The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a growing digital and technological powerhouse. According to the European Centre of Digital Competitiveness (ECDG), the Kingdom was the top digital riser (country with the single most increase in its digital competitiveness) within the Group of 20 (G20) over the last three years.
The Saudi Data and AI Authority (SDAIA)
Traditionally, the Kingdom lacked a central government entity with a clear royal mandate and ownership of the data and AI portfolios. However, the establishment and launch (2019-2020) of the Saudi Data and Artificial Intelligence Authority (SDAIA) and its three sub-entities – i) the National Centre for AI (NCAI); ii) the National Data Management Office (NDMO); and iii) the National Information Centre (NIC) – has ushered in the most significant regulatory development impacting the emerging-tech ecosystem in the Kingdom.
Since its inauguration, SDAIA has driven the national data and AI agenda in a bid to advance the objectives of the Kingdom’s Vision 2030. Most recently, SDAIA, in partnership with the Ministry of Telecommunications and Information Technology (MCIT), led the G20’s Digital Economy Task Force and guided the Kingdom’s response to Covid-19 through the launch of apps such as ‘Tawaklna’ and ‘Tabaud’. In addition, the authority has unveiled a set of policies – including the Kingdom’s Data Classification Policy, the Personal Data Protection Policy, the Data Sharing Policy, the Freedom of Information Policy and the Open Data Policy – to pave the way for a robust, business-friendly regulatory environment.
SDAIA’s sub-agencies have also been active, with the NIC launching Saudi’s government cloud, Deem, which provides various cloud services to public sector entities and aims to enhance government performance, boost e-service provision, reduce digital infrastructure costs, and ensure high information security standards. As well as this, NIC has supervised the maintenance of ‘Esteshraf’, a national AI-powered platform created to enhance data availability, foresight capacity and efficiency of spending on digital infrastructure in the Kingdom.
The National Strategy for Data and AI (NSDAI)
To maintain and boost Saudi leadership, today, during the inaugural Global AI Summit, hosted under the auspices of H.R.H Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman, SDAIA revealed the widely anticipated National Strategy for Data and AI (NSDAI). Dubbed “ASPIRE”, the Strategy reiterates Saudi’s commitment to leverage responsible AI in achieving its national digital transformation objectives, solidify its role as a data and AI hub, and boost the ICT sector’s contribution to the Kingdom’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
NSDAI has 6 main pillars:
- Ambition – to be amongst the top 15 countries in the development and application of AI by 2030
- Skills – to train and host more than 20,000 data and AI specialists and experts by 2030.
- Partnerships – with leading AI nations, international organisations, and private sector institutions.
- Investments – of over USD 20 billion in Data and AI
- Regulation – to foster a business-friendly regulatory environment, based on international best practice.
- Ecosystem – of more than 300 active data and AI start-ups hosted in the Kingdom by 2030, and world class regulatory sandboxes for the development and deployment of AI-powered technology.
The Future of AI in the Kingdom
Globally, consensus exists on the positive impact of AI on our societies. In fact, Saudi Arabia estimates that achieving 66 of its 2030 Vision objectives is directly tied to the development and deployment of AI-powered applications.
In that regard, the National Strategy for Data and AI follows international best practice, and goes one step further in affirming the Kingdom’s willingness to adopt a fresh and positive approach that alleviates international cooperation over competition when it comes to developing and deploying AI.
The Kingdom’s success will be underpinned by how, in the first instance, it regulates the local tech ecosystem. More needs to be done here to permit cross-border data flows, reduce barriers to market entry and set clear principles for the ethical use of AI. A national personal data protection law will help to achieve all these objectives by establishing guidelines on the use of personal data.
With responsible governance in mind, the Kingdom must now amplify its call for global digital cooperation. The spirit of the Sustainable Development Goals, as well as the G20’s commitment to leave no one behind, is particularly important as the world recovers from the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.
 The Data Classification Policy establishes 4 classification levels (general, restricted, secret, and top-secret) to guide data use across the Kingdom.