Interview: Fahad Al Shebel

Considering the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, which strategies are expected to underpin the development of the local health sector?

FAHAD AL SHEBEL: Recent years have been exceptional due to the disruptions caused by the pandemic and the subsequent challenges in global supply chains, some of which we are still experiencing today. NUPCO rapidly adapted its operations by expanding public procurement capabilities and opening a pharmaceutical supply centre to deal with these circumstances. Similarly, the company focused on digitising internal operations and processes by investing in technology to improve connectivity and efficiency.

In the short term we will continue to diversify our product sources to improve flexibility and expand agreements with all manufacturing partners. In the medium to long term, Saudi Arabia is expected to increase its domestic manufacturing capabilities to reduce risks stemming from possible future disruptions in nationwide supply chains. The government has initiated a national campaign to encourage domestic firms to expand their manufacturing capabilities to produce pharmaceuticals and medical supplies in the country, and attract foreign companies to establish operations and manufacturing facilities.

This strategy, based on localisation, is an essential part of the country’s plans to boost self-sufficiency in key sectors and improve its competitiveness in international markets. It is also proof of the transformation that local health players are undergoing with the support of the private sector and in line with Vision 2030, the long-term transformative economic and social reform blueprint.

How are global technological advancements in the manufacturing and provision of medical supplies impacting local development?

AL SHEBEL: Technology and digital tools will be the main drivers of change and will determine the future of the industry globally. It will be important for Saudi Arabia to keep up with this trend and to build the right ecosystem for new technologies. Indeed, the health care sector has already started investing in artificial intelligence and big data. For example, NUPCO collects and analyses data from 30m prescriptions issued through Wasfaty annually to produce valuable information for better and faster decision-making.

Such technological advancements come with a subsequent need to invest in the development of human capital. Saudi Arabia already has a great pool of talent available, and the rapid changes that the industry is experiencing mean that skills and capabilities need to be continuously upgraded. This requires strong partnerships with local academic stakeholders, as well as with global manufacturers with the best international practices, experience and technologies. Transferring this knowledge to the local market will form the basis for the continued growth and transformation of the Kingdom’s health sector.

What can be done to make domestic pharmaceuticals more competitive internationally?

AL SHEBEL: The Saudi Food and Drug Authority has strict standards regarding the quality of products and medicines marketed locally. Although this is important for the domestic market, it also means that manufacturers need to develop innovative solutions, ensure quality and further elaborate their value-added propositions to compete on a global scale. Furthermore, the Kingdom needs to continue to boost efficiency in the procurement of pharmaceuticals, medical equipment and supplies for our local industry to become more competitive internationally. It is imperative to achieve cost savings by harnessing the power of group purchasing and effective, fact-based negotiation. Similarly, Saudi Arabia will continue to reduce pharmaceutical overstock to enhance spending efficiency by partnering with leading industry players.