TRANSFORMATION IN TRYING TIMES

Saudi Arabia 2021 | TELECOMS & IT | FOCUS: DIGITALIZATION AND REFORM IN THE GOVERNMENT

Saudi Arabia has gained plaudits from many observers who contrast the late, chaotic, and poorly managed response of many Western nations with the proactive, dynamic response of the Saudi authorities.

Saudi Arabia has long been working to overhaul the public sector, brining it fully into the digital age. The nation's leaders have made important strides in recent years, transforming nearly every area of activity by leveraging new, often state-of-the-art technologies to improve the government's ability to effectively provide services. Digital transformation has been viewed by government actors as one of the most effective means of pursuing large-scale social improvements. In 2020, the emerging COVID-19 crisis prompted government agencies to embark on an unprecedented coordination effort to ensure the digital tools at their disposal were working in concert to support the nation in a time of crisis, and all signs point to continued synchronization in 2021.

The government's efforts at supporting innovative solutions and implementing new technologies began much earlier in the decade with the announcement of kingdom's Vision 2030, which endeavors to facilitate a national transformation by supporting a domestic environment that stimulates development and modernization in crucial parts of the economy. One of the unintended, yet entirely beneficial, outcomes of this work was that the government was better prepared to handle the global pandemic than less pro-active nations. In fact, Saudi Arabia has gained plaudits from many observers who contrast the late, chaotic, and poorly managed response of many western nations with the proactive, dynamic response from the Saudi Government. According to a recent article published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, a leading peer-reviewed journal on healthcare in the internet age, the Saudi government and private sectors produced an impressive 19 apps and other digital platforms that support public health activities and offer public health services. The pandemic has provided a test-case of the digital transformation taking the Kingdom by storm, and the results have indicated that the national response has been a success.

One of the most innovative government agencies has been Saudi Arabia's Ministry of Health. With the launch of its healthcare appointment gateway, Mawid, in 2018, the ministry signaled its intentions to be a leader in the digital transformation of the healthcare space. The subsequent deployment of the Sehhaty app, which aimed to support an array of public health goals, in 2019 cemented the Ministry of Health as a leader in digital health innovation. The government has been able to utilize this digital health infrastructure to promote a variety of new COVID-19-focused services and functions, such as the development of a symptom checker and an appointment service.

A similarly important digital public health tool has been the country's Health Electronic Surveillance Network (HESN), which is a national surveillance platform for tracking communicable diseases that was first launched back in 2012. Thanks to the proactive implementation of the system, Saudi Arabia was able to work out many of the kinks in the system long before they were faced with a test as critical as the COVID-19 pandemic. In contrast to the paralytic and confused response by larger and more advanced nations, Saudi Arabia has worked to create a cohesive governmental response that leverages technology to clearly communicate with its citizens and provide essential health services to those most in need. By pivoting toward digital solutions, the Kingdom has been able to coordinate actions to a much greater degree, thereby creating a more cohesive and comprehensive response to the pandemic. As more and more nations began distributing and administering vaccines, Saudi Arabia can rely on the robust infrastructure it has built to ensure timely and extensive inoculations. In fact, Saudi Arabia was the first Arab nation to distribute the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.

While the nation's efforts in the healthcare sector, justifiably, gets most of the attention for its efforts during the pandemic, other government entities have been just as impactful thanks to a keen focus on digital development. According to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia's General Authority for Statistics' Annual Statistical Year Book, there were around 1.35 million students attending 28 governmental and 34 private higher education institutions and more than 5,000 schools providing secondary education in the country. As with health sector, visionary work on the part of the government earlier in the decade set the stage for a largely, though not entirely, successful transition to online learning. While challenges remain in terms of ensuring the continuousness of education services throughout the country, the framework provided by the Ministry of Education's National Center for e-Learning has given educators and students an excellent foundation for maintaining continuity in these trying times. Though the pandemic has provided an immense challenge to the government and the nation, strong planning and quick action has seen the government rise to the challenge.