What makes China a potentially large source of foreign visitors to Saudi Arabia 

Saudi supporters cheer during Asian Qualifiers for the World Cup match between Saudi Arabia and China, at the King Abdullah Sport City Stadium in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. (AFP)
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Updated 07 December 2022

What makes China a potentially large source of foreign visitors to Saudi Arabia 

  • Research by the China Outbound Tourism Research Institute indicates a “strong wave” in travel in 2023
  • Within 10 days of Saudi e-visa launch, 4,000 foreign visitors entered the country, with China topping the list

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia’s carefully laid plan to expand its tourism sector is showing fruition as it marches forward to meet its target of attracting 100 million visitors to the Kingdom by 2030.

This is evident from the fact that the Kingdom recently topped the G20 countries list for the flow rating of international tourists in the first seven months of 2022, with international arrivals reaching 77 percent of pre-pandemic levels.

For its part, China, home to almost a fifth of the world’s population, is a huge source of potential tourists.

Speaking to CNBC in October, Saudi Tourism Minister Ahmed Al-Khateeb said: “China used to be a very important market, but it is still closed. This year, we’ve seen a great demand from Europe and the US. I absolutely would love to see some of these restrictions ease because Chinese market is a very big market, not only for Saudi Arabia but for all the other countries.”




China, home to almost a fifth of the world’s population, is a huge source of potential tourists. (AFP)

China has a zero COVID-19 policy, which includes lockdowns, quarantining and rigorous testing, aimed at stopping the spread of COVID-19, even as other countries ease travel and other restrictions and try to shift to a long-term strategy of living with the virus.

Following the launch of the e-visa in September 2019, Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Tourism issued more than 350,000 tourist visas in the first three months of that year alone.

Within the first 10 days of the launch, 4,000 foreign visitors entered Saudi Arabia with China topping the list and the UK and the US in the second and third place respectively.

Research released by China Outbound Tourism Research Institute in May indicates a “strong wave” in Chinese outbound travel in 2023, with a return to 2019 numbers by 2024. “The preparation, the acquisition of knowledge and the adaptation of services needs to be done now, before the wave arrives,” said Wolfgang Georg Arlt, the institute’s CEO.  

Saudi Arabia is well prepared for the return of Chinese travelers, with many institutions adopting the guidelines of the Welcome Chinese Certification program, which is considered the international standard for travel and hospitality services for visitors from the country.




Saudi and Chinese flags at Tiananmen square in Beijing during Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman visit to China in 2019. (AFP)

The Riyadh Airports Co., which manages and operates King Khalid International Airport, said that it is working on implementing standards designed to make the airport and its services more accessible and user friendly for Chinese visitors.

The company said the new facilities will improve the visitor experience for tourists from China by helping to overcome the language barrier and providing key services, including payment systems that are compatible with those in their home country. The initiative also highlights the availability of e-visas for Chinese travelers who want to visit the Kingdom.

An important part of the strategy to boost the Kingdom’s entertainment and tourism offerings is Red Sea Global. RSG is currently overseeing the creation of two luxury tourism destinations in Saudi Arabia: The Red Sea and Amaala.

Anton Bawab, group head of operations at RSG, foresees an upswing in the number of Chinese tourists once restrictions are lifted, and that the Kingdom and RSG’s destinations are prepared to welcome them.

“The Chinese market has shown tremendous potential for any country that opened up to it – Europe, Dubai, Maldives,” he said.

“Pre-COVID, Chinese tourists accounted for almost one fifth of global tourism spending. Saudi has huge potential to attract Chinese travelers, and RSG in particular. At the Red Sea, Chinese tourists can get a similar experience to the Maldives, which is a popular destination choice for them. But they can also couple it with culture, shopping and heritage.” 


Saudi Hajj and Umrah Ministry showcases latest services at LEAP

Updated 08 February 2023

Saudi Hajj and Umrah Ministry showcases latest services at LEAP

  • Digital measures to ease travel for visitors, pilgrims Visas allow touring of Kingdom’s cultural, spiritual sites

JEDDAH: The Saudi Ministry of Hajj and Umrah is showcasing its latest services for pilgrims at the LEAP 2023 conference in Riyadh.

This is the second time the ministry is participating in the tech conference, which has been organized by the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology in collaboration with the Saudi Federation for Cybersecurity, Programing, and Drones at the Riyadh Front Exhibition and Conference Center.

The four-day conference will conclude on Thursday.

According to the Hajj and Umrah Ministry, several initiatives have been introduced to ensure pilgrims can have a safe, secure and spiritually fulfilling journey to Makkah and Madinah.

The ministry’s pavilion at LEAP is displaying a number of digital solutions, which visitors can access via an interactive screen.

The ministry recently announced new measures that would allow visitors, with any type of visa, to perform Umrah, with no age restrictions, or the need for female worshippers to have a male guardian.

About 10 days ago, the Kingdom’s Foreign Ministry launched an electronic service that would allow passengers stopping over in the Kingdom to obtain entry visas. This would allow people to perform Umrah, visit the Prophet’s Mosque in Madinah, and tour the country.

The Hajj and Umrah Ministry said the Umrah visa’s validity has been extended from 30 days to 90 days, allowing holders to visit the Kingdom’s spiritual and cultural sites.

Speaking at the Hajj Expo 2023 held in Jeddah, Minister of Hajj and Umrah Tawfiq Al-Rabiah had said the number of people participating in this year’s Hajj would return to pre-pandemic levels.
 


Meta announces metaverse academy in partnership with Tuwaiq Academy at LEAP23

Updated 08 February 2023

Meta announces metaverse academy in partnership with Tuwaiq Academy at LEAP23

RIYADH: Meta has announced the launch of the first metaverse academy in the Middle East and North Africa region, in partnership with Tuwaiq Academy and Simplon, a French digital skills provider, at the second edition of LEAP in Riyadh.

Kojo Boakye, vice president of public policy for Meta in Africa, the Middle East, and Turkiye, told Arab News: “We have announced the launch of the first metaverse academy in this region.

“We think [it] will feed exactly into what this region is doing, sparking the development of the metaverse ecosystem, working with creators and developers, the builders of the metaverse, to ensure it comes to fruition.”

The academy will be based in Riyadh and will aim to support the region’s metaverse ecosystem through training programs.

Boakye added: “We have great hopes for the future, and we believe the academy, in partnership with Tuwaiq and Simplon, will help that.”

Faisal Al-Khamisi, chairman of Tuwaiq Academy, said: “We are thrilled to be a part of this groundbreaking initiative with Meta to establish the first metaverse academy in the MENA region.

“This partnership with Meta allows us to continue this mission and support the growth of the metaverse ecosystem by training and empowering the next generation of metaverse builders and leaders.”

The academy will launch a series of programs from May 1 that will equip students with the necessary skills to pursue a career in the growing metaverse.

Boakye said: “There’s a broad range of training, everything from a short course where you can just learn a little bit more about the metaverse, to a mid-level course that takes four to six weeks, to something in-depth where you can be training for eight to nine months to get the qualifications you need to add impacts to the work that’s being done.

“It’s the vision that we’re seeing in the region here in Saudi Arabia. The plan is to have one programmer for every 100 citizens.

“We are utterly convinced [by the project] when you look at the innovation and the ideas that are coming out from this region.

“We believe that this region and the builders here will affect the global spread and broad adoption of the metaverse, and that’s what we are aiming for.”

Boakye said that Meta had already encouraged developers, aspiring developers, and others interested in the metaverse to sign up for the program online.

He added: “If adoption of the metaverse were to grow in a similar way to the use of mobile technology, after 10 years it would contribute $360 billion, or 6.2 percent, to the GDP in the Middle East, North Africa, and Turkiye.”
 


Saudi Vision 2030 transformation dubbed ‘one of the biggest opportunities in the world right now’

Updated 08 February 2023

Saudi Vision 2030 transformation dubbed ‘one of the biggest opportunities in the world right now’

  • Careem CEO Mudassir Sheikha tells LEAP bringing “the right talent into the market” can solve existing service and other problems
  • Mahindra Satyam CEO Prakash Gurnani says “India’s 1.4 billion population will benefit” if Saudi Arabia becomes a tech role model

 RIYADH: While the digitalization of an economy is key to its technological advancement, it is also a way to ease daily life and provide jobs and opportunities for the young population.

As explored in several sessions at this year’s LEAP conference, this holds particularly true for Saudi Arabia as part of its Vision 2030 reform agenda.

According to the Saudi General Authority for Statistics, 36.7 percent of the Kingdom’s population is aged between 15 and 34. Due to an acceleration of the digital economy’s growth in the Kingdom, more than 1 million jobs are expected to be created by 2025, with a focus on technology and innovation.

“The transformation that is happening on the back of Vision 2030 is probably one of the biggest opportunities in the world right now,” said Mudassir Sheikha, CEO of Careem, during a panel themed Deep Dive: Unicorns of the World.

“I have been coming here for 15 years now and over the last five years you can see the change each month on the ground. The pace of change is incredible, and we know that when such change is generated at the macro level, it creates opportunity.”

In the second quarter of 2022, the unemployment rate for Saudi Arabia fell to 9.7 percent, fueled by government reforms directed at the labor market, according to data provided by GASTAT.

It is reflected by the participation rate of Saudis in the labor market, which grew by 1.7 percentage points to reach 51.8 percent. The employment-to-population ratio of Saudis also grew by the same amount, reaching 46.8 percent compared to the previous year, according to the GASTAT report.

Environmental and digital security are among the fastest growing fields in Saudi Arabia, according to data released on LinkedIn in January 2023.

Still, as Sheikha underlined, there are still many issues related to services and relevant providers that need to be solved. “This provides additional opportunities for the Saudi workforce,” he added. “There are many problems that still need to be solved. How do you solve those problems? You need to bring the right talent into the market.”

There is no shortage of human capital and talent in the Saudi market, he added. “With hard work and the right tools great things can happen. From my perspective, there’s probably no better place to be right now than in Saudi today,” he said.

FASTFACTS

• Saudi Arabia ranked 2nd in G20 digital competitiveness in the 2021 Digital Riser Report by the European Center for Digital Competitiveness.

• The Kingdom has attracted more than $9 billion in investment in future technologies.

• OECD estimates that 1.1 billion jobs will be radically transformed by technology.

The phrase “digital economy” reflects how the technological revolution is transforming value chains in exponential, revolutionary ways — endowing new opportunities for markets worldwide to generate social and economic change.

“There is a worldwide need for reskilling and upskilling. The OECD estimates that over the next decade 1.1 billion jobs will be radically transformed by technology,” said Chip Paucek, co-founder and CEO of 2U, Inc., a leading US provider of software for universities.

“What is happening right now with AI is a good example of this and we are excited about what is happening here in the Kingdom.”

A panel on the main stage of LEAP, titled “Roadmap to Building a ‘DigitALL’ Economy in the Kingdom & Solving the Talent Conundrum,” included a conversation with Chander Prakash Gurnani, CEO of Mahindra Satyam, and British journalist Adam Boulton, with the talks examining how Saudi Arabia is building an inclusive economy through rapid advancements and investment in technology.

“India’s 1.4 billion population will benefit from the Kingdom becoming a role model in technology,” said Gurnani. “The Kingdom is one of our major focus countries. It’s a beautiful opportunity for us to participate and be part of the growth. When you work backwards, you need people, processes, technology and more importantly, an ecosystem of both products and technology.”

The Kingdom has attracted more than $9 billion in investment in future technologies, including by US giants Microsoft and Oracle, which are building cloud regions in Saudi Arabia, Saudi Minister of Communication and Information Technology Abdullah Al-Swaha told Reuters during LEAP on Monday.

Al-Swaha added that China’s Huawei will also invest $400 million in cloud infrastructure for its services in the Kingdom, as well as create another cloud region in partnership with Saudi Aramco.

The Kingdom has also encouraged the use of AI to achieve Vision 2030 and Smart Government Strategy objectives. The plan is expected to result in the Kingdom’s AI market growing to $135.2 billion by 2030, which is estimated to contribute 12.4 percent to gross domestic product.

As most panelists stressed during the sessions at LEAP, while investment in tech is paramount to advancement in technology and economic growth, what is key is training the younger, eager Saudi labor force and readying them with education and opportunities for the fourth industrial revolution, with the Kingdom increasingly looking to be a center of the new technological age.
 


Massive turnout for LEAP tech conference in Riyadh proves to be a mixed blessing

Updated 08 February 2023

Massive turnout for LEAP tech conference in Riyadh proves to be a mixed blessing

  • For two days in a row, attendees have braved Riyadh’s rush-hour traffic and capacity crowd to gain admission
  • Event has proved a great opportunity for investments, partnerships, meetings and networking with people in tech

RIYADH: Such has been the overwhelming popularity of this year’s LEAP 23, a four-day annual tech conference hosted in the Saudi capital Riyadh, that organizers were forced to close the doors to new attendees on Tuesday after the venue reached maximum capacity. 

Held at the Riyadh International Convention & Exhibition Center, the event’s second edition has seen a massive turnout, as some of the biggest names in the tech world showcase their products and discuss new industry trends.

For two days, students, entrepreneurs and startup owners have braved Riyadh’s rush-hour traffic and large crowds to gain admission — a challenge one attendee described as “a logistical nightmare,” as more than 250,000 registrations were recorded on the first day alone.

Amal Al-Khalid, 24, traveled from the Eastern Province to take part in one of two contests — the Rocket Fuel competition and Alibaba Cloud hackathon — with a SR6 million ($1.5 million) prize pool aimed at rewarding Saudi-based startups and boosting cloud technologies.

“I came with the intention of checking out the competition with my three colleagues as our startup is focused on providing water treatment solutions for domestic use,” she told Arab News on the sidelines of the event.

“Our idea came up as we kept hearing about the problems with the quality at home. I knew it was going to be crowded as many members of our entrepreneurial community spoke of LEAP for months, but I did not expect to see crowds of this kind.”

The Rocket Fuel competition, supported by the National Information Technology Development Program and the Misk Foundation, aims to help new businesses, highlight entrepreneurial projects, and build innovative solutions that address technical challenges.

As many as 90 local startups will compete for a chance to be one of 15 awarded a share of SR4 million, with a top prize of almost SR940,000. The event is a great opportunity as far as investments, partnerships and meetings are concerned, to say nothing of connecting with new people in tech from around the world.

Several young tech entrepreneurs were drawn by the prospect of competing in the contests and the chance to network on the LEAP 23 sidelines. However, the event’s enormous popularity appeared to overwhelm the available facilities.

“User journeys were not planned out correctly,” Ghaliah Al-Sukait, an experience and planning development manager, told Arab News.

“Only the main pathway had ushers organizing the human traffic. All the other pathways were disorganized and not clear. The distribution of booths did not allow for smooth transitions from one space to the other, but rather created even more traffic.

“Given the huge anticipated footfall, there should have been multiple entrances and exits to the space to allow users to move freely. Instead, there was only one main entrance (for regular tickets) and one main exit at the opposite side, forcing users to walk through the entire space within the traffic.

“The exit was positioned far away from the parking, leading users to walk through the parking after an already long walk through the space. This resulted in increased frustration from users.”

Roads to and from the venue were also packed, with attendees spending hours stuck in traffic.

“Having left my house at around 1 p.m., and there was a lot of traffic, it took me over an hour to get there,” one visitor from the US told Arab News.

“It was a mess with the traffic. The venue was large. It’s at least a 2-3 mile walk because it’s so huge and overwhelming, though nice. But there were no legends or maps to tell you where to go. They (the crowd) were just standing there,” she added.

LEAP 23 will run until Feb. 9, and features an exhibitor and convention line-up of transformational talent, a product showcase of advanced and generative technology potential, and a celebrity guest list of billionaire entrepreneurs, business magnates, sporting heroes, and musical icons-turned futurists and financiers.

On Monday, the conference announced more than $9 billion in investments to support future technologies, entrepreneurship, and tech startups to enhance the Kingdom’s position as the largest digital economy in the Middle East and North Africa region.


Saudi diplomats leave Afghanistan, relocate to Pakistan over ‘security concerns’ — source

Updated 07 February 2023

Saudi diplomats leave Afghanistan, relocate to Pakistan over ‘security concerns’ — source

  • Taliban government says Saudi diplomats’ departure was temporary and not for security reasons
  • Since US withdrawal from Kabul in August 2021, Afghanistan has struggled with increasing terror attacks

ISLAMABAD: Saudi diplomats have left Afghanistan and relocated to Pakistan over security concerns,” a diplomat with direct knowledge of the development said on Tuesday.

On Monday, the Taliban government in Kabul said the Saudi diplomats’ departure was temporary and not for security reasons.

“Some employees of Saudi Arabia’s embassy have gone out for a kind of training, and will return,” Zabiullah Mujahid, a spokesperson for the Taliban administration, said.

But a diplomatic source privy to details of the relocation confirmed to Arab News that the move was due to security concerns. He declined to be named as he was not authorized to speak on the record to the media. He also did not specify how long the Saudi diplomats would be based outside Afghanistan, or how many had had left the country.

Pakistan’s foreign ministry has not yet commented on the development.

In the months since the United States’ chaotic withdrawal from Kabul in August 2021, Afghanistan has struggled with terror attacks, mostly claimed by Daesh, as well as poverty, drought, malnutrition and increasing bans on women from participating in public life.

Development aid upon which the country relied so heavily has been cut as the international community demands that the Taliban respect the rights of Afghans, particularly girls and women whose access to work and education has been curtailed.