Technology

Saudi Arabia is getting techie

BY Marc Morrison   /  6 March 2018

Autonomous transport systems, robotics and advanced artificial intelligence have long been a thing of science fiction.

In 2018 however, what were once wild visions of the future, are starting to feel increasingly possible.

Voice-controlled digital assistants are already being incorporated into a wide range of consumer products. Algorithms are being used to predict our cultural interests, and 3-D printing is now a reality.

With exponential increases in computing power and with the availability of vast more amounts of data, the way we live, work, and relate to one another could change very radically over the coming decades. Systems of production, management and governance could be transformed.

When you think about these possibilities, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia probably isn’t a country that comes immediately to mind.

Yet, late last year the Kingdom announced plans to build a new megacity of the future in its north-western desert. It is envisioned that the city, known as NEOM, will become a hub for manufacturing, renewable energy, biotechnology and entertainment, filled with skyscrapers and robots.

The ambitious project is part of Saudi Vision 2030, the Kingdom’s aspiring set of strategies to modernise Saudi society and create jobs in manufacturing, tourism, entertainment, healthcare and finance.

While the ambition is impressive, implementation is of course the big challenge. Turning Vison 2030 into reality will require a deep economic and socio-cultural restructuring of Saudi society.

What is clear is that Saudi Arabia is serious and is throwing everything at this.

That is certainly the firm impression I left with following a recent visit to the Kingdom, where I was able to meet some of the tech savvy advisors who – in support of the Kingdom’s charismatic 32-year-old Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman  – helped draft Vision 2030. Bin Salman, the energy behind the project, is in London this week, and will be given the full red carpet treatment by Whitehall. He  will join the Queen for dinner at Windsor Castle, before heading to No. 10 for a meeting with the PM.

There is, I was able to see, a determined political will to make Vision 2030 happen, and it’s built on a recognition that the current system of relying on oil revenues and foreign labour to support Saudi society is no longer sustainable. You could feel the sense of urgency to make a change.

Almost 60 per cent of Saudi nationals are below the age of 30, and they are part an economic system that does not create nearly enough jobs for them, a problem that would only – as more young Saudi’s reach working age – get worse if not addressed.

The proposals that have been set out respond very directly to this problem.

One of the specific ways in which Vision 2030 aims to spark investment and job creation is by encouraging greater female participation in the labour market.

Currently, Saudi women account for 60 per cent of graduates in the Kingdom, yet less than one in five are in work. Turning this around would be transformative and progress is underway to make it happen.

The government has expanded the list of sectors in which women can work to include pharmaceuticals, retail, hospitality, and law. A royal decree has officially relaxed guardianship laws to allow women to seek employment without the permission of their male guardian. Women will be allowed to drive from June of this year and, in recent months, the Saudi religious police, the bane of many Saudi women’s lives, have been steadily stripped of their powers.

During my time in Saudi Arabia, you could start to sense the impact of some of the changes being enacted. The Crown Prince and Vision 2030 seem to be on everybody’s lips, and a tangible sense of enthusiasm can be felt in urban areas.

I was able to visit a festival, on the outskirts of Riyadh, celebrating the Kingdom’s vibrant cultural diversity, where families mingled in the open evening air watching traditional music and dances being performed. That would have been unheard of a few years ago.

The trajectory therefore is positive. The hard work though still lies ahead.

During meetings I attended in Jeddah, members of the business community emphasised that turning Vision 2030 into a transformative reality will require international support and collaboration. They said that they wanted the Kingdom to become “a normal country”.

These were positive opinions to hear, and should be welcomed by those who are rightfully concerned about human and civil rights issues in Saud Arabia. The Kingdom will need to address international concerns, and if it is to play a full role in the globalised world, an engagement and dialogue with other counties should in tandem encourage this.

The UK – as a world leader across a range of sectors – is well placed to support reform in Saudi Arabia. There are also huge opportunities for new UK-Saudi partnerships – on defence and security, trade and the economy, education, healthcare, culture and sport.

Of course, not everybody in Saudi Arabia is likely to be happy about where the Kingdom is moving.

The reforms being introduced clearly challenge the implicit agreement that’s functioned in Saudi Arabia for decades, whereby the Saudi royal family has let society run under religious supervision. How this is managed remains something to look out for.

If the Saudi government however, is able to maintain the momentum it has generated in recent months, and work openly with the wider world, there is good reason to be cautiously optimistic that we could be looking at a more modern Saudi Arabia in fifteen years’ time.

Marc Morrison is Head of Policy at Conservative Middle East Council (CMEC)