TOP PRIORITIES

Saudi Arabia 2017 | TELECOMS & IT | INTERVIEW

TBY talks to Abdullah Al-Swaha, Minister of Communications and Information Technology, on the role of the ministry in an ever-changing digital and technological landscape.

Abdullah Al-Swaha
BIOGRAPHY
Abdullah Al-Swaha has more than 15 years of experience in IT, entrepreneurship, and executive and digital consulting. He has held several positions in the public and private sectors. In the public sector, he was the Director-General of Digital Transformation Office in charge of expediting the realization of Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 through a digital infrastructure that speeds up the achievement of Vision 2030’s objectives. In the private sector, he has served as the CEO of Cisco Saudi Arabia. He is currently Minister of Communications and Information Technology.

The IT sector is one typified by constant change. How would you describe the role of the ministry in today's climate of rapid technological advancement and breakneck reform?

In the midst of rapid technological advancements and disruptions, the ministry's primary role is to provide core enablers as well as a mature, dynamic, and favorable ICT ecosystem to businesses, citizens, and the government so that we, as a nation, can achieve the highest social and economic impact from technology and more broadly from digitization. Indeed, the IT sector is witnessing constant change and offers massive opportunities for the Kingdom. This has been recognized as part of the Vision 2030 and National Transformation Plan (NTP) 2020 priorities. Overall, our IT industry is growing; however, contribution to GDP remains modest at 0.4%, compared to 2% in best practice regional markets and 15% in best practice global markets. This offers massive development opportunities. Furthermore, the IT market continues to be import driven, where 80% of IT spending in the Kingdom goes to companies based outside the country. Hence, this offers a massive localization opportunity. Finally, we still have major improvements to be made on trust and security. The Kingdom witnessed around a 1,000 cyber attacks in 2016, targeting primarily foundational IT infrastructure and platforms. The social and economic reforms that the Kingdom leadership has lined up from the 2020 and 2030 horizons are expected to multiply the opportunities for the IT industry, thanks to increased digitization in citizens, business, and government applications and interactions.

The IT sector has the ability to directly and indirectly employ vast numbers of people. It also has the ability to bring markets to SMEs and create new tools for society. Is the ministry involved in training and equipping Saudis with technological skills, and how is this best done?

Building local skills and talent is among our top priorities as we currently suffer from a shortage of more than 50,000 specialists in our ICT workforce. It is also among our top priorities as it is a core enabler with a multiplier effect on the broader economy and its digital transformation journey. As such, we are indeed highly involved in fostering local ICT talent, and have successfully launched several talent development programs and partnerships with global IT companies to train more than 56,000 Saudi youths on key ICT skills between 2017 and 2020. We have also set up the National Information Technology Academy in collaboration with Saudi Aramco and signed multiple MoUs with private-sector companies to train and develop Saudi talent. We are also looking at new innovative approaches to foster, more broadly, digital talent across all ages as we strongly believe training alone is not enough; we need to develop a true digital culture in our people. Several flagship initiatives will be announced here very soon. To bridge the estimated talent gap, the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology (MCIT) is focusing on promoting ICT interest, elevating ICT skills, and ensuring ICT employability readiness. Among others, MCIT is mobilizing ICT providers and securing commitments to large-scale training and employment opportunities.

Broadband provision is a key area under the NTP. What plans are being made for increasing provision to rural areas, and will the private sector take the lead?

A nation-wide, efficiently deployed, high-speed broadband infrastructure is critical for Saudi Arabia, including in rural areas. One of the key challenges in infrastructure and communications is its large geographic spread, and NTP has set a target to increase broadband coverage to 70% of rural areas. We have been working toward this jointly with operators, regulators, and the private sector. The ministry has introduced a broadband stimulus fund to encourage the private sector to invest in broadband particularly in rural areas, and is working on establishing partnerships between municipalities and the private sector to accelerate deployment. In this fund, Zain has already been awarded the first phase and is on track to deliver the first milestone by the end of July. We are also collaborating with the private sector to evaluate regulatory mechanisms that will incentivize investment in infrastructure. We see the private sector as a direct stakeholder and partner in the ICT sector transformation as well as the overall national digitization journey. We expect the private sector to contribute to the country's national goals and as such to prioritize investments and resources on broadband provision to rural areas. We would also like the private sector to take the lead on piloting new technologies in fixed and wireless broadband like 5G, sharing best practices and recommendations for standards.