The Grand Plan

Although Saudi Arabia was late to embrace the internet, it has begun to gather momentum when it comes to creating a tech savvy society.

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By  Matthew Southwell Published  April 13, 2004

The challenge|~|sabti.jpg|~|The National IT Plan will address immediate issues and where the Kingdom needs to be in 20 years, says Dr. Khaled Al Sabti.|~|Saudi Arabia’s oil will only last for so long. After that, the Kingdom will have to compete on a more level playing field with the rest of the world. Key to doing this effectively is the creation of a tech savvy society that is capable of not only understanding the way more technologically advanced nations work, but one that can operate at a similar level. From there, the Kingdom can attempt to leverage that knowledge and forge ahead of the pack, eventually replicating its eminence in the energy sector in other industries. The first step in this grand plan was a tentative one, as the introduction of the internet to the Kingdom — the key to accessing and sharing information in the knowledge economy — only occurred in 1999. Since then, challenges in terms of adoption, a skewed internet service provider (ISP) model and infrastructure issues have hampered the development of an internet savvy society. Yet despite this stuttering start, the future looks rather more positive. In terms of pure investment, Saudi Arabia is expected to invest US$68.6 billion in information and communication technology (ICT) over the next 20 years. According to the Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority, this investment will be split into US$58 billion for the telecom sector and US$10.6 billion for IT. To support this investment, the government has also been addressing the human and infrastructure side of moving Saudi into the digital age. The cornerstone of all these initiatives is the Kingdom’s National IT Plan. Currently being developed by the Saudi Computers Society (SCS), the plan was first announced in 2002 by His Royal Highness Prince Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince, First Deputy Premier and Commander of the National Guard. The overarching objectives of the National IT Plan are the creation of a local IT industry and weaving of e-commerce into everyday life; the creation of job opportunities for young Saudi men and women; urbanisation through electronic education, electronic government and remote medical assistance; the preserving of Arab and Islamic cultures in the digital world; enhancing productivity and efficiency while minimising costs; the strengthening of national security through investment in information technology and the enhancement of the Kingdom’s infrastructure to facilitate all of the above. To achieve these lofty goals, SCS first brought all the concerned parties together to develop an initial methodology based on transparency, comprehensiveness and reality. At the same time, the SCS also gathered feedback from the Kingdom’s end users through local newspapers and electronic forms hosted on the National IT Plan’s website, nitp.org.sa. The result of this feedback and the SCS’ top level planning session was three core focus areas: urgent initiatives, a long-term vision and a detailed plan. Studies were also commissioned to address key areas including culture and education, commerce, ICT security and management and services.||**||The plan|~||~||~|“We talked to the major stakeholders and key people in the Kingdom to outline the long-term objectives of the National IT Plan,” says Dr. Khaled Al Sabti, project manager of the National IT Plan, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. “We looked at immediate issues that needed to be addressed to move the country in the right direction, as well as where we need to be in 20 years time,” he explains. In terms of the long-term plan, SCS and its peers identified four key components: a vision for the coming 20 years, specific objectives, general objectives and policies/implementation mechanisms. The detailed plan is broken up into six core stages and covers the first five years of the National IT Plan. Each stage also comprises thrusts revolving around the aforementioned categories of culture, commerce, communications & security and management. A special taskforce was also formed for each sub-thrust to complete the required studies. To support the SCS in this endeavour, assistance has been obtained from specialists at the World Bank, United Nations, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) and Gartner Group. At the time of going to press, a final draft of the National IT Plan had been submitted to the Minister of Communications & Information Technology for review and reaction to the first draft should be known by the time Gitex Saudi Arabia kicks off on April 18. In the meantime, Dr Khaled Al-Ghonaim, chairman of the SCS, reports that things are continuing at pace and many organisations have undertaken initiatives to accelerate Saudi Arabia’s drive into the knowledge economy outside of the National IT Plan. “A lot of great things are happening in the Saudi market and in our government departments, but we do not have the public relations and marketing power [to promote them], as is the case in other countries in the region,” he says. Evidence of these initiatives can be found from many sources. On the education front, the Kingdom’s Ministry of Education (MoE) has, for some time, been investing in both the infrastructure required to connect its schools and stock classrooms with the right learning tools. During 2003, the MoE rolled out a further 850 IT labs in elementary and secondary schools and also supported the Girls College Agency (GCPA) in its ambitious US$4.5 million project to create a realtime e-learning infrastructure. Currently under construction, the learning network is being built by Al Alamiah Electronics and includes three studios, an equipped broadcasting centre, a facility for designing the electronic curriculum and an electronic library. Al Alamiah is also building receiving stations at all the colleges across the Kingdom so students can receive lectures at special halls. When complete, the e-learning solution will deliver a number of benefits to the GCPA. For instance, it will no longer be necessary to have educational experts in every field in each province within KSA as lectures can be delivered directly from the location of the educational experts to any university or college, no matter the distance between them. ||**||Head start|~|faisaliah_m.jpg|~|There is an increasing amount of e-government activity in the Kingdom, says Selman Al Fares.|~|Elsewhere, the MoE also signed two huge deals with Al-Alamiah Electronics and HP in 4Q03. The first of the two projects will see Al-Alamiah assume responsibility for the maintenance of the MoE’s applications, equipment and related peripherals at various MoE concerns, while the HP deal will see the vendor and its local partner, Jeraisy, deploy more than 17,000 HP Compaq D230 PCs in 845 of the Kingdom’s schools. “The Ministry of Education in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is committed to training and educating nationals,” says Salih Al-Uwaishiq, head of the IT department, MoE, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. In terms of soft skills, the Saudi Government has also been active and the Human Resources Development Fund (HRDF) recently signed up with Saudi Business Machines (SBM) to establish a programme that will help the Kingdom’s youngsters boost their technical skills and find jobs within the technology industry. The training scheme is based on IBM’s Workforce Development Initiative (WDI) and will be carried out by the National System for Joint Training (NSJT), a coordination body comprising the HRDF, the General Organisation for Technical Education & Vocational Training (GOTEVOT) and the Riyadh Chamber of Commerce. The WDI programme will provide young Saudi’s with training in areas such as web and e-business development, graphics & multimedia development and Linux/open source systems administration. The training tracks also include soft skills such as business communication, presentation, project management and English. “We are very happy to be participating in this training programme by putting SBM/IBM expertise at the service of Saudi trainees,” says Hasan Barraj, general manager of SBM. “The programme will kick off with up to 240 trainees and we confidently expect the number will grow significantly in the coming years,” he adds. According to Dr. Faisal Al Khamis, general manager of the NSJT, the recruitment of IBM for the training scheme will give it both the standards and international clout it requires to succeed. Furthermore, he believes the programme will help the Kingdom’s companies hit their nationalisation targets, another core component of the National IT Plan. While the e-commerce angle of the National IT Plan has been a little slower to stimulate activity in the Kingdom’s market than the human resources focus, it too has generated results even before the plan is signed off. According to Selman Al Fares, group IT director of Al Faisaliah Group, rarely a week goes by without some sort of request for either proposals or tenders being issued by the Saudi government as it sources the technology it requires to fuel its e-government drive. ||**||The future|~||~||~|“In the government there is an increasing amount of talk surrounding e-government. We are seeing some of the RFPs come out and all of these represent opportunities that need to be crystallised during 2004,” he says. “There is also a lot of activity that is taking place and we also see activities from the government in terms of e-commerce and creating a PKI infrastructure and the rules and regulations to govern these practices,” Al Fares adds. Furthermore, the success of the Ministry of Hajj’s introduction of a range of online services for the two million pilgrims that visit the Kingdom to perform Umrah continues to act as a beacon for those in the Saudi Arabian government’s public sector. It also addresses the National IT Plan’s aim of preserving Arab and Islamic cultures in the digital world. Other initiatives that deliver on this objective are coming from private companies and will be on display at the forthcoming Gitex Saudi Arabia. For example, Ariss Computer has put The Holy Qur’an on a DVD that features a complete recitation by famous readers and a library of explanations. While the creation of an advanced technology learning environment, e-government and ways in which Saudi can protect its heritage online are in their early stages, other elements of the National IT Plan have been a going concern for many in the Kingdom for some time. In particular, the use of technology to enhance productivity and efficiency while minimising costs has become a mantra for many companies and rarely a week goes by without a local firm announcing either the start of, or the completion of, a project to deploy an enterprise resource planning (ERP) application or some other form of back office automation software. For example, Albilad Fire Fighting Systems, a company specialising in providing an integrated fire fighting systems to organisations such as Aramco and Sabic, has just gone live with an ERP application from IFS. Deployed in two phases, the project has seen modules for finance, distribution, service and project management rolled out and the solution is already delivering benefits. “The IFS ERP solution has helped us to standardise our processes and information. It is very easy to analyse our business data. Our new system enables us to make quick decisions and react to the changing market quickly and accurately,” says Mohammed Kabbani, Albilad’s IT manager. Elsewhere, Almarai has announced plans to build on its SAP R/3 implementation by investing approximately US$34 million in supply chain management (SCM) solutions, while Radwa Food Production Company has streamlined its sales operation with the installation of PeopleSoft’s EnterpriseOne ERP suite. “Radwa deals with the freshest produce on the market — eggs, chickens and feed — and we need a solution that enables us to manage our stock levels in realtime,” says Ahmed Basoudan, sales manager, Radwa Food Production Company. “This [ERP] solution allows us to calculate the exact numbers and availability of our inventory, track where our stocks are and process orders accordingly,” he adds. However, the key to further investment in business software and the realisation of the other goals identified by the National IT Plan is the success of the Saudi government’s plan to liberalise its telecommunications market. At the time of going to press, this drive had resulted in the introduction of four new VSAT providers and the unveiling of a tender process through which an additional mobile operator and two new data communications service providers will be allowed into the Saudi Arabian telecommunications market. Al Faisaliah Group’s Al Fares confirms that the impending liberalisation of Saudi Arabia’s telecommunications is key to market growth. As such, the company is already gearing up for a liberalised market and the lower prices and greater investment in IT it will bring. “We see a lot of activity in the IT marketplace, but even more so in the telecom space with the [forthcoming] deregulation of the GSM and data services,” he says. “This will be a catalyst for change and they will present business opportunities in themselves and there will also be opportunities caused by them. Even if the impact is limited during 2004, they will definitely be there in 2005,” he adds. Moving forward, it appears as if the liberalisation of Saudi’s telecommunications market and the successful implementation of the National IT Plan will ensure that the Kingdom can and will embrace information technology like never before. As a result, the Kingdom will be better able to fulfil its ambitions in the global market and truly claim to have created a tech savvy society capable of functioning effectively in the knowledge economy.||**||

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