Saudi Arabia and the pandemic: Key lessons for the use of 4IR technologies
The COVID-19 pandemic was a real test to the resilience of all economies, and Saudi Arabia is no exception.
Our collective actions in COVID management have led to positive outcomes as well. We have had successes and learned lessons, which begs the question: How could we have done it better?
A key lesson was that the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) related technologies played a crucial role in structuring our collective response. COVID-19 intensified the need for data and evidence-based iterative policymaking supported by technology-driven and innovation-based solutions. As a result, the pandemic, despite being tragic, has become an enabler for the accelerated evolution of frontier technologies and this is visible in global market expectations. In its recently released Technology and Innovation Report, the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) forecasts a frontier technology market worth $3.2 trillion in 2025 — a jump of almost 10 times from 2018.
This leads me to believe that a few years from now we will look back and realize that the countries that have emerged on a more robust and resilient growth path will ultimately prove to be those who were more advanced in the adoption of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
We have seen this phenomenon unfolding here in the Kingdom. Saudi Arabia is a global role model in the deployment of digital technology during the times of COVID-19. This was made possible by the wise vision of His Majesty King Salman and His Royal Highness Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and a true conviction that Saudi Arabia’s digital transformation is essential to realizing the sustainability and inclusivity of its socio-economic development.
Since 2017 we have been continuously investing in upgrading our digital infrastructure to enable the growth of frontier technologies in the Kingdom. Today, the Saudi Arabia is ranked 4th in the world in 5G connectivity. With such robust digital infrastructure, we were able to swiftly bolt on several technology-driven solutions to effectively manage the pandemic, helping us deliver 850,000 daily classes for over 6 million students, as well as 2.8 billion digital payment transactions in 2020, 75 percent higher than in 2019.
Despite substantial progress made through Vision 2030 and during the pandemic, Saudi Arabia still has work to do to move up the Global Innovation Index rankings.
This demonstrates Saudi Arabia’s leadership in having the most modern digital platform and world-class capabilities to design local and global solutions on the technological frontier. But of course, our eyes are set on what still needs to be done.
In parallel to all of this, during the most challenging of times, Saudi Arabia led the G20 last year, demonstrating its agility and long leadership track record of working collectively with the international community to deal with, and resolve, a wide range of global challenges.
Another key lesson is that the pandemic and the use of 4IR-driven solutions have revealed more clearly, and in fact widened, the divide between leading economies and the rest of the world. Despite substantial progress made through Vision 2030 and during the pandemic, Saudi Arabia still has work to do to move up the Global Innovation Index rankings where we plan to amongst the leaders of our G20 peers.
Our economic growth can also be driven by capturing a slice of the $3+ trillion opportunity over the next five years and its multiplier effects.
This leads me to the factors shaping the future role of the Saudi Center of 4IR, which we proudly inaugurated on Wednesday as part of the World Economic Forum network of global 4IR centers.
The center is at the confluence of the growing role of 4IR in solving global challenges, the momentum and potential of the Kingdom’s Vision and its impact locally and globally, and the Kingdom’s growing global leadership role anchored in both a strong legacy of working with global partners to conquer global challenges and its pioneering vision and momentous transformation.
The center must leverage these potent enablers to become a center of action to discover, debate and deliver inclusive solutions to challenges globally and locally. The famous football head coach Vince Lombardi once said: “Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection we can catch excellence.” I believe this center is a culmination of that chase, in its thought and action leadership. The center’s relentless efforts should be driven by the desire to answer: “How could we have done better?”
We are passionate about the objectives and vision of the Center, and we look forward to it bringing the public and private sectors, NGOs, as well as the science and technology communities, together to answer this question. We aim to solidify Saudi Arabia’s leadership role within the G20 and its contribution to the global economy.
• Faisal Al-Ibrahim is Saudi Arabia’s minister of economy and planning.