Majority of Saudi companies gearing up for future with AI technology: Business report

Thamer Al Harbi, president of Microsoft Arabia, addresses a press conference in Riyadh. (AN photo)
Updated 18 June 2019

Majority of Saudi companies gearing up for future with AI technology: Business report

  • 89 percent of Saudi businesses indicated AI to be an important consideration of executive management — study
  • Kingdom well-positioned to “leapfrog” other countries in the race toward digital transformation

RIYADH: Companies in Saudi Arabia are gearing up to take advantage of the latest advances in artificial intelligence (AI), according to an in-depth regional business report.

Although firms in the Kingdom remain wary of committing major investment to the emerging technology, many are already implementing data improvement initiatives to prepare for an AI-enabled future.

New research revealed on Tuesday that 89 percent of Saudi businesses indicated AI to be an important consideration of executive management, with predictive technology seen as the most relevant application by 79 percent of companies who took part in the survey.

And experts believe the Kingdom is well-positioned to “leapfrog” other countries in the race toward achieving the goals of the Saudi Vision 2030 reform plan.

According to the AI maturity report covering the Middle East and Africa, commissioned by Microsoft and conducted by Ernst & Young (EY), the Saudi business community is keeping up to speed on developments.

Releasing the report to the media, Thamer Al-Harbi, president of Microsoft Arabia, said: “Saudi Arabian businesses are taking a keen interest in AI from a strategic viewpoint. This bodes well for the future of the technology within the Kingdom as AI maturity begins with executives identifying business problems that need to be solved.

“Saudi companies are gearing up to take their AI agenda to the next level and moving forward by leveraging AI technology in alignment with the National Transformation Program 2020 toward achieving Vision 2030.

“Although they are still near the beginning of the maturity curve, they are well-positioned to leverage global experience in AI, which could ultimately enable them to leapfrog other countries in the next few years,” added Al-Harbi.

Despite AI activity having been relatively quiet in Saudi Arabia over the past 10 years, with a total investment of around $585 million, the Kingdom emerged strongly again in 2018, said the report.

Across industries, there was a significant buzz around the topic of AI, with 42 percent of companies reporting that conversations on the subject were already taking place at non-managerial levels, the highest percentage recorded by any country in the Middle East and Africa, Al-Harbi said.

AI development, though in its earliest stages, is underway. At least 26 percent of businesses reported that they were planning AI activity, while at the same time actively investing in relevant skills.

Pockets of excellence were also shown to be emerging, with 16 percent of companies saying AI was already contributing significantly to their business processes.

While Saudi executives intuitively sense the value of AI, they are conscious that getting too caught up in the hype might blind them to the dangers of investing in technology that is only just starting to demonstrate its commercial value.

As it stands, the main concern for businesses in implementing AI is the diffusion of their resources.

The report found that at least 32 percent of firms in the Kingdom were cautious of spreading their budgetary and human resources too thin, and that the primary focus for most was digitization. Although 37 percent of respondents viewed AI as an important priority, it was not at the top of their list.

Instead, they were actively building the infrastructure needed for digital transformation, starting with good-quality data.

Steve Plimsoll, MENA data and intelligence advisory leader for EY, said: “The biggest problem to date with AI is that it is not always right. AI has given us the ability to make data-driven predictions, decisions and actions faster than ever before, but it is only as effective as the data and algorithms it relies on.

“So, while it’s great to see local companies investing in adoption of AI, the focus must be on building trust that the underlying data and algorithms are reliable, the models ethical and the predictions are measurable and as accurate as they can be. Without trust, AI will never fully move from fiction into reality.”

The report also revealed that in general, Saudi businesses were upbeat about the future impact of AI on their businesses and 37 percent expected it to impact their core business to a very high degree.

Those quizzed were particularly positive about the potential of AI to assist employees in executing their daily functions more effectively.

Currently, prediction was seen as the most relevant application of AI for 79 percent of Saudi companies, with organizations using AI to predict risk and fraud or combining it with intelligent automation to assign workloads to individuals, ultimately optimizing business processes, the report said.

The study added that 68 percent of respondents indicated that automation was one of the most relevant applications of AI in their pursuit of operational efficiency.


TheFace: Deema Al-Jaafari, Saudi entrepreneur

Updated 34 min 15 sec ago

TheFace: Deema Al-Jaafari, Saudi entrepreneur

  • I truly believe that if you set limits to your abilities you will never be able to exceed them
  • I founded Teak Woodwork in Alkhobar which has extended its services to cities including Jeddah and Riyadh

For nine years, I was the only child in my family. My father was a very independent, strong character and I learned a lot from him.

Having started from zero, he taught me to work hard, seek perfection and always believe that anything was possible if you set your mind to it. 

My mother was very easy going and encouraging. She really believed in me and was always supportive. There was a balance at home for me with these two different characters.

Some people might think that being an only child for quite some time, I was spoiled and dependent. But that was never the case and I have an amazing relationship with my little sister Maha; she is my best friend.

My father works in pharmaceuticals and is chairman of the board of directors at Al-Dawaa Medical Services.

My mother was a schoolteacher before entering the world of business, and my sister is a chemical engineer. Though we are a very diverse family, we all have an appreciation for art which is evident in our household. My mother is an artist and art collector too.

I do not have a role model; there are many people I look up to in the business world and in my social life. 

I studied software engineering and worked in that field for almost a year, but although I learnt a lot I wanted more from my career. Software engineering made me think and solve problems in a different way and it played a major role in how I operate in the field of business.

I worked at Al-Dawaa for almost two years and found that I was more attracted to business and marketing than the technical side of things. That is when I decided to take on the family business, Waleed Al-Jaafari Establishment.

I run PIECES, a retail store I founded in Alkhobar in 2012 and later opened a branch in Riyadh in 2014. Now, we are working to make it an online business too.

I noticed that there was a demand in the Kingdom for custom-made furniture, and although some stores offered the service there was little choice. So, I decided to provide high-quality furniture made in Saudi Arabia.

In 2015 I founded Teak Woodwork in Alkhobar which has extended its services to cities including Jeddah and Riyadh. My father has other branches dealing with different fields, but I opted to run the retail store and woodwork services. 

I truly believe that if you set limits to your abilities you will never be able to exceed them. Once you realize that there are no limits, all doors will open for you.