After spending two and a half years in Asia, I finally started traveling the world and giving talks in person. My latest trip was to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, or KSA for short. The primary reason for my trip had very little to do with longevity and focused primarily on the new applications of artificial intelligence in chemistry. However, quite serendipitously, it coincided with the recent media hype surrounding the launch of Hevolution Foundation, a $20 Billion Saudi initiative aiming to spend over $1 Billion annually to extend healthy human life for everyone on the planet. The leadership of Hevolution will be presenting at the 9th annual Aging Research & Drug Discovery (ARDD) conference I am co-organizing with the University of Copenhagen. After meeting the team, I decided to write a series of articles exploring the country’s plans to lead the world in several critical technologies including the area I dedicated my life to – productive longevity.
Usually, mention of Saudi Arabia calls to mind sand dunes, difficulty getting a visa, oil money, religious police, and suppression of women’s rights. These stereotypes have been reinforced through a steady stream of negative news in the Western media. But little attention is paid to the country’s technological advances. The Absher app, for instance, allows residents to seamlessly interact with all government systems and compete with the technological marvels of China. My trip to KSA actually started in Palo Alto, where I met the head of a technology investment powerhouse. He showed how the app can be used to buy and sell property, renew vehicle licenses (no more visits to DMV), and monitor one’s financial affairs. Using Absher, I was able to obtain a visa to KSA in a matter of just a few clicks. (Yes, getting into KSA is almost as easy as getting into the UAE, with no paperwork or needless bureaucracy).
And from what I saw in Riyadh and Dammam, Saudi Arabia is getting better every day. For example, the building that looks like a spaceship behind me is the KAFD Grand Mosque. And the building behind it hosts Hevolution Foundation which I am planning to cover in a separate article.
Under the rule of Saudi Arabia’s de-facto leader, His Royal Highness (HRH) Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, or MBS as he is affectionately known by many of his people, this middle eastern country is transforming itself into one of the world’s next big hubs for science and technology. If this pace continues uninterrupted, I believe that within the next 10 years, Saudi Arabia will be better recognized as a place that leads global efforts for advanced artificial intelligence and cutting-edge innovation than as a land of conflicts.
It is true that Saudi Arabia has an oil-based economy with strong government controls over major economic and social activities. It possesses about 16% of the world’s proven petroleum reserves, and oil is the cornerstone of its development. However, under MBS’ vision, Saudi Arabia plans to reduce its dependence on oil, diversify its economy, and develop public service sectors such as healthcare, recreation, tourism, and education. This vision is soon to become a reality under the Saudi Vision 2030, a strategic framework and a brainchild of MBS.
Saudi Arabia Vision 2030
Vision 2030 is built upon three pillars: a vibrant society, a thriving economy, and an ambitious nation. The first theme is vital to achieving the Vision and a strong foundation for economic prosperity. This includes urbanism, culture and entertainment, sports, and UNESCO heritage sites. The second theme calls for a thriving economy with opportunities for all, by building an education system aligned with market needs. This includes the development of investment tools to unlock the various economic sectors, diversification of the economy, and creation of job opportunities. The third theme is built on an effective, transparent, accountable, enabling, and high-performing government. When combined, these three pillars provide the perfect landscape for entrepreneurs, small enterprises, and large corporations alike.
In order to see the full picture of how and why Saudi Arabia is driving its full resources to achieve these goals, we need to take a quick look at the origination of Vision 2030.
A bird’s eye view of the Saudi Arabian economy
Saudi Arabia was mainly a subsistence economy during the start of the 20th century. It wasn’t until 1933 that the Saudi government signed an oil concession agreement with Standard Oil Company, which led to the development of oil fields in the country managed by Aramco – a joint venture company formed by Texaco and Chevron. By 1949, Saudi’s oil production reached 500,000 barrels per day, and rose to 1 million in 1954. In 1960, OPEC was created, with Saudi Arabia as one of the founding members. During the oil crisis in 1973, the price of oil increased to nearly $12 per barrel from $3, leading to a rapid growth of the Saudi economy. One estimate suggests that the economy grew from $15 billion in 1973 to $184 billion by 1981.
Fueled by enormous revenues from oil exports, plus an abundance of capital, vast development projects sprung up that turned the country into a modern state. Long-term economic development, such as a series of five-year plans, established most of Saudi’s infrastructure. This leads us into the 21st century, where Saudi Arabia is one of the most developed and modern countries of the world. Today, Saudi Arabia’s economy is worth over $700 billion.
Aramco: From Petrochemicals to Clean and Sustainable Energy Future
After the IPO, Saudi Arabian Oil Copmany, Aramco became the most valuable company in the world, with a market capitalization exceeding $2.3 Trillion dollars which surpassed Apple, Google, Amazon, and Facebook. It is more valuable than Amazon and Facebook combined, and, considering the global hyperinflation and geopolitical tensions in the less developed oil-producing countries, the value of the company and its prominence is expected to increase.
In response to the Vision 2030 strategy, Aramco set up Prosperity7 Ventures a global venture fund to invest in the disruptive technologies that may lead to the creation of the next-genreation giants and bring prosperity on a vast scale.
During my trip to the KSA I briefly visited Aramco’s headquarters in Dammam. In the past I visited the R&D facilities of several large petrochemical companies in Europe and in the US. And all of them had two things in common: extremely high levels of security and ostentatiously expensive facilities. Aramco’s HQ had nothing to do with this stereotype. I took a regular Uber from the hotel to get to the main R&D facility. All of the buildings on the premises including the headquarters have very little or excess – people here are clearly more interested in business and hard work than in showing off. The visitor’s experience is seamless and paperless. Many key projects are supervised by women and the level of cultural and gender diversity makes you feel like back in Canada.
The key engineering and innovation staff is trained mostly at the top Western universities with Harvard, Stanford, MIT, University of California, Oxford, Cambridge and other top institutions, and have active collaborations with the local and global academic institutions. From the entrance to the conference room, the company makes it very clear that it is focused on environmental sustainability.
On the way to Aramco, you can see many architectural marvels like the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture.
Steps towards Saudi Vision 2030
Every government around the world aims to organize itself with agility, continuously restructuring and aligning their systems to national priorities. When MBS took leadership of restructuring the Saudi economy, he kept in mind the ever-evolving global challenges. Thus, when he introduced the Vision in 2016, it detailed a strategic orientation for the next 15 years. This style of governance and framework helped to speed strategy development and decision-making, as well as enhance performance of all Saudi economic and social sectors.
Why Saudi Vision 2030 is important for the biotechnology industry?
The Vision 2030 framework is not only limited to diversifying the economy of Saudi Arabia. It is actually designed to make Saudi Arabia one of the most competitive countries in terms of scientific innovation. That is why it matters a lot to scientists. The Vision involves a lot of programs for innovation in the health sector especially. In fact, the Saudi government has earmarked $20 billion for the advancement of artificial intelligence alone. The health sector is one of the main beneficiaries of advanced technologies since healthcare has grown increasingly complex to physicians, patients, and governments. The rising costs of healthcare services, and rising expectations of healthcare quality, demands a transformational shift in this field. To ensure that healthcare reaches its full potential, it needs to be modernized by incorporating information technology, health informatics, and AI.
The following are a few example of the AI related moves within Saudi Vision 2030:
The Saudi Data and AI Authority (SDAIA)
The SDAIA was created in 2019 with a core mandate to support and drive the data and AI agenda within the Kingdom, and its vision is to position Saudi Arabia as a global leader in data-driven economics. The Authority announced in 2020 the National Strategy for Data and AI, or NSDAI, with a vision to put in place “where the best of data and AI is made reality.”
The three core entities within SDAIA are the National Data Management Office, the National Information Center, and the National Center for Artificial Intelligence. These three entities help deliver the promise of a data-driven and AI-supported government and economy.
The NDMO is designed to digitize national data as a national asset, while the NCAI is envisaged to co-create a portfolio of AI use cases along priority sectors (e.g. health), driving AI use cases development. The NIC provides the latest technology services and digital solutions for government agencies in the Kingdom. All three rely heavily on the role played by AI.
The Saudi Company for Artificial Intelligence
The SCAI enables the ecosystem to shape the future of AI through best-in-class partnerships, targeted investments, and strategic capabilities addressing market gaps globally. One of its solutions is AI-based document extraction platforms that automatically extract text and data from scanned documents. Another is an audio analytics platform that uses voice or speech recognition to receive and interpret dictation, or understand and carry outspoken commands. The SCAI also has natural language understanding platforms that focus on reading comprehension and semantic analysis. And this company is working on much, much more.
Agreements with global tech companies
Under Saudi Vision 2030, Saudi Arabia is also keen to partner with leading global companies in the field of AI. The Kingdom recently signed a series of partnership agreements with international tech companies at the Global AI Summit held in Riyadh.
The NCAI signed a memorandum of understanding with Huawei to enable strategic cooperation on the Kingdom’s National AI Capability Development Program. Under the MoU, Huawei will train Saudi AI engineers and students, and also address Arabic language AI-related capabilities. NCAI and Huawei will also explore the creation of an AI Capability Platform to localize technology solutions.
Likewise, the SDAIA signed an MoU with the International Telecommunication Union, a specialized agency of the UN, to collaborate on initiatives to support efforts to optimize the benefits of AI technologies and applications for sustainable development. Under this agreement, Saudi Arabia will support ITU in developing projects, activities, and initiatives that will facilitate multi-stakeholder participation, international cooperation, and knowledge sharing.
SDAIA also signed an MoU with Alibaba Cloud to develop digital and AI services in such areas as safety and security, mobility, urban planning, energy, education and health. Through the partnership, Alibaba Cloud’s AI platform will enable intelligent management of Saudi Arabia’s cities, and provide other smart solutions for citizens.
The end game: How AI will transform Saudi Arabia’s economy in the next decade
Saudi Arabia and MBS recognize the significance of data and AI technology. The Kingdom may run out of oil one day – and Vision 2030 is just one way to reduce its reliance on this non-renewable energy resource as a primary income source. More broadly, Vision 2030 is a modern-day example of how strong leadership, albeit faulty by Western standards, can transform a nation and the world. MBS is putting his country’s resources to good use. Although it is still in the earlier stages in terms of innovation and technological advances, Saudi Arabia could very soon transform its economy through effective use of AI. The various government agencies working to revolutionize AI, coupled with the dozens of partnerships with leading technology companies are only the beginning. As global oil prices fluctuate wildly, and the COVID pandemic becomes a thing of the past, one must wonder what the future of Vision 2030 will look like, and if it will actually be successful. Until that day comes (2030), it is evident that Saudi Arabia will only benefit from Vision 2030 – and the scientific world will reap some of its rewards, too.