Saudi Arabia to invest $20 billion in artificial intelligence projects

Abdullah al-Ghamdi, head of the Data and Artificial Intelligence Authority, said that shares will be open to both foreign and local investors as the country seeks to establish more than 300 start-ups in artificial intelligence by 2030.
Friday 20/11/2020
Abdullah Bin Sharaf Alghamdi, President of Saudi Data and Al Authority, speaks during the Global Al Summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia October 21, 2020. (REUTERS)
Abdullah Bin Sharaf Alghamdi, President of Saudi Data and Al Authority, speaks during the Global Al Summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia October 21, 2020. (REUTERS)

RIYADH--Saudi Arabia announced Thursday it will invest $20 billion in artificial intelligence projects by 2030, as the oil-rich country seeks to diversify its economy amid slumping crude prices.

The kingdom, the Arab world’s biggest economy, launched an artificial intelligence strategy last month to attract investors as part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Bin Abdulaziz’s ambitious Vision 2030 plan to wean the kingdom off oil.

“Saudi Arabia will invest $20 billion from now until 2030,” said Abdullah al-Ghamdi, head of the Data and Artificial Intelligence Authority (SDAIA), which was established in 2019.

“We aspire to have artificial intelligence as a component of an alternative economy through start-ups and innovation companies… and view artificial intelligence as a source of savings and additional income,” he said during a G20 media briefing.

Ghamdi added that shares will be open to both foreign and local investors, as the country seeks to establish more than 300 start-ups in artificial intelligence by 2030.

“As we recover from the pandemic, there is an opportunity to unlock the potential of scientific advancements and use technologies to set the foundations for a brighter and sustainable future for us, our children and the generations to come,” he said.

Advertisements of G20 Presidency Summit are seen ahead of the summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, November 19, 2020. (REUTERS)
Advertisements of G20 Presidency Summit are seen ahead of the summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, November 19, 2020. (REUTERS)

Ghamdi added that “digital technology is playing a central role in shaping today and tomorrow, and it continues to gain new grounds in people’s lives, work, education and more.”

The SDAIA president warned that, while AI can cause the disappearance of jobs, new AI-based job opportunities will flourish.

“As per the 2030 targets, we are going to train 40 percent of the relevant workforce in data and AI. We will also have over 20,000 AI and data specialists by the year 2030. Moreover, we are creating up to 40,000 direct and indirect jobs related to data and artificial intelligence,” he said.

Diversifying economy

Like most countries in the energy-rich Gulf, Saudi Arabia has been trying to diversify its economy which has been hit by the double whammy of low oil prices and the coronavirus pandemic.

The G20 summit in Riyadh at the weekend is set to bring together the leaders of the world’s 20 richest nations as the kingdom is intensifying efforts to fund its ambitious diversification plan.

However, the Saudis have yet to spell out how the domestic economy would transform from oil-revenue dependency and what new industries would provide wealth and job creation as the government strives to reduce dependence on the state for employment and services.

It has been estimated that approximately 250,000 young Saudis enter the job market each year and given that roughly 70% of the Saudi population is under the age of 30, the Saudi government will be increasingly under pressure to create jobs for its growing young workforce in the coming years.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) warned in October 2015 that lower oil prices underscore the need for Gulf governments to improve business environments by “enhancing incentives for nationals to work in the private sector and making workers’ skills more relevant to the private sector by improving the quality of education.”

The IMF argued that “lower oil prices will eventually force governments of oil exporters to hire fewer public servants.”

Agreements with tech companies

Earlier in November, Saudi Arabia signed a series of partnership agreements with international tech companies to advance artificial intelligence in the kingdom.

The agreements, which were signed at the virtual Global AI Summit held in Riyadh, are underpinned by Saudi Arabia’s newly-launched National Strategy for Data and Artificial Intelligence (NSDAI).

Saudi Arabia’s National Centre for Artificial Intelligence (NCAI) signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with China’s Huawei to enable strategic cooperation on the kingdom’s National AI Capability Development Programme.

Under the MoU, Huawei will support the NCAI to train Saudi AI engineers and students, and to address Arabic language AI-related capabilities. NCAI and Huawei will also explore the creation of an AI Capability Platform to localise technology solutions.

NCAI and Huawei will also explore the National AI Talent cultivation and onboarding programme, which will provide professional training in AI to Saudi university students, AI researchers and developers, to enable them to master AI technologies and tools.

People attend the Global Al Summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia October 21, 2020. (REUTERS)
People attend the Global Al Summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia October 21, 2020. (REUTERS)

SDAIA and the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), a specialised agency of the United Nations, signed an MoU to collaborate on initiatives aimed at supporting and strengthening efforts to optimise the benefits of AI technologies and applications for sustainable development.

Under the agreement, Saudi Arabia will support ITU in developing projects, activities and initiatives that will, among other things, aim to facilitate greater multi-stakeholder participation, international cooperation, and knowledge sharing to accelerate progress towards the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

This could potentially include developing initiatives such as an “AI Readiness Landscape Framework” that would explore and highlight country responses, progress and best practices related to AI policy frameworks.

SDAIA also signed an MoU with China’s Alibaba Cloud, to jointly develop digital and AI solutions in areas including safety and security, mobility, urban planning, energy, education and health.

The partnership will leverage Alibaba Cloud’s AI platform in Saudi Arabia’s cities, enabling intelligent management of city services and other smart solutions for citizens.