Saudi Arabia 2019-2020 | TELECOMS & IT | VIP INTERVIEW

TBY talks to Ibrahim bin Salem Al-Shadokhi, Director General of the Saudi Research & Innovation Network (Maeen), on Saudi Vision 2030, connecting research and industry, and the health sector.

How did Maeen come to be founded, and what role does it play within the digital transformation of the Kingdom?

In 1985, after the formation of GulfNet, we connected King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology (KACST) to the Bitnet, the US research network at the time. In 1997, we first connected KACST to the internet, and then later the entire Kingdom. KACST was initially focused on the academic and research sectors, and the entire commercial segment was eventually outsourced to Telecom companies in 2006. Given the increase in traffic, we later connected the research segment to Internet2, which led to the formation of Maeen. Today, 27 universities, 20 government institutes, seven research centers and three hospitals are connected to Maeen. This successful achieve is a tremendous growth with an unprecedented scope to enable the digital transformation across the Kingdom's education, research, health, and industry sectors through Saudi Vision 2030.

What are your expectations for the short-term future, and how does Maeen position itself with regards to these major industry developments?

We hope there will be a new global technology other than the internet; there are tests currently being done between GÉANT and Internet2 for a 400-GB infrastructure. There are many applications coming through the internet, and researchers do not like the noise that social and commercial applications are generating on the Internet, which on the other side are directly affecting the volume of traffic and latency required for research applications. As such, the first role of Maeen is to create a special channel for collaboration and integration that connects all research institutes, academic and industry. Secondly, Maeen seeks to establish a portal that will integrate high-performance computing (HPC) together in the Kingdom, acting as an enabler of the services. Third, it seeks to exploit its nature as a consortium to reduce the price of Maeen's member connectivity even further from What the research and academic sector are getting. For this reason, telecom companies look into Maeen as a competitor, Which of course is not the case. Therefore, it would take effort to demonstrate that Maeen is a National initiative and telecom companies are partners in success. At the moment, we are looking to work with all telecom companies and big international vendors, including Cisco and other big names. We are looking to have success stories and case studies in which these vendors would test their new unannounced products through Maeen network.

Can you tell us what your strategy is to work with industry?

Maeen currently seeks to address the issues both on the applied research side and on the fundamentals one. Regarding the latter, currently, many research projects are not being developed because there is no integration between both research and academic sector from one side and the industry on the other side. This is why we are looking into developing the proper methodology and connect these research projects with corresponding industry firm to turn them into products. On the other hand, industries would be able to find the suitable research or researcher that would support implementing their future initiatives without the need of investing to build their own R&D. The industry wants certain projects and seeks certain researchers of subject matter experts. This will be implemented using a national application portal that would create a communication channel researchers and national industries, which may expand later on globally.

Does Saudi Arabia need more applied research or general research?

We need both, because if you do not support some researchers with funding and tools, they will not continue with research. Some researchers do not want to be controlled and want to think and work on his own. We would like to play in both areas, supporting researchers financially and operationally and providing them with initial ideas from the industry to work on. What needs to be addressed properly—and we feel there is gap here—is ensuring that once the research is completed, it will lead to tangible results by linking these results to the proper industry firm.

What is the next step for Maeen, and what is its significance?

We are in the process of signing a memorandum of understanding agreement and establishing a peering connection with GÉANT. In addition, we are in communications of connecting industry research centers such as of Aramco and SABIC. We are also in negotiation with the Ministry of Health to connect all the hospitals with Maeen to be part of research community.