AHMED IBRAHIM LINJAWY

Saudi Arabia 2021 | ECONOMY | VIP INTERVIEW

TBY talks to Ahmed Ibrahim Linjawy, GCEO of King Abdullah Economic City (KAEC), about digitalisation, high-speed rail, and defining a long-term vision.

Vision 2030 contains specific KPIs around manufacturing, entertainment, quality of life, logistics, as well as digitalization and a streamlining of government processes. How does KAEC fit in with the larger goals of the vision?

I am proud and impressed by how the nation has transformed its citizen experience through improving the countries digital ecosystem. Almost every government transaction is now done electronically, and with excellent efficiency. Being a smart city was established as part of KAEC's vision from day one. This means having the right infrastructure, starting with basic telecommunications and fiber to every home, office, and attraction in the city. Then, there is the experience aspect, where we look at every touch point with the customers, whether they are a visitor, resident, or business. A major part of improving their experience is the digital side. We have many applications, solutions, and systems that are transformational. We have also set a target to be the best real estate developer when it comes to the digital experience. One example is that the whole experience of buying one's home is done digitally end-to-end. We are a driver of the vision, and the digitalization of King Abdullah Port's services and of those in the city represent our commitment to its realization. Creating a highly personalized and memorable digital customer experience has always been an integral part of KAEC's DNA, and the global pandemic has only reinforced the important role that technology plays in our lifestyle. As the master developer of an entire City, we have the distinct advantage of owning and curating the entire digital journey for our customers across key sectors; from tourism to the living experience. Therefore, digitalization for us happens in two critical areas; organization and city.

KAEC hosted the Saudi Ladies International Golf Tournament as part of the European Tour. How did that event change KAEC, and how did you manage the event under difficult circumstances?

The Royal Greens Golf & Country Club is just as important for KAEC as the port. King Abdullah Port is extremely significant, as it establishes KAEC as the place for logistics, industry, and trade. However, KAEC's Royal Greens Golf & Country Club is also transformational because it is now considered one of the top golf courses in the middle east. We created the golf course for the same reason we did the port—KAEC is playing a role in the transformation of Saudi Arabia. One of the areas we identified that was critical for the country and KAEC was sports, and the idea of expanding what sport means in Saudi. We were extremely fortunate to have a partnership with Golf Saudi and the Saudi Golf Federation, in terms of launching international tournaments here, starting from the coveted Saudi International powered by SBIA back in 2019. It has been a blessing hosting the men's tournaments twice, and in 2020 we have added another level with the first ever women's international golf tournaments in the Kingdom– Aramco Saudi Ladies International presented by PIF. That makes a big statement, both internationally and locally. The country is actively trying to show the world the real face of Saudi. Considering that and the media coverage the events have received, it has been extremely successful.

A Formula One race will be held on a street circuit in downtown Jeddah in 2021. Does KAEC have plans to capture some of the tourism inflow from that event or engage with motorsport more broadly?

F1 coming to Saudi, showcases the countries ambitions to become an active player and contributor to sports in general and motor racing in specific. We will target tourists from the F1 race, and we also have a racetrack in KAEC. We have just finished the track and will announce it soon as we are working with the Saudi Motor Sports Federation, the Public Investment Fund, and others to bring it to life allowing it to host other formats of car racing's events such as endurance racing, 24-hour races and other GT-related races. In the meantime, we will be actively capturing the tourism and hospitality traffic that will come to the event in Jeddah.

King Abdullah Port saw a three-fold increase in cargo volumes from 2018 to 2019 despite lower international trade overall. What are your future plans for the port, and how do you see it evolving within KAEC's wider strategic plan?

Sport events are certainly part of a key pillar for KAEC, and we like to label it a “quality leisure experience on the Red Sea." That is how we define our pillar and mission there. KAEC's second pillar is related to our unique living experience. We are not just building homes but creating a whole living ecosystem. Third, we offer a location for businesses to succeed, whereby we enable small businesses, entrepreneurship, and the service sector to grow in Saudi Arabia. The fourth pillar is what we call our global logistics and light manufacturing hub based on our location, both as a country and as a project on the Red Sea. There was and still is a gap in terms of the logistics infrastructure in Saudi Arabia. Again, KAEC wants to play a role given our location. King Abdullah Port is not just the basic physical infrastructure; there are many components that define a successful port. We have built a port that can accommodate the largest vessels in the world, including the required water depth and cranes. There is also an entire ecosystem in terms of regulations, how the port is operated, how goods are cleared, and so on. There has been great focus on ensuring the port is best in class on the engineering side as well as the operations side. Equally important is the logistics area around the port—that is where you complete the whole offering. It is the most efficient and fastest port in the country, and that is why it has seen such success.

How does having a Haramain high-speed rail stop in KAEC change the city and accessibility?

For any city to be successful, and especially a city promising a unique living experience, a global logistics hub, and more, it requires connectivity. Being by the sea, we have the port for cargo. As a large country, we need to be well-connected to the road network, and rail has been a major focus for Saudi Arabia, both for cargo and passengers. In addition, KAEC is fortunate to be linked by the Haramain high-speed rail. This is the first high-speed service connecting these three cities: Medina; KAEC; and Mecca, which together represent the highest population in the Gulf region. KAEC is in the middle, and having the Haramain high-speed rail also gives us immediate access to the airport in 30 minutes. In 2021 and beyond, the high-speed train will definitely play a major role in bringing more traffic into the city, both for tourism and business.

With a multi-decade development plan like KAEC, there must come a tipping point where there is enough development and activity for the whole venture to thrive. What evidence of that tipping point might we see in the near term at KAEC?

The two areas that are clearly witnessing a tipping point now are tourism and logistics. Tourism has been driven by the change in dynamics caused by COVID-19 and the government focusing on tourism. We are fortunate to be in the right place at KAEC, and we already have the assets and the experience. KAEC aims to become one of the most attractive tourism destinations on the Red Sea in line with the Kingdom's Vision 2030. As part of its endeavors aimed at meeting the growing demand for tourism and entertainment destinations in the Kingdom, KAEC pays attention to working on three tracks: Tourism and Entertainment Projects Targeting Saudi Families, World Sports, as well as Activities & Events (Social, cultural, sports, and art) events that suit all segments of society according to their different ages and interests. We are therefore able to capture local tourism quickly. Having the train connectivity will also contribute to the experience of coming to KAEC. The recognition of KAEC as a leisure destination is visible this year, and that is one example of the tipping point. In terms of logistics, the port continues to grow, even witnessing solid growth during COVID-19, especially healthcare-related inbound cargo, also playing a role in the wider supply chain. That growth shows we are finally seeing the tipping point related to logistics. KAEC has some of the largest logistics facilities in the Middle East. These are not just warehouses; they are advanced logistics facilities using state-of-the-art robotics and other technology. On top of that, we have light manufacturing. KAEC is considered the biggest hub for pharmaceutical companies in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. The likes of Sanofi and Pfizer have their factories here. It also helps us being close to King Abdullah University for Science and Technology (KAUST), which places heavy focus on research, so that whole ecosystem will also see a transformation now. With these two pillars of tourism and logistics, we will see a flow of more and more people coming to live in KAEC and experience the lifestyle we can offer them.