Saudi entrepreneurs gear up for a high-tech future

The Kingdom has set up public and private entities, including Monshaat, King Abdullah University of Science and Technology and MISK Academy, which offer events and funding to promote technology. (AN photo by Ziyad Alarfaj)
Updated 01 December 2019

Saudi entrepreneurs gear up for a high-tech future

  • Saudi Arabia is pushing for a growing role for technology in the SME sector
  • The Kingdom is aiming to reduce its unemployment rate to 7 percent by 2030

DUBAI: Silicon Valley, a cluster of cities in the southern part of the San Francisco Bay Area in California, is synonymous with technology startups and businesses that have changed the world.

Apple, for instance, posted a net income of $55.26 billion in 2019, compared with $3.5 billion in 2007 when it first released its iPhone 1, according to a report by Statista, a leading provider of market and consumer data.

This manifold jump in income in a span of just 22 years makes Apple a major contributor to US economic growth. A 2018 report by Apple predicted that the company would contribute $350 billion to the US economy over the next five years.

Today, Saudi Arabia, which was responsible for 16.1 percent of global oil exports in 2018, is pushing for a growing role for technology in small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) with a view to positioning itself as a regional center of high technology and innovation.

Vision 2030, a reform program aimed at diversifying Saudi Arabia away from oil dependency and creating new-economy jobs for a young population, has made it possible to imagine such a transition.

A new set of objectives have been given to captains of the SME sector aimed at making it a vital contributor to the country’s economy by lifting its contribution to the GDP from 20 percent to 35 percent by 2030.

TECHFACTS

  • Saudi Arabia aims to become a regional center of hi-tech and innovation by 2030.
  • A number of public and private entities are offering funds, loans and investments to tech SMEs.
  • Second quarter of 2019 showed unemployment rate of 12.3 percent (General Authority for Statistics).
  • Edu-tech startup Noon Academy raised $8.6 million in Series A investment round this year.

One way for Saudi Arabia to achieve this target is by using technology in small businesses, entrepreneurs say, adding that not only does technology help to attract investors, but it also increases job opportunities and raises competitiveness between SMEs and corporations.

“Tech investments — major and minor — have come out of Saudi Arabia since Silicon Valley was in its early days. It is actually one of the longest-standing investor-investee relationships,” said Prince Khaled bin Alwaleed bin Talal Al-Saud, founder of KBW Investments and KBW Ventures and co-founder of the property developer Arada.

The Kingdom has established a number of public and private entities — Monshaat, King Abdullah University of Science and Technology and MISK Academy, to name just three — that offer funds, loans and investments.

Speaking to Arab News on the sidelines of the recent Sharjah Entrepreneurship Festival, Prince Khaled said that it is not always possible to get an angel investor or an entity to invest in a business as investors look for unique ideas and business viability.

One way for an entrepreneur to attract the attention of investors is by establishing a business that responds to clients faster than other tech companies.




Prince Khaled bin Alwaleed bin Talal Al-Saud, founder of KBW Investments and KBW Ventures and co-founder of the property developer Arada. (Supplied)

Another element that helps entrepreneurs create partnerships with investors is transparency.

“I think consistent communication not only improves relationships,” he said. “It also prevents any misunderstanding that could arise.”

Fadi Al-Awami, an SMEs and entrepreneurship consultant, said that investors are interested in technologies that offer solutions to existing problems and have the potential for geographical expansion into other markets.

“Also, the return on investment should be very attractive. There should be a clear exit strategy or at least a strategy for making high profit,” he said in an interview at the Sharjah Entrepreneurship Festival.

Investing in SMEs allows companies to expand, thus creating job opportunities.

SMEs make up about 90 percent of enterprises and account for more than 50 percent of employment worldwide, according to a World Bank report. The fact that “600 million jobs will be needed by 2030 to absorb the growing global workforce makes nurturing an SME ecosystem a priority for governments around the world.”

According to the Saudi government’s General Authority for Statistics, the second quarter of 2019 showed an unemployment rate of 12.3 percent. The aim by 2030 is to lower the unemployment rate to 7 percent, according to a Vision 2030 report.

Prince Khaled gave an example of how tech SMEs can help to generate jobs. He said that if an entrepreneur decides to create a line of wooden toys and sells them on Instagram, he or she will need supplies to create the products, such as wood, tools and so on.

“That wood is collected by someone, potentially refined down to sellable stock by another, and maybe delivered by yet another,” he said.




Fadi Al-Awami, SMEs and entrepreneurship consultant, below: Investors are interested in technologies that have the potential for geographical expansion into other markets. (Supplied)

Imagine now that the entrepreneur decides to get help with Instagram ad buying. This may require an arrangement with another freelancer. They might even get busy and big enough to engage a small social media agency and, later, a web developer for e-commerce, said Prince Khaled.

Al-Awami said that Saudi entrepreneurs are already using technology in their businesses. He pointed to a number of tech-business success stories inside the Kingdom: “Ten Saudi startups have been chosen among the most promising Arab startups at the World Economic Forum for this year.”

Tech Pills, Foodics, HalalaH, Lucidya, Mrsool, HungerStation, Morni and Noon Academy are examples of recent entrants to the nascent Saudi tech-business field.

Al-Awami cites Noon Academy as an example of an educational platform that is considered one of the fastest growing on-demand ed-tech startups in the Middle East, with more than two million registered students.

The company raised $8.6 million in a Series A investment round this year and was chosen as one of the most promising startups in the Arab world at the World Economic Forum, according to Al-Awami.

Prince Khaled said that women and men in Saudi Arabia are ready to break ground in emerging technologies as many of the startups employ intelligent and imaginative Saudis.

“This is how the entrepreneurs of our country can increase everything from community engagement and employment rates to inclusion.”

Although Saudi Arabia is steadily becoming more entrepreneur-friendly, SMEs still have to put up with slow and cumbersome administrative processes, according to a Vision 2030 report.

The good news is that the Kingdom has begun to address these challenges and, according to Prince Khaled, there is burgeoning government support for the SME ecosystem.

“You can get mentorship, incubation, acceleration, partnerships, grants, investments — literally everything you may need to jumpstart your venture,” he said.

Entrepreneurs who establish tech enterprises that can help to develop or secure the Kingdom’s main source of income are likely to succeed. Al-Awami said that entrepreneurs should focus on technology in the oil and gas sector.

“I think there are still great opportunities to support this sector by providing innovative solutions involving the use of technology,” he said, underscoring opportunities for cybersecurity companies in a country where the oil and gas sector accounts for about 50 percent of its GDP and about 70 percent of its export earnings.

Investors and entrepreneurs say small businesses contribute to any local economy, and that Saudi Arabia is no exception. They help to stimulate economic growth by offering job opportunities to individuals who are not selected by larger corporations.

Al-Awami said that he advises aspiring entrepreneurs to be committed and passionate about what they are doing. They should offer solutions, not just a product or service, and they must always think how to improve their customers’ experience.

 


Richard Bodeker: Ambassador of Green in Saudi Arabia

Updated 06 December 2019

Richard Bodeker: Ambassador of Green in Saudi Arabia

  • German landscape architect’s passion — to turn Saudi Arabia into a lush garden — became his mission

RIYADH: For 46 years, Richard Bodeker was devoted to turning Saudi Arabia into a lush garden. The architect landscaper recently passed away, but his green print lives on as he is celebrated for his loving work.

Gardening runs deep in the family as both he and his wife’s family are in the profession. Bodeker considered himself blessed because he could do what he loved, working with plants and creating gardens.

“He developed a real love of Saudi Arabia as his favorite country and created many lifelong friendships in the Kingdom,” Bodeker’s son, Jens Bodeker, told Arab News.

His relationship with Saudi clients was special. They had a great mutual understanding, said his son. One of those special relationships was with Prince Sultan bin Salman, chairman of the Saudi Space Commission. Bodeker landscaped his Al-Uthaibat Ranch in Diriyah.

“He opened the doors to all his friends, clients, colleagues and partners in Saudi Arabia. Most of his contacts became close friends to me, too,” Jens said.

Saudi Arabia honored the late Bodeker and his works when the minister of culture, Prince Badr Al-Farhan, named a park in Riyadh’s diplomatic quarter after the talented landscaper.

Creativity is key and he was never daunted by developing a green oasis in the midst of a desert capital. “As a plant lover, he was impressed by the survival strategies of desert plants. Acacia trees can develop 50-meter-deep roots to get water, for example. He was convinced to be able to water the trees by treated greywater which is produced by each citizen. So, each citizen could irrigate a tree by using water in the house,” Jens said.


THE LIST

Richard Bodeker projects in Saudi Arabia:

  • ‘Initiative Green’ developing a greening strategy for the city in the 1990s
  • Diriyah Mosque landscape design
  • King Fahd Road, the green corridor 
  • MOMRA, park and roof greening
  • Ministry of Foreign Affairs staff housing
  • Court complex
  • King Abdul Aziz Historical Center parks and gardens
  • First ideas for King Salman Park, at that time Riyadh Public Park in the 1980s of last century
  • Thumamah Nature Park
  • Wadi Hanifah and Wadi Sulai as green lungs of Riyadh
  • Many private farms for members of the Royal family and many other clients
  • Initiation of a tree nursery for the Riyadh Development Authority
  • Regional park in Al-Hofuf,Jebel Qara

His vision to make use of the materials that can be found in nature with his strategy of “cut and fill,” in which he would cut Riyadh limestone and build a garden out of it. He maintained sustainability by using local sources for construction material. His approach was to create garden oases with local materials in respect of the site and the local culture, his son explained.

Bodeker’s passion was ramped with a desire to turn the desert capital into a green sanctuary. “He possessed strength, persuasiveness and the ability to assert himself to even fight for green, gardens and uncommon ideas. This passion made him an ambassador for green in the Kingdom,” he added.

Passion for his profession was the secret of his success: “Gardens and plants have been his lifelong loves,” said Jens, adding that “the creation of gardens was his real mission.”

 

Like father, like son 

Following his fathers’ footsteps, he inherited his passion and love for this country and landscape design from his father: “I feel the same passion when it comes to greening the country to work with nature and to follow nature in design,” he said.

“He shared his professional knowledge and passion for this country ... with me. The respect for tradition and culture in landscape design was essential,” he added.

“His passion for landscape design, especially the challenge to green the desert set me on fire and carries me to continue what he started. His focus laid on local material, like the Riyadh limestone and plants for arid regions to create lush garden oases.”

Of all his unique designs, Islamic gardens were the most symbolic. Jens explained: “Islamic gardens mirror paradise on earth with water, fruits and lush greens. He wanted to respond to this in his garden design works. Bodeker always saw gardens and green as the most important element in Riyadh.”

In 1993, Bodeker started the “Initiative Green,” which was Jens’ most significant influence.

The secret to great success is working with nature in environments, like the desert with its valleys, oases, escarpments, sand dunes and rock plains, he added.

“In Thumamah Nature Park, one can see the impact of land protection. The park is much greener than any landscape in the surroundings without that protection, just by fencing, nature recovers slowly,” Jens said.

“My part is to give my contribution to developing the landscape and environment for the better and give nature a chance. I will follow in his footsteps and will stand up for green as an ambassador for green environments, parks and gardens.”

From childhood, he and his brother had been strongly influenced by gardening and landscape design. For many years they worked together with their father. It was not always easy to work with him because his father had “a strong personality.” However, he noted that he found his own path which he learned through discussions and debates “to find my own place next to him.”