New technology deals could set Saudi Arabia on a path to rapid innovation

1 / 2
Saudi Arabia has embarked on a major investment push into technology. (SPA)
2 / 2
Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud, Crown Prince, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, attends a meeting with the United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres (out of frame) at the United Nations on March 27, 2018 in New York. (AFP)
Updated 03 April 2018

New technology deals could set Saudi Arabia on a path to rapid innovation

LONDON: Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is expected to meet technology titans in the US over the next week, as the Kingdom embarks on a technology-driven economic transformation.
Saudi Arabia has embarked on a major investment push into technology, which includes a $3.5 billion deal with Uber in 2016 and the creation of a massive tech fund with Japan’s SoftBank Group.
The crown prince’s two-and-a-half-week official tour of the US includes a push for Amazon to consider working with the Saudi Energy Ministry to build a data center in the country, as well as digitization services for national oil giant Aramco, Bloomberg reported.
“After the recent announcement regarding the Vision Fund’s investment in the world’s biggest solar power project in Saudi Arabia, international analysts are on the edge of their seats in anticipation of what might happen during the crown prince’s visit to Silicon Valley,” Wes Schwalje, COO of research firm Tahseen Consulting, told Arab News.
“We’ll likely see some big announcements regarding partnerships between flagship Saudi companies and government entities and prominent tech start-ups in the artificial intelligence (AI), robotics and autonomous vehicle sectors.”
Schwalje said he expects to see more partnerships announced that support the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 social and economic diversification blueprint.
“For example, during the crown prince’s UK visit a deal was signed with Medopad and Johnson & Johnson to utilize artificial intelligence to complement the Kingdom’s current initiatives to digitize health care as part of the National Transformation Program,” said Schwalje.
Scott Lucas, professor of international politics at the University of Birmingham, said the crown prince’s US meetings with tech titans also have strong PR value and reflect the Kingdom’s technological ambitions.
Transforming Saudi Arabia into the next Silicon Valley is a “big ask,” but “it’s never too late to get into the game of technology,” Lucas said. “If you don’t get into digital, you’ll get left behind.”
Saudi Arabia faces a major challenge in developing a domestic technology industry, he said. “The Kingdom has faced this type of problem before, when it had to get the oil and gas out of the ground,” he added.
“How did they do it, and how did they get the skills and technology to do it? They worked with partners. But when it comes to a digital economy, how do you get it? Where do you buy it?”
John David Lovelock, chief global forecaster at IT research firm Gartner, said: “If Saudi Arabia wants to be the Silicon Valley of the Middle East, it will need to provide access to skilled labor, as well as the ability to support this labor. It will also need strong IT regulations, reliable energy and good internet.
“The tech recruitment strategy has to be approached in multiple ways. You can’t train up the workforce as quickly as you need them, but then again you can’t create an entirely imported force.
“You have to have some skin in the game. Silicon Valley has a mix of imported and home-grown talent.”
It is not too late to create a global technology hub, Lovelock said. “There are three tech areas that don’t yet have a recognized global hub: The Internet of Things, AI and digital business.
“No one country has yet claimed the global crown for AI. There are many countries that would like to claim the crown, but at the moment it’s not settled,” Lovelock said.
“I’d advise any country now to focus on becoming a tech hub as the market is growing and growing.”

Saudi pursuit of ‘green Kingdom’ goal gets a boost

Updated 18 November 2019

Saudi pursuit of ‘green Kingdom’ goal gets a boost

  • Agreement between agriculture ministry and Dubai's ICBA aimed at conserving natural resources
  • Kingdom's biosaline agriculture research and systems stands to benefit from ICBA's expertise

DUBAI: Agricultural development and environmental sustainability in Saudi Arabia will receive a boost in the coming years, thanks to a new agreement between the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA) in Dubai and the Saudi Ministry of Environment, Water and Agriculture.

The agreement aims to enable Saudi Arabia to achieve its goal of preservation and sustainable management of its natural resources by raising the quality of biosaline agriculture research and systems.

The ministry says that the agreement will make use of the ICBA’s expertise in capacity development besides agricultural and environmental research, especially in the fields of vegetation development, combating desertification and climate change adaptation.

“It also includes training programs for Saudi technicians and farmers,” the ministry said. “In addition, it will localize, implement and develop biosaline agriculture research and production systems for both crops and forestation, which contributes to environmental and agricultural integration.”

Dr. Ismahane Elouafi, the ICBA’s director general, told Arab News: “The agreement had been in the making for about two years. That was when we were approached by the Saudi government.”

Dr. Ismahane Elouafi, ICBA Director General, at the center's Quinoa fields in Dubai. (Supplied photo)

She said: “We put forward a proposal to demonstrate how the ICBA can help the Saudi government to implement its Green Kingdom Initiative, through which the ministry is trying to restore green coverage in the country and revive old conservation practices.”

Geographical features and climatic conditions very greatly from one part of the country to the other.

In the past, experimentation with such crops as potatoes, wheat and alfalfa proved detrimental to the Kingdom’s environment and natural resources due to faster rates of groundwater withdrawal.

“The ministry wanted to put a halt to over-abstraction of water, so they went through different policies,” Elouafi said.

“They made sure, for example, that farmers stopped producing wheat because about 2,400 liters of water is consumed to produce 1 kg of wheat. It was a huge amount,” she added.

“The new strategy is to find more appropriate crops for the farming community, which is quite large in the Kingdom.”

Saudi Arabia has been trying to grow its own food on a large scale since the 1980s. 

The objective of the Green Kingdom Initiative is to reduce the agricultural sector’s water demand by finding alternatives to thirsty crops.

The agreement will require the ICBA, over the next five years, to build for Saudi Arabia a new biosaline agriculture sector. 

As part of this shift, cultivation of a number of crops, notably quinoa, pearl millet and sorghum, will be piloted in high-salinity regions and then scaled up.

“The crops did very well in the UAE,” Elouafi said. “We’re looking at Sabkha regions, which have very high salinity and wetlands, and are on the ministry’s environmental agenda.”

Another objective is “smart” agriculture, which will involve raising water productivity, controlling irrigation water consumption and changing farming behavior.

Elouafi said that getting farmers in the Kingdom to stop cultivating wheat took some time as they had become accustomed to heavy government subsidies. In 2015, wheat production was phased out, followed by potatoes a year later and then alfalfa. 

“Farmers were provided everything to the point where they got used to a very good income and a very easy system,” she said.

“Now farmers are being asked to start producing something else, but the income won’t be the same, so it’s very important at this stage that the ministry has a plan and it’s fully understood.”

The agreement envisages preparation of proposals for ministry projects that involve plant production, drought monitoring, development of promising local crop and forestation varieties, and conservation of plant genetic resources.

“We’re also discussing capacity building because the ministry is big and has many entities. Because Saudi Arabia is a large country and has the capacity to meet some of its food requirements internally, what’s required is a better understanding of the country’s natural capabilities in terms of production of the crops it needs, like certain cereals,” Elouafi said.

“The way the authorities are going about it right now is more organized and more holistic. They’re trying to plan it properly.”

Elouafi said that having a better understanding of Saudi Arabia’s water constraints and managing the precious resource is essential.


Although almost the entire country is arid, there is rainfall in the north and along the mountain range to the west, especially in the far southwest, which receives monsoon rains in summer.


Sporadic rain may also occur elsewhere. Sometimes it is very heavy, causing serious flooding, including in Riyadh.

“They (the government) are very interested in drought management systems. The Kingdom has a long history of agriculture,” Elouafi said.

“It has large quantities of water in terms of rainfall, and certain regions have mountainous conditions, which are conducive to agriculture.”

Clearly, preservation of water resources is a priority for the Saudi government. But no less urgent is the task of conversion of green waste to improve soil quality, increase soil productivity and water retention, and reduce demand for irrigation.

The Kingdom is one of at least three Gulf Cooperation Council countries that are taking steps to develop a regulatory framework for the recycling of waste into compost.

Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Oman are respectively aiming to recycle 85 percent, 75 percent and 60 percent of their municipal solid waste over the next decade, according to a report by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) entitled “Global Food Trends to 2030.”

Saudi Arabia and the UAE rank in the bottom quartile of the 34 countries covered by the EIU’s Food Sustainability Index, with low scores for nutrition and food loss and waste. 

The answer, according to many farmers, policymakers and food-industry experts, is a shift toward more sustainable management of each country’s natural resources.