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Global Exclusive: How tech event LEAP aims to transform Saudi’s ICT landscape

Global Exclusive: How tech event LEAP aims to transform Saudi’s ICT landscape

Saudi Arabia is transforming its technology landscape, aiming to become the regional hub for innovation and building an ecosystem where the tools of tomorrow are conceptualised and created. Powering that ambition is LEAP, a new mega tech event set to have a ‘seismic’ impact on the global stage

To boldly go where no man has gone before: The popular Star Trek phrase would perhaps be an apt way to describe the mega ambitions powering Saudi Arabia’s upcoming new technology event LEAP.

“LEAP will be the most iconic and seismic tech event for a generation. It will serve the visionary strategic plan of the government to become one of the world’s top 20 tech enabled countries,” says Abdullah Amer Al-Swaha, Saudi Arabia’s Minister of Communications and Information Technology.

Technology is a fundamental pillar of Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030, and the last few years have seen a significant acceleration in the adoption of digital transformation initiatives.

The numbers back up the kingdom’s aspirations. Saudi Arabia is the region’s largest information and communication technology (ICT) market and was ranked among the top 15 globally in 2019.

According to IDC, ICT spending in the kingdom is set to reach $37bn this year, up 2.4 per cent on 2019.

The government, finance and communication sectors will spend in excess of $3.8bn on ICT this year, accounting for almost 53 per cent of the total spend.

“The Saudi ICT market is grappling with a wave of new digital transformation realities,” said Hamza Naqshbandi, IDC’s country manager for Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.

“The growth we are seeing in ICT spending is primarily being driven by an increased focus on giga projects and smart governance. These initiatives are spurring the adoption of artificial intelligence, robotics, the Internet of Things (IoT), cloud, blockchain, and a host of other emerging technologies as both the public and private sectors look to create synergies, cut costs, increase safety, and optimise processes across verticals in a whole new way.”

Saudi Arabia is accelerating ICT applications across sectors such as banking, insurance, healthcare, automotive, power and utilities, and education to drive socioeconomic benefits.

But non-traditional tech segments such as innovation accelerators and third-platform technologies will also deliver a win-win outcome for businesses and the government, consultancy EY opined in a report.

“The most significant impact of ICT will be in unlocking the human potential and accelerating new ways of working – with 58.5 per cent of the population under the age of 30, ICT technologies are expected to provide long-term employment sustainability.”

Late last year, Saudi’s Ministry of Communications and Information Technology (MCIT) confirmed that technology localisation initiatives have “significantly increased” the ICT sector’s employment capacity in 2019.

The ministry has also launched a five-year strategy aimed at accelerating the sector’s growth by 50 per cent, elevating its contribution to GDP by $13.3bn, increasing foreign investments, and empowering and supporting the participation of women in the kingdom.

TAKING A LEAP
One of the initiatives that is being launched by the MCIT, in collaboration with international events organiser Informa Tech is the LEAP event, which will play a major role in helping the kingdom achieve its targets.

“LEAP is one of the most exciting launches for Informa Tech in 2021, and knowing the massive ambition the Saudi government has for the show, we’re expecting it to be of significant global impact,” explains Carolyn Dawson, managing director, Informa Tech, London.

“It is far more than a tech festival in a moment of time – this will encompass all elements of government and the private sector, education and academia, entertainment and celebrities – it will be a vehicle to transform Saudi’s economy from one reliant on hydrocarbons, to one enabled by technology in all sectors. It will play a key part in Saudi’s future adoption of emerging technology.”

The event, which will be held from February 1-3, 2021 at the Riyadh Front Exhibition Centre, promises a showcase of technologies across AI, blockchain and cryptocurrency, robotics, 3D printing IoT, biotech and healthtech, smart mobility, open source, quantum computing, 5G, materials science, space and satellites, data and fintech.

LEAP will also feature a stellar keynote lineup of 600 tech leaders, futurists and statesmen from across the world, while a dedicated AI summit will see innovators with ‘game-changing’ case studies present their stories on stage.

Attendees will also have the opportunity to attend eight Orbital Talks, highly focused sessions which will see renowned presenters delving into the strategic priorities for nations worldwide.

The free-to-attend talks will offer insights across industries, ranging from medical innovation to help stop the spread of pandemics, the creation of AI powered systems to disrupt the banking system, to hackers exposing security weaknesses in new technology.

Another key element is the startup pitch stage, which will see hundreds of startups and aspiring entrepreneurs present their ideas to a judging panel of seasoned investors for a massive cash prize injection.

Dozens of prizes will be awarded to the best innovators and the most promising business ideas, including invitations to join some of Saudi’s well-funded government incubators and corporate accelerators, including a $55bn PIF investment fund for cutting-edge technology and R&D.

Tech startups in the kingdom have already been seeing strong investor interest – online grocery platform Nana Direct raised $18m from investors including venture capital fund Saudi Technology Ventures (STV) and Middle East Venture Partners earlier this year.

Meanwhile AI startup UnitX, a spin-out company from King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), secured $2m from the KAUST Innovation Fund and Saudi Aramco’s Wa’ed fund last year.

Venture capital investments in Saudi are expected to grow from $50m in 2018 to $500m annually by 2025, according to a report from STV.

“No country in the region has the ability to fund startups to the same significance that Saudi Arabia does. LEAP will have a massive startup component with a globally significant prize fund for the competition. All government companies and departments will be invited to submit their challenges for startups to solve. All investment vehicles, including government, sovereign wealth funds, corporate investment arms, corporate accelerators, family offices, VCs and PEs will be invited by the government and Informa Tech to participate and treat LEAP as a major opportunity for acquiring, investing and incubating startups,” explains Dawson.

Expectedly, organisers have seen tremendous interest from the industry for the event – including from tier one technology companies across the world – driven by the Saudi government’s overwhelming support towards it.

“We have had almost a year of discussions and planning with the government on this special project. What I can tell you is that the level of ambition they have for LEAP is more significant than any project I’ve worked on before in events. What the Saudi government intends to do and spend on technology over the next decade is phenomenal, groundbreaking and transformational. Mega cities, mass tech adoption and bold investments will be made to make Saudi Arabia one of the most tech enabled countries in the world. The vision is awe-inspiring and very exciting,” says Dawson.

“When speaking with the industry we have had overwhelming interest, they know that Saudi is the largest spender in the region when it comes to technology, but what they’re seeing now is that the kingdom is planning to become the biggest innovator, the largest hub, a society vibrant in its tech education and brimming with talent.

“Overall, the feedback from within the industry has been that they have been waiting for years for Saudi to deliver such an event, and now that it’s finally come, they will support it wholeheartedly.”

SAUDI 4.0
In December, at the 23rd session of the Council of Arab Ministers of Communications and Information Technology held in the kingdom, Saudi declared plans for Riyadh to become the Arab world’s “first-ever digital capital city”.

It also created the Arab Digital Capital initiative to encourage the creation of a stimulating ecosystem for investment in ICT, activate plans that develop knowledge within the ICT industry across the Arab countries, and adopt new measures that will facilitate and enhance tech entrepreneurship in the Arab region.

Meanwhile, it has also started developing the futuristic mega-city NEOM, a 26,500sqm business zone announced in 2017 by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as a tech hub, job creator and centre for foreign investment.

The development is intended to be “an oasis of stunning cliffs, sandy beaches and high-tech projects powered by wind and solar energy where robots outnumber humans and a cosmopolitan lifestyle offers sports, concerts and fine dining,” it was announced at the time of launch.

“We will see Riyadh become a major global hub for technology over the next decade, spearheaded by enormous projects like NEOM, investment funds like the Public Investment Fund (PIF), and innovators like MCIT, Aramco, SABIC, KAUST, MISK and more. All of these entities are invited by the ministry to participate and collaborate to make LEAP one of the world’s most impactful emerging tech shows,” says Dawson.

Looking to the future, the role of technology is set to become ubiquitous, with its reach underlining progress, growth and innovation across all sectors.

“LEAP has been created to bring together the best thinking, ideas and emerging developments in technology in one place, to support the ongoing progress and success of different enterprises and the broader economy in the kingdom and the region,” emphasises Dawson.

With the kingdom having declared its grand tech ambitions to the world, it is now ready to take the leap into the next level: a bold new world awaits.

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