Meta's new home in Dubai will change the Middle East

Bringing the company to the UAE is a chance to shape how cutting-edge social media operates in the region

Meta is coming to Dubai
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Meta, the company formerly known as Facebook, has astonishingly grand plans. Mark Zuckerberg, the firm's chief executive and one of the richest people in the world, has said it will build nothing less than the "future of social connections".

By using particularly sophisticated augmented reality – where people interact with 3D holograms, or "metamates", using headsets – it has already given the world memorable firsts. Last month, The National reported on an Indian couple who hosted Asia's first digital wedding. More than 2,000 people were invited to the Hogwarts-themed event, which allowed the hosts to overcome Covid-19 restrictions at the time.

There is a long way to go before such novelties become mainstream, if indeed they ever do. But even a smaller social shift involving the technology would be a historic change.

On Tuesday, in something of an irony, Meta opened a new office in the physical realm — its regional headquarters in Dubai. The site in Dubai Internet City will have more than 100 employees. At the opening, Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed, Crown Prince of Dubai, described the move as a reflection of the emirate becoming an increasingly diverse business destination, particularly in technological fields. Bloomberg Intelligence estimates that the metaverse market alone could be worth $800 billion by 2024. At the inauguration, Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Meta, said the UAE's "culture of innovation" matched Meta's ambitions.

The expansion of the presence of a major tech company will further insert the country into a global economy that is set to see strong growth in future-focused industries. It comes as many other efforts are being made to make the most of increased digitalisation. Just yesterday, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai, unveiled a new law to regulate virtual assets, the first of its kind.

More than the economy, growth in its tech sector also puts the UAE at the heart of a crucial discussion on how to make sure that increasingly sophisticated social media becomes only a force for good in the future. The conflict in Ukraine is a crucial moment to reflect on the huge benefits of social media, as well as its dangers. Families can stay in contact and life-saving information can be spread quickly because of it. At the same time, misinformation has never been easier to spread and the wrong type of information can be disseminated. For example, prisoners of war now risk having their faces beamed across the world to millions of people, something that endangers them and breaches their rights under the Geneva Conventions.

The Middle East also suffers from conflict and political instability, and stands to lose much if technology of the future is exploited to fuel division. An office in the region can and must focus on not only boosting its economy, then, but protecting its online presence, too.

Technological development from social media to artificial intelligence is inevitable. There is no turning back the clocks, even if some emerging trends appear worrying. But what the world does have is an opportunity to think hard about how governments, companies and consumers can steer it in the right direction. With a burgeoning tech sector, the UAE has the convening power for these global conversations, while also winning significant economic gains.

Published: March 10, 2022, 3:00 AM