Interview: Essam Alshiha
In what ways is digital transformation impacting opportunities in the IT business?
ESSAM ALSHIHA: Saudi Vision 2030 presents a variety of opportunities for local and international IT players, such as security, internet of things (IoT), big data analytics and hardware. Saudi Arabia aims to have a paperless environment by 2020, and this is driving the growth of smartphones and smart machine applications. Saudi Arabia has a very young population, and Vision 2030 will require careful and informed decision-making. Information is a key resource, and the government is upgrading its big data capabilities by creating an overarching statistics and e-services platform, supported by investment in data centres and data-gathering systems. This will not only improve cost efficiency, but simplify customer relations with citizens and businesses. The government has signalled its intention to pioneer a big data mega project in partnership with an international firm, along with a system integrator. The project is yet to be launched but the intention is fully alive.
How do you assess the readiness of the Saudi private sector in terms of IT infrastructure?
ALSHIHA: The government is and will continue to be the main driver of IT spending in the current transition, either directly or through government-owned corporate entities. Banking offers the greatest IT potential in the private sector, but in order to unlock opportunities such as cloud adoption, some regulations on hosting banking data outside of the Kingdom will need to change. With respect to the commercial private sector, we need to tackle the belief that IT is a luxury rather than a necessity and that it is okay to run a business on paperwork. Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are behind with respect to IT adoption, while the more IT-savvy medium-to-large companies still see paper documents as a must. For the time being, any IT mentality shift will need the government’s pioneering and enforcing role – the private sector will follow.
What prospects do you see for investment in data centres and cloud solutions?
ALSHIHA: In the Middle East we see IT innovations coming in waves. They typically originate in the US, then flow to Europe and reach the region within three to five years. Therefore, technology investment is about picking the right wave and surfing it at the right time. Many government ministries and telecoms companies in Saudi Arabia chose the data centre wave and then found themselves behind with respect to the cloud solutions wave that followed. Most data centres are empty now because the concept was there as a physical building, yet the usage was not. We expect demand for data centres to increase in the future, even from abroad, coupled with greater cloud adoption among SMEs. SMEs won’t be able to afford heavy technologies so they will come to subscription-based cloud providers to plug their IoT applications, such as enterprise resource planning, billing and warehouse management.
Which training initiatives do you see lifting the quality of human resources in the IT field?
ALSHIHA: IT graduates in Saudi Arabia are well trained and compose 10-15% of total university graduates. At SBM, we are committed to empowering Saudi youth, especially fresh graduates in the ICT field. We provide them with the proper training and guidance to advance in their careers, such as our initiative with the Human Resource Development Fund to train IT graduates for a year. The programme was a success, and companies were hiring a lot of new graduates this way. The most talented graduates still prefer to continue training or seek work abroad, but many of them tend to come back to Saudi Arabia, ultimately contributing to technology transfer. The Ministry of Communication, Information and Technology is partnering with private sector companies to further train graduates, and major IT companies operating in Saudi Arabia have been able to shape universities’ curricula to fit with their job requirements.
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