The Neo-Renaissance is here, and Saudi Arabia is leading the way
For the past couple of days, I have had the pleasure of being surrounded by some of the world’s brightest forward thinkers at the virtual FII summit. This latest conference was devoted to reimagining the global economy in the wake of COVID-19 — what’s been called a “Neo-Renaissance.”
I’ve come back to my desk feeling refreshed and invigorated. Nobody is in denial about the toll COVID-19 has taken on the world, or how tough the recovery will be. But throughout the discussions one thing shone clear, and that is the role purposeful transformation has to play in helping all countries get back on their feet, rebound stronger, and equip themselves for the future.
This is something Saudi Arabia is no stranger to, of course. Because when I think about purposeful transformation, which is to say setting an ambition, then going all out to put it in action, really it’s the story of the past few years that springs to mind. Since 2016, this country has been engaged in its own renaissance on all fronts, building out a new economy, a new society, and a new place on the world stage.
There is no doubt that this transformation mindset has been at the heart of the nation’s success in tackling the virus. Reaction was swift when the crisis struck, with tough but necessary measures protecting citizens from the outset, and a clear, coherent program of communications keeping every individual, household, business and institution informed. This experience proved beneficial during its presidency of the G20, during which time the Saudi government was commended for initiating important discussions to address global levels of preparedness.
Ever since, a decisive confidence to act has characterized the entire response, accelerating the pace of many developments that were already underway. One example is the digital economy, where more consumers have turned to e-commerce solutions than ever before. At the same time, a proliferation of alternatives to physical currency is hastening the advent of the cashless society, with a Mastercard survey revealing that four in five respondents intend to keep using contactless payment options after the pandemic.
In fact, the benefits of this “digitization on steroids” can be felt in every corner of society. Coupled with agile policy and regulation development, and collaboration with the private sector, it has enabled astonishing advances in health care. Telemedicine solutions such as virtual clinics are supporting public health by ensuring the continuation of critical services, and safely delivering advice to those with COVID symptoms, while digital assets such as a “health passport” for vaccine recipients and the Tawakkalna app continue to help contain the virus. Elsewhere, citizens in their millions have been able to access government services and educational content online, keeping these fundamental aspects of daily life afloat.
There is much more I could say here, but at the end of the day it is results that count. And with the Kingdom’s virus recovery rate stable and under control — a situation that is by no means universal — this is testament not only to its handling of the pandemic, but beyond that, to its deep-rooted capability for renewal and resurgence.
This is something that would not exist without the staunch support of the population, which has remained positive and committed to change, even in the face of COVID-19-related disruption and hardship. One study carried out by the Al-Aghar Group in collaboration with Kearney found that the majority of citizens expect the pandemic to have a positive effect on various aspects of daily life: 78 percent predicted there will be a high impact on health care provision, with 73 percent saying the same about government interaction, and 63 percent in relation to education.
Right now, Saudi Arabia is in a privileged position. It has the transformational power, both highlighted and bolstered by the COVID-19 experience, to achieve and exceed its national ambitions. It has a growing population ready to act, as we saw when young people signed up in their droves to fight the pandemic. And it can serve as a beacon for other nations, lighting the way to recovery and beyond, and lifting up those that need help. The proposed provision of vaccines to low-income countries is a good example here.
In terms of the Kingdom’s own journey, two priority actions are required in my view to keep up the momentum:
1. Bringing the private sector even further into the fold, convincing more local and international investors to engage in meaningful partnerships. This is especially important in key future employment sectors such as AI, where a lot of good progress has already been made.
2. Capitalizing on the learning opportunities unleashed by the pandemic, and anchoring the positive changes brought about across society. From my perspective, these include rapid, effective decision-making, more transformation with purpose, unity as the default setting in good times and bad, and a commitment to act for the common good.
The Neo-Renaissance is here, and Saudi Arabia can show how to navigate it.
• Bob Willen is a partner and managing director at Kearney Middle East & Africa.