The kingdom is aiming to compete with other AI companies and create models for Arabic speakers. U.S. and Western governments have been concerned about growing ties between the Gulf countries and China, especially technology transfer. The U.S. has increased its efforts to pull the Gulf states away from China by backing a rail and shipping corridor linking India and Europe through the Middle East. The U.S. has also expanded export license requirements for the most advanced Nvidia and AMD GPUs that remain critical in building AI. 

Likely Outcomes:

  • Saudi Arabia may use its role as a major oil producer as leverage to push the U.S. to provide the chips it needs for its AI and technological goals. This could be a powerful tool leading up to the next U.S. presidential election. It would be another instance of Riyadh playing upon the competition between Washington and Beijing to its own benefit. Saudi Arabia recently floated its consideration for a Chinese contract for a nuclear power program as a way to pressure the U.S. to act. 
  • The U.S. will likely try to find a way to deliver the technology that Saudi Arabia needs in order to maintain bilateral relations. It will, however, be inclined to seek more open dialogue and try to ink policy that will put guardrails on Saudi and broader Gulf cooperation on chips and computers in general. The Middle Eastern countries will probably be less enthusiastic about extra layers of red tape in the matter, but accept some degree of Western scrutiny in order to acquire the technology. 


"The US' move is aimed at great power competition with China, in an attempt to slow down China's development, and in doing so, it as a matter of fact restricts Saudi Arabia's development as well." – Li Haidong, professor at the China Foreign Affairs University

“Many people involved have raised their concerns to leadership about the Chinese relationships jeopardising the supercomputer. They don’t want to upset the US government.” – source familiar on the matter speaking to the Financial Times

Good Reads:

Saudi-China collaboration raises concerns about access to AI chips (FT)

US disruption of China-Saudi Arabia tech cooperation hurts both countries, global AI development: expert (Global Times)

America Can’t Stop China’s Rise (Foreign Policy)