Saudi Arabia's Digital Revolution: From Desert to Transformation

Clock Icon Jun 19, 2024
Digital infrastructure is pivotal to Saudi Arabia's future goals.

Digital infrastructure is pivotal to Saudi Arabia's future goals. (Source: Pexels)

Think of Saudi Arabia and images of vast deserts and ancient traditions might come to mind. But it's the digital infrastructure being put in place which is really shaping the country’s future.

In recent years, Saudi Arabia has experienced a dramatic transformation in its internet landscape. With over 90% of the population now connected online, the country boasts one of the highest internet penetration rates in the Middle East, surpassing that of regional peers such as Egypt (71%). Even Italy is only 83%.

This connectivity surge is driving change across various sectors, from education and entertainment to commerce and social interaction. One of the most interesting aspects of this digital shift is the rise of social media influencers. Saudi influencers are gaining global followings, sharing glimpses of modern Saudi life, fashion and culture that challenge traditional stereotypes.

Platforms such as Instagram and Snapchat are particularly popular, with Saudis spending an average of three hours per day on social media - aligning with global averages. Saudis are using the internet to buy products, get their news, keep socially update and communicate - under 40s prefer to send voice notes than calling. In addition, all banking and government services are done online.

The government’s Vision 2030 initiative aims to diversify the economy by fostering a vibrant tech industry, too, including investments in smart cities  across America, Europe and the Arab World. In this context, Riyadh held the Smart Data and AI Summit last month, and the 3rd edition of the Global AI Summit will return to the capital in September, positioning Saudi Arabia as a future tech hub.

Moreover, e-commerce is booming. The market size reached $8.3 billion in 2023, up from $6.3 billion in 2020, reflecting a robust annual growth rate. With platforms like Noon (owned partly by Saudi government) and, shopping habits are evolving, and a new generation of tech-savvy entrepreneurs is emerging.

The convenience of online shopping is reshaping retail, providing consumers with unprecedented access to products and services. In fact, Saudi Arabia’s e-commerce growth rate outpaces that of neighbouring UAE, highlighting the kingdom’s rapid digital adoption.

One significant technological development is the world’s largest subsea fibre-optic cable system reaching its first two Saudi landing sites in Jeddah and Yanbu in Saudi Arabia in May 2023. The 45,000-kilometre 2Africa cable system will also take in Duba and Al-Khobar this year, increasing the number of submarine cable system landing sites in Saudi Arabia to 27, with 13 located in the Red Sea port city of Jeddah.

All of which supports the kingdom’s ambition – and that of the broader Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region – to become a global digital hub. The submarine cables enable high-speed, low-latency connectivity between regions and facilitate the transfer of vast amounts of data across national borders.

They can help to unlock significant economic potential arising from products and services enabled by information technology (IT) and data connectivity, including e-commerce, machine learning, Big Data, and artificial intelligence (AI).

Driving investment in digital infrastructure, the largest telecommunications companies and their data subsidiaries have been building data centres to support their operations and clients’ requirements in recent years.

Chinese telecoms giant Huawei is investing $400m to build a cloud services infrastructure, while Silicon Valley giants Microsoft and Oracle have committed to investing $2.1bn and $1.5bn respectively in the kingdom.

Despite these advancements, challenges remain, such as ensuring digital security and managing the cultural shifts brought on by such rapid change. Despite the controls parents try to impose on Internet use, the access is unavoidable- they’re still surprised to see videos of their young children with their nannies on TikTok.

Still, the journey of Saudi Arabia into the digital era is nothing short of remarkable, highlighting a unique blend of tradition and innovation.

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