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It's Tech Time In Saudi Arabia Time to tap into Saudi Arabia's tech opportunities

By Omar Christidis

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If you're looking for the emerging hub of digital innovation and entrepreneurship in the MENA region today, you'll find it in Saudi Arabia.

For years, the Kingdom has been the region's largest economy, boasting consumers of the highest purchasing power, and a young tech-savvy population, but recent developments make this an especially opportune time to move into the Saudi tech scene.

First off, the Saudi government has a massive mandate for digital transformation. In line with its Vision 2030 objectives, it is heavily investing in shifting economic growth away from a dependency on oil, and supporting innovation and entrepreneurship instead.

It's pouring billions of dollars into high-tech infrastructure, launching funds, and moving ahead with a multitude of economic reforms to strengthen the digital sector, and make doing business easier. There are tremendous opportunities here for the people and companies who can be part of this transformation.

Saudi Arabia has also been building itself as an entrepreneurial hub; both on a public and private level. For over a decade, the Badir Program for Technology Incubators has been a center for startup support, and has helped hundreds of companies to grow and delivered more than SAR2 billion impact on the Saudi economy.

Monsha'at (Saudi's General Authority for Small and Medium Enterprises) was established just three years ago, but already has had tremendous impact on the ecosystem- supporting the launch of coworking spaces and hubs, raising the skills of Saudi founders, and building a culture of entrepreneurship.

It also launched the Saudi Venture Capital Company (SVC) in 2018, with funding worth US$1.33 billion to match investments or invest in funds. The government also aims to raise the contribution of SMEs to the GDP from 20% to 35% by 2030.

Related: Driven By Growth: Saudi Arabia Sees A Rise In Support For Startups And Entrepreneurs

Additionally, we're seeing a serious increase in the value of startup deals in the Kingdom. In 2019, we witnessed a number of big-ticket investments including a $8.6 million investment in Noon Academy co-led by Raed Ventures and Saudi Technology Ventures, marking the largest ever funding round raised by a MENA edtech startup.

NaNa Direct, an online grocery platform raised $6.6 million led by Middle East Venture Partners (MEVP) and Impact46. AI and supercomputing startup UnitX, a spin-out company from King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), secured $2 million from the KAUST Innovation Fund and Saudi Aramco's Wa'ed fund. And this comes on the heels of big investments in 2018, including Telfaz's $9 million investment round and Unifonic's whopping $21 million growth funding.

Need another reason to see Saudi Arabia's promise? The Kingdom is clearly open for business, as tourist visas are now being offered to citizens of more than 49 countries. The government has been making concerted efforts to facilitate foreign investments, with the Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority (SAGIA) accelerating the process of granting investor licenses, and launching Venture by Invest Saudi, an initiative to attract international VCs.

At the end of 2018, SAGIA also introduced a subsidized entrepreneur license to attract startups to the Kingdom. It is truly becoming easier and easier to do business in the KSA.

Let's not forget the KSA is leading digital transformation spend in the MENA region, holding a 31%+ share of the market in 2019. This is expected to continue, owing to huge public investments in digitizing the energy sector and megaprojects like Neom (the city of the future), and Spark (a 50-square-kilometer energy city) underway. Over the next 15 years, investment in AI alone is forecast to add 12.4% to the country's GDP. Clearly, governmental stakeholders are walking the Vision 2030 talk.

On another note, Saudi Arabia is undergoing a promising tourism and cultural boom, thanks to Vision 2030's Quality of Life Program. There are plans to create 149 art galleries, 27 electronic games facilities, 16 family entertainment centers, 11 museums, 45 cinemas, 3 theme parks, 44 public parks, 18 theaters, and an opera house- to make the country more vibrant and attract 100 million annual tourists by 2030.

Over the next 20 years, massive infrastructure investments reaching $1.1 trillion will be rolled out, aiming to strengthen the contribution of tourism from 3% now to 10% in 2030. New digital opportunities abound for players in the entertainment and tourism spaces as well.

In a nutshell, the government is committed: private sector players are stepping up their game, corporate investors are ready, the business climate has changed, women are increasingly joining the workforce (20.5%), and the base of local consumers and business buyers is the largest in the region. All the ingredients are there for enormous success stories to unfold in the tech space, and now is the time to hop on board.

For those looking to harness the massive potential in the country's digital sector, Saudi Arabia is not a market that can easily be served from a distance; it's critical to establish your presence on the ground, build real relationships and truly invest in local impact. In its eighth edition, ArabNet, the Kingdom's largest annual tech gathering, serves as the perfect way in and forward.

Related: Opportunity Knocks: Nine Business Sectors That Entrepreneurs Can Capitalize On In Saudi Arabia

Taking place on December 10-11 at the Riyadh International Convention and Exhibition Center, Arabnet will bring together over 6,000 decision makers and innovators to connect and learn.

It will include a rich agenda featuring 250 high-profile speakers covering a range of topics in six forums: Inspire Saudi for startups and investors, Ad/Edge for digital media and advertising, Finverse for digital banking and fintech, Digital Policy Forum for senior government leaders, CIO Forum for CIOs, CTOs, and senior IT decision makers, and Investor Summit for investors.

The event will also bring together 300+ exhibiting startups in the largest tech entrepreneurship showcase to take place in the Kingdom and the region, alongside more than 150 investors representing more than $1 billion in capital for startups seeking investment.

This year's program is packed with various inspiring initiatives and activations, including The Academy workshops on entrepreneurship, marketing and e-commerce; Pioneering Women, featuring talks and mentorship sessions by successful female executives, and Sawalif Riyadiya, gathering successful Saudi and GCC entrepreneurs to share their journey and experience.

With the increasing importance of Saudi Arabia as an entrepreneurial hub, and with startups around the region flocking to expand into the Kingdom, Arabnet Riyadh is the ideal platform to engage with the region's largest and fastest growing digital market, understand what it takes to enter it, find the right partners or investors, and connect with potential customers.

The time for Saudi is now, and ArabNet Riyadh is the place to make the next success story happen.

Related: Why Saudi Arabia Is Being Increasingly Seen As The Place To Be To Start A Business In The Middle East

Omar Christidis

Founder and CEO, Arabnet

Omar Christidis is the founder and CEO of Arabnet, which produces leading events, insights, and innovation programs focused on tech business and innovation in the MENA region. Before founding ArabNet, Omar worked in private wealth management at a family office in New York on a small team managing US $1 billion in diverse assets. Prior to that, he was a Consultant at Booz & Co. in the MENA, and worked on varied projects across industries, including energy, technology/media, and public sector. He holds a BA and MBA from Yale University, and is the co-founder of the Yale Arab Alumni Association. 

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