How Saudi Arabia is investing in research and development to diversify its economy

The country wants to create high-value jobs in science and technology and attract talent from all over the world

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Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman recently announced the national aspirations and priorities for the research, development and innovation sector to enhance the kingdom’s competitiveness and add 60 billion riyals ($16bn) to its gross domestic product by 2040.

Dr Munir El Desouki, president of King Abdul Aziz City for Science and Technology (KACST) in Riyadh, sits down with The National to explain what these plans for the RDI sector entail.

“What was announced on June 30 was a major milestone for the kingdom and all our partners around the world,” Dr El Desouki. who also heads the team setting up the Research, Development and Innovation Authority (RDIA), said.

“It sets our ambition for what we want to achieve, and innovation being our long-term goal we are targeting the year 2040 as it takes a while for plans to materialise in these kinds of sectors while building on intellectual property and talent development,” he tells The National.

The KACST supports innovation and facilitates scientific research to promote Saudi Arabia's industrial development.

The National Aspirations and Priorities for RDI initiative will entail an annual investment equivalent to 2.5 per cent of the country's GDP in 2040, creating “high-value” jobs in science and technology, and will strengthen the kingdom's position as the Arab world's biggest economy, Prince Mohammed said, according to a report by the official Saudi Press Agency (SPA).

What to expect from the Innovation Authority

RDI governance has been restructured and a supreme committee, headed by Prince Mohammed, has been formed to oversee the combined sector.

Dr El Desouki said the authority announces priorities for the kingdom to address such issues as water or food security, and selects flagship projects, moonshots which are then strategised and worked upon with partners. “We have 400 stakeholders — including Sabic, Aramco, every ministry, local and international partners — we work with all of them.”

“We work with all of them, to address what we need to work on, what should the road map look like, what to invest in — that's different sector by sector.”

The kingdom's economy in the first quarter of 2022 saw the highest rate of growth in the last 10 years amid increased activity in the oil sector, government data showed.

Prince Mohammed announced four priority areas — health and wellness; environmental sustainability and supply of essential needs; energy and industry leadership; and economies of the future.

“We developed strategies and steps to execute the policies in the right way, which led to a completely new re-governance of the sector that took place in the kingdom. This is really exciting for me and any other researcher in the kingdom,” said Dr El Desouki.

Seeking scientists from all over the world

The RDI plans rely heavily on open-innovation and science, including the launch of special programmes through the centre for special residency that will attract scientists from around the world and make it easy for them to migrate to the kingdom.

Dr El Desouki said the budget will increase tremendously towards 2040. “The research talent pool is going to need to increase by seven to eight times. That is huge.”

In 2019, Saudi Arabia launched a new programme to attract talent from around the world, whereby it grants citizenship to foreigners in fields such as science, technology and medicine, among others, to diversify its economy.

Omar Yaghi, an internationally-renowned chemist, is an example of that. Saudi Arabia granted Mr Yaghi citizenship last year.

An elected member of the National Academy of Sciences and the James and Neeltje Tretter Professor of Chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley, Mr Yaghi uses technology to harvest clean water from arid environments.

Saudi Arabia is one of the top producers of desalinated water, according to its Ministry of Environment, Water and Agriculture (MEWA).

The ministry has announced it is launching 16 more projects to develop water resources in the Riyadh region, at a cost of more than 100 million riyals. Saudi Arabia produces around 7.5 million cubic meters of desalinated water per day and is working to increase the daily production rate to 9 million cubic meters of water by 2025, according to MEWA.

“We produce it at the highest efficiency in the world, we have a world record for that. We also generated desalinated water using renewable energy- and one of the first plants that does so- in the world,” Dr El Desouki said.

“There will be a special track under the innovation policy to attract VC's, investors, potential future Nobel laureates and Omar Yaghi is one of them, among others. They're part of our family, and community.”

“We aren't constraining it to citizenship programmes, we have extended residency programmes for entrepreneurs, VCs and investors,” he added.

“One unicorn starting here or there can result in being one of the biggest tech companies in the world,” he said.

“Scientists want more than just a place with good tech or funding; they want to be in a place where innovation can take place and we aim to make Riyadh the innovation hub by launching these programmes.”

“All the challenges we are facing are global challenges, be it sustainability to food security — over 2 billion in the world don't have water- it's a global issue not just a Saudi one.

Fundamental transformation

On a personal level, Dr El Desouki is passionate about making a difference to help solve problems through technology. He said the fact that the message came from the Crown Prince sends a message to the world about how important it is to the kingdom.

“For the first time in the kingdom, we have a centre of government alignment on these kind of plans. The ministry of energy has its own plans, Neom has futuristic plans, be it Oxagon or The Line, but we need to alignment on all of them — from national or international players — to be able to solve the challenges.

“We have a subcommittee from the council of ministers that is leading the RDI upper council. This council will align everything happening on a national level. From space strategy, to Neom to other mega projects. We are fortunate that the Crown Prince himself is leading this project.”

“This dedicated budget and commitment from central government was what every researcher in the kingdom was dreaming of.”

Dr El Desouki said the kingdom is aiming for a 20-year horizon.

This strategy should be announced by the end of the year, with details, he said.

He said that even though the kingdom is the leader in research in the region, it was difficult in the past to link the academia to the private sector, start-ups and SMEs.

“So the pull-side was missing and a lot of the big companies that do R&D found it easier to do it abroad. We are fixing all these policies and working with the private sector to help make it easier for them that could be giving tax backs or subsidies or incentives.”

Another addition to the kingdom's innovation transformation are the recently signed 18 agreements and memorandums of co-operation between Saudi Arabia and the US in the fields of space, investment, energy, communications and health, during President Joe Biden's visit earlier this month.

Dr El Desouki welcomed the cooperative agreements adding that “it will further enhance the kingdom’s position as an attractive environment for innovators and creators, and in line with its vision 2030 of the country.”

“We launched an incubator called The Garage — which is a deep tech incubator — the largest of its kind in the region. We are renovating an existing parking building in KACST, just like the Station F where they turned a metro station into an incubator,” he said.

“They get access to all facilities. Until its launched we have a monthly event called the Garage-disrupt. I've seen start-ups coming from UAE, Oman, Bahrain, Ukraine and Russia. We already knew it was the largest market but now people are relocating to it because of the reforms and exciting changes taking place.”

Updated: July 21, 2022, 4:01 AM