Saudi Arabia now employing 2m people in booming retail sector, says labor minister

Minister of Labor and Social Development Ahmad Al-Rajhi speaks at Retail Leaders Circle MENA Summit in Riyadh. (Photo/ Invest Saudi Twitter page)
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Updated 12 February 2020

Saudi Arabia now employing 2m people in booming retail sector, says labor minister

  • The Saudi government had given the retail sector considerable attention through numerous economic reforms aimed at supporting the sector

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia was gearing up to meet the future challenges of the booming retail sector which currently employs more than 2 million people in the Kingdom, the country’s labor minister revealed on Tuesday.

Speaking at a major international conference of top retailers, being held in Riyadh, Saudi Minister of Labor and Social Development Ahmad Al-Rajhi said the number of people working in the sector represented a quarter of the total workforce in the country’s private sector.

In his opening keynote speech on the second day of the Retail Leaders Circle (RLC) MENA Summit, the minister said: “The Kingdom currently employs more than 2 million males and females in the retail sector, and they constitute more than 25 percent of the total workforce in the private sector in Saudi Arabia.

“This number of workers has been increasing due to the country’s strong purchasing power and growing consumption rate.”

He added that the Saudi government had given the retail sector considerable attention through numerous economic reforms aimed at supporting the sector and creating an environment that appealed to investors.

Al-Rajhi told delegates that the retail sector faced many challenges in the form of rapid technological advances, digital transformation, and the trend to optimize consumption and provide convenience to customers through e-commerce and smartphone apps.

However, the challenges also presented opportunities for the creation of new jobs, he said, and it was important that the workforce was reskilled or upskilled accordingly to take advantage.

“The ministry is working to develop the necessary legislation for new business patterns and to empower employers and employees to keep pace with technological changes which will be reflected in enabling the retail sector to keep pace with its future requirements to become more effective in achieving the aspirations of the Saudi Vision 2030,” Al-Rajhi added.

He noted that the ministry had established a new state-owned firm, the Future Work Co., to support the developments and make the Kingdom a pioneer in the manufacturing of innovative, unconventional, yet sustainable future business patterns.

“We are working on enabling and developing human capital with the skills and technological advances related to the retail sector to ease their participation in the labor market and have launched apprenticeship programs to bridge the gap between business owners and job seekers.”

The ministry supported the retail sector through a range of initiatives, he said. One example was Qiwa, which had involved the automation and simplification of ministry services provided to the private sector through a unified platform, allowing Qiwa enterprises to issue instant work visas.

Addressing the summit, the minister pointed out that one of the main principles of Vision 2030 was to increase the participation of women in the labor market and qualify them for leadership positions.

The share of women in the labor market had risen to 25 percent in the third quarter of 2019, which was higher than the target of 24 percent expected to be achieved by 2020, he added.   

Speaking on the disruptive role of financial technology (fintech) in today’s instant, digital world, Ahmad Alanazi, chief executive officer of STC Pay, said: “In the past, we were innovation takers and adapters, but today we are becoming innovation creators and distributors.”

Praising Vision 2030, Renuka Jagtiani, chairperson of multinational consumer conglomerate Landmark Group, said: “I think 2030 as a vision is amazing and to be a part of it is very exciting.

“As a footprint, we are really proud that we have over 7,000 Saudi co-workers in our business, and 70 percent of them are women.”

Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority (SAGIA) Gov. Ibrahim Al-Omar, in his closing remarks to the summit, said: “Hosting RLC MENA 2020 comes at a time of great change for Saudi Arabia. Our growing economy is unlocking remarkable potential across many sectors and creating jobs within the Kingdom.”

The sixth edition of the summit, which unites powerful industry leaders, innovators and decision-makers to share global insights and best practice, was hosted for the first time in Saudi Arabia and concluded on Tuesday.

Previously held in Dubai, this year’s conference included more than 50 speakers who highlighted ways to shape the future of the retail industry. Day two of the summit took an in-depth look at consumer behavior and explored how retailers could meet customer expectations.

Man vs. machine in bid to beat virus

Updated 20 February 2020

Man vs. machine in bid to beat virus

  • Human and artificial intelligence are racing ahead to detect and control outbreaks of infectious disease

BOSTON: Did an artificial-intelligence system beat human doctors in warning the world of a severe coronavirus outbreak in China?

In a narrow sense, yes. But what the humans lacked in sheer speed, they more than made up in finesse.

Early warnings of disease outbreaks can help people and governments to save lives. In the final days of 2019, an AI system in Boston sent out the first global alert about a new viral outbreak in China. But it took human intelligence to recognize the significance of the outbreak and then awaken response from the public health community.

What’s more, the mere mortals produced a similar alert only a half-hour behind the AI systems.

For now, AI-powered disease-alert systems can still resemble car alarms — easily triggered and sometimes ignored. A network of medical experts and sleuths must still do the hard work of sifting through rumors to piece together the fuller picture. It is difficult to say what future AI systems, powered by ever larger datasets on outbreaks, may be able to accomplish.

The first public alert outside China about the novel coronavirus came on Dec. 30 from the automated HealthMap system at Boston Children’s Hospital. At 11:12 p.m. local time, HealthMap sent an alert about unidentified pneumonia cases in the Chinese city of Wuhan. The system, which scans online news and social media reports, ranked the alert’s seriousness as only 3 out of 5. It took days for HealthMap researchers to recognize its importance.

Four hours before the HealthMap notice, New York epidemiologist Marjorie Pollack had already started working on her own public alert, spurred by a growing sense of dread after reading a personal email she received that evening.

“This is being passed around the internet here,” wrote her contact, who linked to a post on the Chinese social media forum Pincong. The post discussed a Wuhan health agency notice and read in part: “Unexplained pneumonia???”

Pollack, deputy editor of the volunteer-led Program for Monitoring Emerging Diseases, known as ProMed, quickly mobilized a team to look into it. ProMed’s more detailed report went out about 30 minutes after the terse HealthMap alert.

Early warning systems that scansocial media, online news articles and government reports for signs of infectious disease outbreaks help inform global agencies such as the World Health Organization — giving international experts a head start when local bureaucratic hurdles and language barriers might otherwise get in the way.

Some systems, including ProMed, rely on human expertise. Others are partly or completely automated.

“These tools can help hold feet to the fire for government agencies,” said John Brownstein, who runs the HealthMap system as chief innovation officer at Boston Children’s Hospital. “It forces people to be more open.”

The last 48 hours of 2019 were a critical time for understanding the new virus and its significance. Earlier on Dec. 30, Wuhan Central Hospital doctor Li Wenliang warned his former classmates about the virus in a social media group — a move that led local authorities to summon him for questioning several hours later.

Li, who died Feb. 7 after contracting the virus, told The New York Times that it would have been better if officials had disclosed information about the epidemic earlier. “There should be more openness and transparency,” he said.

ProMed reports are often incorporated into other outbreak warning systems. including those run by the World Health Organization, the Canadian government and the Toronto startup BlueDot. WHO also pools data from HealthMap and other sources.

Computer systems that scan online reports for information about disease outbreaks rely on natural language processing, the same branch of artificial intelligence that helps answer questions posed to a search engine or digital voice assistant.

But the algorithms can only be as effective as the data they are scouring, said Nita Madhav, CEO of San Francisco-based disease monitoring firm Metabiota, which first
notified its clients about the outbreak in early January.

Madhav said that inconsistency in how different agencies report medical data can stymie algorithms. The text-scanning programs extract keywords from online text, but may fumble when organizations variously report new virus cases, cumulative virus cases, or new cases in a given time interval. The potential for confusion means there is almost always still a person involved in reviewing the data.

“There’s still a bit of human in the loop,” Madhav said.

Andrew Beam, a Harvard University epidemiologist, said that scanning online reports for key words can help reveal trends, but the accuracy depends on the quality of the data. He also notes that these techniques are not so novel.

“There is an art to intelligently scraping web sites,” Beam said. “But it’s also Google’s core technology since the 1990s.”

Google itself started its own Flu Trends service to detect outbreaks in 2008 by looking for patterns in search queries about flu symptoms. Experts criticized it for overestimating flu prevalence. Google shut down the website in 2015 and handed its technology to nonprofit organizations such as HealthMap to use Google data to build their own models.

Google is now working with Brownstein’s team on a similar web-based approach for tracking the geographical spread of the tick-borne Lyme disease.

Scientists are also using big data to model possible routes of early disease transmission.