Senior technology execs from Gulf kingdom attend London’s Tech Week to seek partners and investors in its multi billion dollar drive to build smart cities

Saudi Arabia has called on UK companies to partner and invest in its multi-billion dollar smart cities as part of the kingdom’s transformation drive.

“The drive behind all these opportunities is that smart cities will help Saudi Arabia,” Moath Alzahrani, smart cities domain lead at the kingdom’s National Digital Transformation Unit told delegates at London’s Tech Week event.

“[Smart cities] will create jobs in the public and private sector, increase non-oil revenues and enhance liveability and sustainability,” said Alzahrani.

Saudi Arabia, which is currently building 16 smart cities, has its eye on being the world’s most connected and digitised nation by 2030 as part of its ambitious economic diversification drive.

According to Faisal Al-Sadhan, programme manager for Technology Investment at Saudi Ministry of Communications and Information Technology, the government has already invested around $4 billion on digital infrastructure in pursuit of its 2030 vision. The value of the kingdom’s ICT market is around $29 billion, with $1.3 billion earmarked for the Internet of Things (IoT) sector, he said.

“We are looking at several opportunities for technology foreign direct investment (FDI), including industrialised IoT, AI, cloud computing and data centres,” said Al-Sadhan.

Neom calling

Neom, a $500 billion mega-city to be launched on the Red Sea from 2025, is the largest and most ambitious smart city on the kingdom’s books and in the world. Backed by the Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund and international investors, the futuristic fully-digitised city is slated to contribute $100 billion to Saudi Arabia’s GDP by 2030.

“We will be the world’s first cognitive and pro-active city,” said Joseph Bradley, head of tech and digital at Neom. “We will leverage 90 percent of the data we produce and utilise it in the city. It’s never been done before. We want to build a citywide operating system that is aware, predictive and can take action.”

Bradley called on British companies to help “ignite growth” across the city’s “building blocks”, including industrial automation, massive IoT, fast-moving objects, gaming, robots and drones. “We are looking for a range of partners to bring the cognitive city to life,” he said.

In particular, Neom is seeking support and investment into IoT predictive services, location services and natural language understanding. “At Neom, it will be important for us to be able to talk in our own languages – any language – and communicate in real-time,” Bradley added.

The Neom tech head said the smart cities are also looking at ways to attract the “greatest minds in the world” through gaming applications.

“These opportunities are for right now and the foreseeable future,” said Bradley.

Ramping up the Red Sea

Simon Timmis, associate director IoT, Red Sea Development Company said the company was looking to build a fully ‘touch-free’ experience for tourists.

Slated to cover an area similar to the size of Belgium across several islands from 2022 onwards, the sprawling Red Sea Project will be powered by “an invisible backbone of technology,” said Timmis.

“We are in the middle of construction – we want fully integrated security and site operations, cashless payment experiences, one-stop shop apps, efficient water and energy management, frictionless arrival and departure processes, as well as technology to help assist with environmental preservation,” he added.

Activiting Al-Ula

Will Kemble-Clarkson, head of innovation at Royal Commission for Al-Ula, said that while coronavirus has temporarily impacted global demand for tourism, the sector remains a “long-term pillar” of Saudi Arabia’s economy.

Al-Ula, a historic city in the kingdom’s Madinah region, will see millions of dollars pumped into its heritage and resorts over the next few years under the Royal Commission.

“Al-Ula is home to heritage sites. We want to preserve them, activate them and foster a flourishing local community,” said Kemble-Clarkson. “We cherish the idea that nothing is impossible and we are looking for partners to help us do it.”

“It’s a 2000-year-old town with no tech infrastructure at all and we want to transform it over the next few years. We are interested in partners who can help us improve its government and people services, as well as the economy, environment and connectivity,” Kemble-Clarkson added.