Microsoft Makes High-Stakes Play in Tech Cold War With Emirati A.I. Deal

Microsoft on Tuesday plans to announce a $1.5 billion investment in G42, an artificial intelligence giant in the United Arab Emirates, in a deal largely orchestrated by the Biden administration to box out China as Washington and Beijing battle over who will exercise technological influence in the Gulf region and beyond.

Under the partnership, Microsoft will give G42 permission to sell Microsoft services that use powerful A.I. chips, which are used to train and fine-tune generative A.I. models. In return, G42, which has been under scrutiny by Washington for its ties to China, will use Microsoft’s cloud services and accede to a security arrangement negotiated in detailed conversations with the U.S. government. It places a series of protections on the A.I. products shared with G42 and includes an agreement to strip Chinese gear out of G42’s operations, among other steps.

“When it comes to emerging technology, you cannot be both in China’s camp and our camp,” said Gina Raimondo, the Commerce Secretary, who traveled twice to the U.A.E. to talk about security arrangements for this and other partnerships.

The accord is highly unusual, Brad Smith, Microsoft’s president, said in an interview, reflecting the U.S. government’s extraordinary concern about protecting the intellectual property behind A.I. programs.

“The U.S. is quite naturally concerned that the most important technology is guarded by a trusted U.S. company,” said Mr. Smith, who will take a seat on G42’s board.

The investment could help the United States push back against China’s rising influence in the Gulf region. If the moves succeed, G42 would be brought into the U.S. fold and pare back its ties with China. The deal could also become a model for how U.S. firms leverage their technological leadership in A.I. to lure countries away from Chinese tech, while reaping huge financial awards.

But the matter is sensitive, as U.S. officials have raised questions about G42. This year, a congressional committee wrote a letter urging the Commerce Department to look into whether G42 should be put under trade restrictions for its ties to China, which include partnerships with Chinese firms and employees who came from government-connected companies.

In an interview, Ms. Raimondo, who has been at the center of an effort to prevent China from obtaining the most advanced semiconductors and the equipment to make them, said the agreement “does not authorize the transfer of artificial intelligence, or A.I. models, or GPUs” — the processors needed to develop A.I. applications — and “assures those technologies can be safely developed, protected and deployed.”

While the U.A.E. and United States did not sign a separate accord, Ms. Raimondo said, “We have been extensively briefed and we are comfortable that this agreement is consistent with our values.”

In a statement, Peng Xiao, the group chief executive of G42, said that “through Microsoft’s strategic investment, we are advancing our mission to deliver cutting-edge A.I. technologies at scale.”

The United States and China have been racing to exert technological influence in the Gulf, where hundreds of billions of dollars are up for grabs and major investors, including Saudi Arabia, are expected to spend billions on the technology. In the rush to diversify away from oil, many leaders in the region have set their sights on A.I. — and have been happy to play the United States and China off each other.

Although the U.A.E. is an important U.S. diplomatic and intelligence partner, and one of the largest buyers of American weapons, it has increasingly expanded its military and economic ties with China. A portion of its domestic surveillance system is built on Chinese technology and its telecommunications work on hardware from Huawei, a Chinese supplier. That has fed the worries of U.S. officials, who often visit the Persian Gulf nation to discuss security issues.

But U.S. officials are also concerned that the spread of powerful A.I. technology critical to national security could eventually be used by China or by Chinese government-linked engineers, if not sufficiently guarded. Last month, a U.S. cybersecurity review board sharply criticized Microsoft over a hack in which Chinese attackers gained access to data from top officials. Any major leak — for instance, by G42 selling Microsoft A.I. solutions to companies set up in the region by China — would go against Biden administration policies that have sought to limit China’s access to the cutting-edge technology.

“This is among the most advanced technology that the U.S. possesses,” said Gregory Allen, a researcher at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former U.S. defense official who worked on A.I. “There should be very strategic rationale for offshoring it anywhere.”

For Microsoft, a deal with G42 offers potential access to huge Emirati wealth. The company, whose chairman is Sheikh Tahnoon bin Zayed, the Emirates’ national security adviser and the younger brother of the country’s ruler, is a core part of the U.A.E.’s efforts to become a major A.I. player.

Despite a name whimsically drawn from “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” in which the answer to the “ultimate question of life” is 42, G42 is deeply embedded in the Emirati security state. It specializes in A.I. and recently worked to build an Arabic chatbot, called Jais.

G42 is also focused on biotechnology and surveillance. Several of its executives, including Mr. Xiao, were associated with a company called DarkMatter, an Emirati cyber-intelligence and hacking firm that employs former spies.

In its letter this year, the bipartisan House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party said Mr. Xiao was connected to an expansive network of companies that “materially support” the Chinese military’s technological advancement.

The origins of Tuesday’s accord go back to White House meetings last year, when top national security aides raised the question with tech executives of how to encourage business arrangements that would deepen U.S. ties to firms around the world, especially those China is also interested in.

Under the agreement, G42 will cease using Huawei telecom equipment, which the United States fears could provide a backdoor for the Chinese intelligence agencies. The accord further commits G42 to seeking permission before it shares its technologies with other governments or militaries and prohibits it from using the technology for surveillance. Microsoft will also have the power to audit G42’s use of its technology.

G42 would get use of A.I. computing power in Microsoft’s data center in the U.A.E., sensitive technology that cannot be sold in the country without an export license. Access to the computing power would likely give G42 a competitive edge in the region. A second phase of the deal, which could prove even more controversial and has not yet been negotiated, could transfer some of Microsoft’s A.I. technology to G42.

American intelligence officials have raised concerns about G42’s relationship to China in a series of classified assessments, The New York Times previously reported. Biden administration officials have also pushed their Emirati counterparts to cut the company’s ties to China. Some officials believe the U.S. pressure campaign has yielded some results, but remain concerned about less overt ties between G42 and China.

One G42 executive previously worked at the Chinese A.I. surveillance company Yitu, which has extensive ties to China’s security services and runs facial-recognition powered monitoring across the country. The company has also had ties to a Chinese genetics giant, BGI, whose subsidiaries were placed on a blacklist by the Biden administration last year. Mr. Xiao also led a firm that was involved in 2019 in starting and operating a social media app, ToTok, that U.S. intelligence agencies said was an Emirati spy tool used to harvest user data.

In recent months, G42 has agreed to walk back some of its China ties, including divesting a stake it took in TikTok owner ByteDance and pulling out Huawei technology from its operations, according to U.S. officials.

Edward Wong contributed reporting.