How Saudi Arabia is indigenizing the AI revolution and future-proofing its workforce

Saudi Arabia is determined to future-proof its workforce, for a start by training and developing a pool of 20,000 AI and data specialists. (Supplied)
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Updated 25 September 2023

How Saudi Arabia is indigenizing the AI revolution and future-proofing its workforce

  • Digitalization and emerging technologies are forecast to contribute some 2.4 percent to the Kingdom’s GDP by 2030
  • Saudi Arabia’s investments in technology align with the objectives of the Vision 2030 economic diversification agenda

JEDDAH: In the coming years, artificial intelligence technology is expected to transform economies, business practices and the way people live, work and consume. Conscious of these potentially momentous changes on the horizon, Saudi Arabia is pouring investments into AI research and development.

The Kingdom launched its National Strategy for Data and Artificial Intelligence in October 2020 aimed at becoming a global leader in the field, as it seeks to attract $20 billion in foreign and local investments by 2030.

Saudi Arabia is also determined to future-proof its workforce, for a start by training and developing a pool of 20,000 AI and data specialists.

Riyadh’s adoption of digitalization and emerging technologies is forecast to contribute some 2.4 percent to its gross domestic product by 2030, according to a recent report by global consultancy firm PwC.

In this file picture, the chief of the General Presidency for the Two Holy Mosques, Abdul-Rahman al-Sudais, is shown inaugurating the “Information” robot, which would be available in the Grand Mosque and will provide visitors with general information, lectures, lessons, Khutbahs and information about imams and muadhins. (Courtesy: General Presidency of Haramain)

In terms of average annual growth in the contribution of AI by region, Saudi Arabia is expected to grab a 31.3 percent share in the technology’s expansion between 2018 and 2030, the PwC report added.

“I believe that Saudi Arabia has a huge potential,” Ali Al-Moussa, a Saudi entrepreneur and AI expert, told Arab News.

“Being in the field for years now, I saw a lot of smart, talented people who are able to compete with (others around) the globe to create great technologies, not only artificial intelligence, but everything from robotics to blockchain, you name it.”

Saudi Arabia’s drive toward new technologies aligns with the objectives of the Vision 2030 social reform and economic diversification agenda, which aims to strengthen the Kingdom’s position as the regional leader in the field.

Saudi Arabia’s youth are particularly adaptable to technology and are eagerly experimenting with these tools, says Saudi entrepreneur and AI expert Ali Almussa. (Supplied)

Al-Moussa says Vision 2030 has created a “lot of opportunity in the market,” empowering and enabling Saudi entrepreneurs to “imagine different applications” and to begin establishing tech startups.

“They build technologies, and they conduct research, and there is a lot of energy,” he said.

Interest in AI has boomed since ChatGPT, a large-language model developed by Microsoft-backed startup OpenAI, became a viral sensation when it was released in November 2022.

Conversations with the chatbot show that the program can explain complex scientific concepts, compose plays and poetry, generate university dissertations, and even write functional lines of computer code.

Its emergence kicked off fierce competition among Silicon Valley rivals for monetization of what software engineers call “generative AI,” including Google’s Bard, and more recently LLaMA developed by Facebook parent company Meta Platforms.

Meta recently released an AI model capable of translating and transcribing speech in dozens of languages, a potential building block for tools enabling real-time communication across language divides.

The company said in a blog post that its SeamlessM4T model could support translations between text and speech in nearly 100 languages, as well as full speech-to-speech translation for 35 languages, including Modern Standard Arabic.

A “guidance robot” has been developed to assist pilgrims and Umrah performers in understanding rituals and fatwas. (Supplied)

This and other more advanced programs are expected to transform decision-making, automation, and creative problem-solving across industries, from healthcare and finance to transportation and entertainment.

The emergence of these technologies will inevitably impact the labor market and make it necessary for nations to invest in training and education for their emerging workers, so that they have the tools to prosper in a fast-evolving economy.

“Saudi Arabia’s youth are particularly adaptable to technology and are eagerly experimenting with these tools,” said Al-Moussa.

To nurture this homegrown talent, the Kingdom is actively promoting AI competitions and “hackathons,” encouraging its researchers and students to tackle AI-related challenges to gain valuable hands-on experience.

Although the technology shows immense promise and seemingly limitless potential, experts have urged caution regarding the timing and approach to adopting AI technologies.

A report in March by investment bank Goldman Sachs predicted that AI could soon take the place of 300 million full-time jobs around the world, with 46 percent of administrative jobs and 44 percent of legal jobs risking replacement.

However, it also found that the rollout of AI could boost labor productivity and push global growth up by 7 percent year-on-year over a 10-year period.

Equipped with upper and lower cameras, specialized Zamzam distributing robots with laser sensors help it avoid any surrounding obstacles. (FILE/General Presidency of Haramain)

Al-Moussa says there are broadly two schools of thought about AI. The first views the technology as “complementary to our lives,” serving essentially as “an augmentation to our abilities.” This type of AI will not negatively impact the job market and, if anything, could enhance the way people live and work.

The other school of thought warns that AI will replace people’s jobs, will be “fast and intrusive,” and “all profit-driven,” causing harm to sections of society.

Rejecting the warnings of doomsayers about an “AI apocalypse,” Al-Moussa predicts that such programs will be primarily used for “repetitive tasks” that do not require “high intellect” or human input.

As part of Saudi Arabia’s preparation of the coming age of AI, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in June approved the establishment of the International Center for Artificial Intelligence Research and Ethics in Riyadh.

Introduced amid covid-19 pandemic, specialized robots roam the grounds of the Two Holy mosques distribute Zamzam water. (FILE/General Presidency of Haramain)

Earlier that same month, the Kingdom also established the Global Cybersecurity Forum Institute in Riyadh to harness the potential of cyberspace and support efforts to boost cybersafety on a global scale.

AI advocates have sought to address doubts surrounding the technology by emphasizing the critical importance of transparency and responsible usage.

Whatever the truth of the matter, there is no disputing that the popularity of AI applications in businesses is on the rise.

In May, the Saudi Data and Artificial Intelligence Authority inaugurated the Center of Excellence for Generative Artificial Intelligence in partnership with the US computing firm Nvidia.

The authority also unveiled an AI chat application of its own capable of answering queries in Arabic known as Allam.

According to the Financial Times, Saudi Arabia recently bought as many as 3,000 of Nvidia’s H100 chips, which cost $40,000 each and are the first designed for generative AI, through the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology.

Achieving the goal of becoming an AI powerhouse will of course take time as widespread adoption of new systems requires the creation of an AI ecosystem and a strong culture of entrepreneurship.

Collaboration with international partners, investment in local talent, and adherence to global practices and standards in AI development are viewed as the best means of promoting Saudi initiatives in the field.

Al-Moussa believes there is an especially promising future in “homegrown technology” for Saudi Arabia, which will best reflect its language, culture and priorities.

“Nobody better understands us than us,” he said. “We grew up here. We know the culture. So, the kind of AI that can be developed at home is definitely closer to the culture, whether it is generative AI or something related to our environment. Because this kind of experience or this kind of intellect is unique to our country.

“You cannot imagine someone in a different part of the globe developing something for us better than us because we understand our power and our nature better than anyone else.”


Saudi Arabia expresses regret over failure on Palestine’s bid for UN membership

Updated 19 April 2024

Saudi Arabia expresses regret over failure on Palestine’s bid for UN membership

  • Kingdom reaffirms its support for the Palestinian people’s right to self-determination
  • Jordan also expresses ‘sincere sorrow’ on the Security Council’s inability to approve the resolution

DUBAI: Saudi Arabia expressed its regret for at the failure of United Nations Security Council adopting a resolution accepting full membership of Palestine in the UN.

In an official statement by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on social media platform X, the Kingdom said the ‘failure to adopt the resolution allows for the Israeli occupation to continue its violations if international law without deterrence and will not bring the desired peace closer.”

The ministry renewed the Kingdom’s call for the international community assume its responsibility towards stopping the Israeli occupation’s attacks on civilians in Gaza.

The Kingdom also reaffirmed its support for the Palestinian people’s right to self-determination and establishing their Palestinian state on the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital, in accordance with the Arab Peace Initiative and relevant international resolutions.

Jordan also expressed its ‘sincere sorrow’ on the Security Council’s inability to approve a resolution that would have admitted Palestine as a full member of the UN due to the US veto power.

In a statement, the country’s foreign affairs ministry reaffirmed “that the international community is in favor of the two-state solution, which Israel is undermining.

“The Security Council must recognize the Palestinian state in order to stop Israel from depriving the Palestinian people of their right to freedom and their own state,” state news agency Petra reported.

“Recognizing the Palestinian state and its full membership is a necessary step to impose a just peace that ends the occupation, ends the conflict, and fulfills the right of all the peoples of the region to live in security and stability,” ministry spokesperson Sufian Qudah said.

“Jordan demands that all nations acknowledge the State of Palestine on the lines of June 4, 1967, with East Jerusalem as its capital, as a prerequisite to achieving regional peace and security.”


Italian Embassy celebrates blossoming ties with Saudi Arabia on first ‘Made in Italy Day’

Updated 19 April 2024

Italian Embassy celebrates blossoming ties with Saudi Arabia on first ‘Made in Italy Day’

  • Mission marks event with opening of new visa application center, exhibition space
  • Facility will be used to promote ‘quality, variety and creativity’ of Italian goods, official says

RIYADH: The Italian Embassy in Riyadh on Tuesday celebrated the inaugural “Made in Italy Day” with the opening of a new visa application center and exhibition space.

Giuliano Fragnito, the deputy head of the mission, told Arab News the event provided an opportunity to showcase Italian expertise in a variety of fields, including the fashion, design, automotive and space industries.

“Today we are celebrating ‘Made in Italy Day,’ which is a day that celebrates the creativity, innovation and the territories of Italy and Italy’s products,” he said.

The date was chosen to mark the anniversary of the birth of Leonardo da Vinci on April 15, 1452.

Fragnito said the new exhibition space, called Casa Italia, would be used to promote Italy from a “commercial, cultural and scientific point of view,” with the opening event being a celebration of its contribution to the space industry, titled “Italian Space Way.”

The event was fitting as Italy and Saudi Arabia were close partners in the sector, with the Italian Space Agency and Saudi Space Commission signing an agreement in 2022 to work more closely together, he said.

The wider purpose of Tuesday’s celebrations was to highlight the growing relationship between Italy and the Kingdom in a range of fields, Fragnito said.

“Saudi Arabia is a key partner of Italy and the bilateral relationship is growing at a very fast pace … first of all from a political point of view but also the trade sector, scientific cooperation, academic cooperation and cultural cooperation.”

Italian exports to Saudi Arabia grew by 20 percent last year and Rome was keen to take the relationship between the two countries “to the next level,” he said.

“The Saudi market is more and more conscious and appreciates the quality, the variety and the creativity of the Italian products.

“Saudi Arabia is a key partner of Italy and it is very important to celebrate ‘Made in Italy Day’ in Saudi Arabia, which is a very important market for Italian exports.”

The new visa application center, which is co-managed by technology services companies AlmaViva and VFS Global, is located at Gate 2 of Loclizer Mall in Riyadh. Similar services are also available in Jeddah and Dammam.

Saudi authorities thwart attempt to smuggle Captagon pills

Updated 19 April 2024

Saudi authorities thwart attempt to smuggle Captagon pills

RIYADH: The Zakat, Tax and Customs Authority has thwarted an attempt to smuggle 1,006,518 Captagon pills at Duba Port, northwest of the Kingdom.

The pills were found hidden in a shipment labeled “pepper and guava” coming into the Kingdom through the port. After the seizure was completed, coordination was made with the General Directorate of Narcotics Control to ensure the arrest of the expected recipient of the seized items inside the Kingdom, and he was arrested.

Authorities said they are committed to tightening Customs control of the Kingdom’s imports and exports, stressing that they will stay vigilant to fight smuggling attempts to ensure the security of the society.

Saudi authorities have recently made several drug-related arrests and confiscations in operations across the Kingdom. Border Guard land patrols in the Jazan region thwarted an attempt to smuggle 120 kg of qat. The patrols also foiled an attempt to smuggle 170 kg of qat in Al-Ardah governorate of the same region.

Saudi Arabia’s King Abdulaziz Royal Reserve Development Authority begins archaeological survey

Updated 18 April 2024

Saudi Arabia’s King Abdulaziz Royal Reserve Development Authority begins archaeological survey

  • Study will look at the reserve in depth and conduct archaeological studies to help it achieve its strategic objectives

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia’s King Abdulaziz Royal Reserve Development Authority on Thursday announced it had launched a comprehensive preliminary archaeological survey.

The study — which was announced on April 18, World Heritage Day — will look at the reserve in depth and conduct archaeological studies to help it achieve its strategic objectives, while working toward targets for the year 2030 for the Kingdom’s royal reserves.

The study is being done in partnership with King Saud University and in cooperation with the Heritage Commission. It is being led by a team of experts and specialized national competencies, the Saudi Press Agency reported.

It will be conducted using two methods: the first via satellite, and the second, based on what is known as the “comprehensive archaeological survey,” by visiting the discovered sites, while preparing a detailed report for each site visited.

The survey involves producing studies on the old environment; work on rehabilitating archaeological and historic sites; and an attempt to label suitable sites as tourist attractions. It will also include developing a plan to preserve existing and discovered sites.

The King Abdulaziz Royal Reserve is one of the seven reserves established by royal decree. It holds governmental membership in the International Union for Conservation of Nature, and is managed by an independent body headed by the Minister of Interior Prince Abdulaziz bin Saud bin Naif.

Saudi Arabia and Armenia to forge ‘road map’ for diplomatic ties, FM Ararat Mirzoyan tells Arab News

Updated 19 April 2024

Saudi Arabia and Armenia to forge ‘road map’ for diplomatic ties, FM Ararat Mirzoyan tells Arab News

  • ‘No limit’ to opportunities for Saudi-Armenian cooperation, says Foreign Minister Ararat Mirzoyan on ‘historic’ Riyadh visit
  • Says Armenian government supports a ceasefire in Gaza and the two-state solution for Israel-Palestine
  • Discusses ‘Crossroads of Peace’ project, which offers ‘window of opportunity’ for lasting peace in South Caucasus

RIYADH: Armenia is committed to drafting a “road map” for the development of diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia, Ararat Mirzoyan, Armenia’s minister for foreign affairs, told Arab News on Thursday in an exclusive interview during a visit to the Kingdom.

In a wide-ranging discussion, in which he explored the development of ties, the peace process in the South Caucasus, and the war in Gaza, Mirzoyan said the establishment of official diplomatic relations in November last year was only the start.

Armenian Foreign Minister Ararat Mirzoyan says there's ‘no limit’ to opportunities for Saudi-Armenian cooperation. (AN photo)

“Historically, we have enjoyed friendly relations with the Arab world, with all the Arab countries, and these relations have been based on traditionally historically friendly relations between our peoples, between Arab people and the people of Armenia,” he said.

“And we also should remember that many Arab countries became home for Armenian refugees, the survivors of the Armenian genocide. But of course, the cultural ties, the relations — they were there even before that.”

Mirzoyan met his Saudi counterpart Prince Faisal bin Farhan in Riyadh on Wednesday, and was also received at the Saudi Ministry of Education and Ministry of Economy.

“We don’t want to stop here. There are so many areas, there are so many fields where we can deepen our cooperation. And there are so many spheres where we can explore what we can do jointly. And hopefully, after this visit, the road map will emerge — a road map of development of relations,” he said.

Saudi Minister of Foreign Affairs Prince Faisal bin Farhan (R) receives Armenian FM Ararat Mirzoyan ahead of their meeting Riyadh on April 17, 2024. (SPA photo)

The past few years have seen gradually warming ties between the two countries. In October 2021, Armenia’s then-President Armen Sarkissian visited Saudi Arabia. This visit marked the beginning of a new diplomatic future for Armenia.

Although formal diplomatic relations are new, Mirzoyan is highly optimistic about the mutual benefits of developing ties.

“Frankly, there is no limit here,” he said. “Education, sciences, advanced technologies, urban development, agriculture, tourism, people-to-people contacts, trade, investment, and infrastructure. There are so many things going on on the ground here in Saudi Arabia, but also in Armenia.”

Armenian FM Ararat Mirzoyan also met with Saudi Economy and Planning Minister Faisal F. Al-Ibrahim (R) in Riyadh on April 17, 2024. (SPA photo)

Mirzoyan praised the launch of commercial flights between Riyadh and the Armenian capital Yerevan by Saudi airline Flynas, which began in June last year, saying he expects the development to increase tourism between both nations.

The foreign minister also congratulated Saudi Arabia on winning its bid for Expo 2030 — a bid for which Armenia expressed its support in 2022.

“Our vision is that we should build a very good and close cooperation with Saudi Arabia, including when it comes to regional affairs, but also international fora,” he said.

“I see possible close cooperation on international fora as well. Again, I would like to mention that when Saudi Arabia came up with the bid for Expo 2030, Armenia was among the countries who supported this.”

The Saudi and Armenian foreign affairs ministers, along with their respective delegations, meeting in Riyadh on April 17, 2024. (SPA photo)

Mirzoyan also expressed his support for a two-state solution and ceasefire in Palestine. In December last year, Armenia joined Saudi Arabia and more than 150 other countries in the UN General Assembly in voting for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza. If necessary, and if asked, he said Armenia would be ready to act as a potential facilitator between the two sides.

“Armenia has always supported the two-state solution for Palestine and Israel, and Armenia is strongly against the violence and targeting civilian populations,” Mirzoyan said, adding that Armenia had very recently been on the receiving end of such violence.

“So we are really strongly against violence against civilian populations,” said Mirzoyan.

Armenia’s commitment to helping war-affected civilian populations has gone beyond mere words and condemnation. Last month it sent 30 tonnes of food and medicine to displaced Palestinian civilians sheltering in Rafah.

“Armenia regrets tens of thousands of innocent victims of the escalation of hostilities in Gaza. We ourselves have experienced the horror of attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure, and we join calls of the international community for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza,” Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said at a press briefing during a visit to Egypt to discuss aid deliveries.

Palestinians inspect a house destroyed in an Israeli strike in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, on April 17, 2024. (Reuters)

Mirzoyan said he hoped the aid “could help a little bit (to) ease the situation and the suffering of these people.”

Closer to home, Mirzoyan expressed his desire to see peace between Armenia and other nations in the South Caucasus, although he acknowledged that lasting peace would require efforts to overcome any obstacles.

“We truly believe that there is a window of opportunity, quite realistic momentum, to establish lasting peace and stability in the South Caucasus,” he said. “My government is committed to this peace agenda, and we are engaged in negotiations in good faith in quite a constructive manner.

“Although to tell the truth, there are still a couple of crucial issues regarding which the positions of the sides are far from each other. The first issue is, of course, the issue of the borders and mutual recognition of territorial integrity.”

The South Caucasus has been the site of frequent territorial disputes between Armenia and Azerbaijan, who have quarreled over their respective borders since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

To normalize the relationship, Mirzoyan said all parties had to respect the principles of sovereignty, jurisdiction, equality and reciprocity.

“We believe that everything can be unblocked, including the railways, and we believe that everything that is going to be unblocked should remain under the sovereignty of the respective countries,” he said.

“The infrastructure on Armenian territory should remain under Armenian sovereignty and, respectively, the Azerbaijan infrastructure under its sovereignty. And also this infrastructure should function according to our national legislations, and everything should be done in accordance with the principles of equality and reciprocity.”

Armenia can ensure the security of people and cargo passing through its territory without the need of any third country presence, he added.

Mirzoyan explained that his country had launched an initiative to improve prospects for stability and peace by unblocking transport infrastructure across the region.

“We came up with an initiative. We gave a title to it — Crossroads of Peace — because we truly believe that if the whole transport infrastructure is unblocked in the South Caucasus, including the Armenian, Azerbaijani and Turkish roads and railways, that will be not only beneficial in terms of economy, but also it will become a significant factor of peace and stability in our region.”

Illustration map showing Armenia's proposed “Crossroads of Peace”.

Even beyond Armenia and the South Caucasus, the initiative could have global repercussions, said Mirzoyan.

“Several countries are interested in this implementation of this project of peace, the Crossroads of Peace, because the benefits are obvious and I spoke about this in terms of east-west connections, but also we should remember south-north or north-south connections. And that’s why it’s called a crossroads.”

He added: “It could be useful for connecting, for instance, the Arab world, Saudi Arabia, with the Black Sea region and beyond.”

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock (C) hosts Armenia's FM Ararat Mirzoyan (L) and Azerbaijan's FM Jeyhun Bayramov (R) for peace talks in Berlin on February 28, 2024. (AFP/File)

Armenia is embarking on diplomatic ties with several nations and multilateral bodies, including the EU, as it shifts away from its historically strongest ally, Russia.

“It’s fair to note that the relations between Armenia and the Russian Federation are not at their brightest point, I would say,” said Mirzoyan. “Of course, there are complications, and we don’t … want to hide these complications.

This photo taken on Nov. 17, 2020, shows Russian peacekeepers' vehicles parked at a checkpoint on the road to Shusha in Nagorno-Karabakh. President Vladimir Putin's spokesman said on April 17, 2024 that Russian forces are being withdrawn from the Karabakh region, where they have been stationed as peacekeepers since the end of a war in 2020. (AP Photo/File)

“There are issues, there are questions within Armenian society, for instance, regarding the behavior of Russian peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh, but also regarding the behavior of our Russian allies when our sovereign territories were being attacked in 2022, 2023, and before that. So indeed, there are some issues there. But we work on it.”

Armenia has had frozen relations with the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) since autumn last year. Formed in 2002, the CSTO is a military alliance which consists of six post-Soviet states: Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan.

Mirzoyan stated in an interview in March with Turkiye’s TRT World that Armenia’s application for EU candidacy was under discussion.

Armenian FM Ararat Mirzoyan, who was on a visit to the Kingdom this week, sat for an exclusive interview with Arab News' Deputy Editor in Chief Noor Nugali. (AN photo)

Addressing the issue with Arab News, Mirzoyan said: “The people of the Republic of Armenia do have European aspirations and it is becoming more and more strong on the background of the frustration that Armenian people had in terms of Armenian-Russian relations, but not limited to that.

“I mean, Armenia is really deepening, significantly deepening, its relations with the US, with the EU. They are our main partners in our democratic reform agenda. Now they show a strong willingness to support Armenia, to strengthen Armenia’s economic resilience.

“We are starting with the EU a new path of close partnership and, so far, none can say for sure where this path will lead the two sides.”