Interview: Anas Alfaris

To what extent will technology-focused small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) support the growth of local content in the Kingdom?

ANAS ALFARIS: SMEs make up more than 90% of the Kingdom’s businesses but contribute only around 20% of GDP. SMEs provide more than 8m jobs, 1.6m of which are held by Saudi citizens. In order to achieve the growth targets outlined in Vision 2030 and maintain global competitiveness, the government has created an ecosystem to enable companies to perform effectively on both a regional and international level. Several incentive programmes have been implemented to support the development of SMEs in targeted industrial clusters through the design and manufacture of specific products. By 2030 SMEs are expected to contribute up to 35% of GDP, increase the proportion of non-oil exports and create new job opportunities for Saudi citizens.

In recent years the Kingdom has strengthened its industrial base by localising technology and transferring it to the industrial sector. The Badir Technology Incubators and Accelerators Programme at KACST continues to support start-ups and promote technology entrepreneurship. Furthermore, through a partnership with the Saudi Technology Development and Investment Company, KACST aims to create value from technology through investments, partnerships and commercialisation to accelerate diversification.

How is technology driving the future of smart cities?

ALFARIS: At the current rate of population growth, major cities will be expected to undergo smart changes to match the type of services expected by residents. According to the UN, by 2050 more than 70% of the world’s population will live in urban centres.

Smart cities put data and digital technology to work to support city leaders in making better decisions. By leveraging wireless technologies, city operators can connect and improve infrastructure, efficiency and the quality of life for residents and visitors. Rapid technological progress over the last few decades has significantly changed the way people live, work and commute. Smartphones now provide instant information about traffic, safety alerts, health services and news. Leveraging modern technologies, such as modelling and simulation, artificial intelligence, internet of things, remote sensing and image processing, KACST has facilitated a number of projects to enhance the existing hard and soft infrastructure of Saudi cities. These projects yielded technological advancements such as 3D city urban and infrastructure modelling, and digital city twins that monitor activities through remote sensing systems and satellites. An integrated smart city platform is being developed to support multiple sectors including renewable energy, food supply, mobility, communications and environmental awareness.

What role will the Saudi Human Genome Programme (SHGP) and DNA testing play in improving the long-term preventive care of genetic disorders?

ALFARIS: Saudi Arabia has one of the highest consanguinity rates among Middle Eastern countries at roughly 60% of all marriages. Genetic diseases affect approximately 8% of the population at birth and up to 20% of the population at a later stage in life. To address this, KACST launched the SHGP, the largest genetic disease discovery project undertaken in the region. With an aim of tracking over 100,000 human genomes and identifying strategies to diagnose, prevent and treat genetic disorders through precision therapies, the SHGP seeks to reduce genetic disease and lay the foundation for the development of personalised medicine. The programme will offer premarital carrier screening, genetic mutation screening and broader examination for more complex and rare disorders. Genomics technology and information-based centres have already succeeded in identifying the mutations causing many previously unexplained diseases. The SHGP aims to establish Saudi Arabia as a major contributor to this genomics.