Saudi Arabia has long recognised the need to diversify its economy and minimise its exposure to fluctuations in the world’s appetite for oil, and one major move in this aim was made in 2016, when the Kingdom launched Vision 2030, a statement of what the country should strive to become by the year 2030. The plan consists of three pillars: a vibrant society, a thriving economy and an ambitious nation.
For Vision 2030, a vibrant society is “a society in which every citizen enjoys a happy, fulfilling lifestyle complemented by a standard of living which provides a safe and secure environment for families, and access to world-class healthcare and education”. The plan also encourages citizens to be proud of their national identity and respect their cultural heritage – and to live by the Islamic principle of moderation.
The thriving economy pillar is about aligning the education system with market needs, making sure young people acquire the skills they’ll need in the future and creating opportunities for small and large businesses to hire young people.
And finally, Vision 2030 sees an ambitious nation as one that is efficient and responsible at all levels. The plan aims to build “an effective, transparent, accountable, enabling and high-performing government”. An ambitious nation is, after all, needed to deliver the vision.
To meet its big goals, the Kingdom has launched economic reforms to support the private sector and improve services to individuals and businesses. The plan aims to make private companies, both large and small, the main drivers of the economy. To this end, the government has launched a series of programmes, and created funds, incubators and accelerators, to help grow a healthy ecosystem of innovative startups.
In the context of Vision 2030, Saudi Arabia has recently expressed the goal of becoming one of the most technologically advanced economies in the world, and committed to raising its investment in research, development and innovation to the level of 2.5% of GDP by 2040. The country is forecasting that by 2030, it will have a $16bn return on the funds it is already investing into research, development and innovation.
The government has launched several initiatives to help reach its lofty goal of becoming one of the most technologically advanced economies in the world. One major project is the Saudi Vision Cable, which will be the first high-capacity submarine cable in the Red Sea. The cable, which is owned by Saudi Telecommunication Company (stc), will span over one million meters, and provide up to 18Tbps per fibre pair, with a total of 16 fibre pairs.
Olayan bin Mohammed Alwetaid, group CEO of stc, told Arab News at the launching ceremony on 28 August 2022: “This achievement reflects our comprehensive strategy that aims to diversify the group’s investment opportunities and support digital transformation in the Kingdom by boosting the digital infrastructure.
“The cable will provide digital connectivity services for corporates and individuals in Saudi Arabia and the rest of the continents by building a regional digital hub connecting the continents of the globe and help meet the needs of companies and customers via an integrated digital ecosystem.”
Another area of investment is in artificial intelligence (AI), with the creation of the Saudi Data and AI Authority (SDAIA) on 30 August 2019. The SDAIA has set up 250 data-sharing services and integrated 130 government systems in the national data catalogue.
As is usually the case, the government likes to develop local talent as much as possible. To this end, the SDAIA has launched a series of initiatives to help young people develop skills in AI – including bootcamps, such as the Sawaher Bootcamp, which offers intensive training in AI-driven surveillance camera systems. Another initiative is the Neom Challenge, which encourages students from Saudi universities to propose AI offerings for the Neom smart city to help in three areas: energy, transportation and entertainment.
The Kingdom has also launched an open data programme to increase collaboration and enable a data-driven economy. It aims to foster better data governance and regulatory clarity, among other things.
Healthcare and technology
Of course, technology and healthcare go hand in hand in the modern world. And applying technology to the healthcare sector helps Saudi Arabia fulfil the vision of its first pillar – a vibrant society. Now, 90% of patients receive emergency care within four hours of arrival in a hospital or other facility. This milestone was reached through digital transformation of emergency care services.
A Drug Track and Trace system was created to control and verify the safety of medicines, using technology to track and trace all medicinal drugs that are either manufactured in the Kingdom or imported. The objectives of the system are to make reliable drug data available to consumers and eliminate pharmaceutical fraud.
Two patient-centric apps were developed to help people access healthcare services. The Sehha App was created to provide remote care to users. The app was launched in March 2017, and as of 2020, provided around 2.1 million consultations to 1.6 million users. The Mawid app helps users schedule appointments at primary healthcare centres. It was launched in April 2018, and as of 2020, helped around 14.3 million beneficiaries book more than 67 million appointments.
Seven years ago, Saudi Arabia started on its journey towards Vision 2030, and seven years remain. It’s hard to measure the progress against stated goals, but clearly the country has come a long way – at least in terms of technological change. This is evidenced by the fact that the UN’s International Telecommunication Union recently ranked Saudi Arabia fourth globally in its readiness of digital systems.