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Cities of the future

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is pinning a lot of its multi-billion dollar investment plans on the economic cities currently being set up across the country. IT Weekly looks at the technology underpinning the development of these so-called ‘smart cities’.

Saudi Arabia is widely known to be the largest oil-producing nation on earth, responsible for a quarter of the world’s energy resources. However, the Kingdom currently hosts only 2.5% of the world’s energy-intensive industries, according to HE Amr Al-Dabbagh, governor of the Saudi Arabia General Investment Authority (SAGIA).

Unsurprisingly, he is keen to change the latter figure. Al-Dabbagh last week told IT Weekly that the authority was looking to attract US$300 billion in investment for energy-intensive industries by 2020, part of a staggering US$500 billion package of investment that also includes US$100 billion in knowledge-based industries and an equal amount for transportation. “The sky is the limit for us,” he stated simply.

A vast amount of this enormous investment will come through the Kingdom’s much-heralded economic cities: it has launched four so far, with two more scheduled to be announced later this year, Al-Dabbagh said. Where the new cities will be located has not been decided, he said, with locations in the eastern province of the Kingdom currently being considered.

What is clear is that the use of IT and communications will be essential to the development of all the economic cities, Al-Dabbagh declared: “It’s critical, we announced with John Chambers, chairman of Cisco, that these cities will be intelligent, smart cities. We would like the whole world to benchmark against these cities in terms of the capabilities of IT infrastructure and services. We are going to distinguish ourselves from the rest of the world by being the ultimate, intelligent smart cities.”

As part of its plans to use IT more effectively, SAGIA has invested in a multi-million dollar project to link together its various different units, allowing it to provide a better service to investors.

The system is called ‘Asaleeb’, the Arabic word for methods, and is scheduled to go live this week, with 50% “already operational” according to SAGIA executives.

Underpinning Asaleeb is SAP’s customer relationship management (CRM) software; SAP was chosen, according to Khaled Al-Bulaihed, general manager of the IT department of SAGIA, because it offered best practices for its CRM functionality.

“We are an investment marketing organisation, we are not in the business of developing detailed requirements, so our main priority was to get an environment that has the best practice already developed, so we can capitalise on it,” he said, arguing that technology alone was “only providing you with 30%, best practice and the procedure coming with services added together is 70% of the value of why we chose SAP”.

The purpose of the Asaleeb system is to make it easier for investors to interact with SAGIA; it helps prospective investors arrange meetings, secure visas and so on, as well as making it easier to obtain licences and labour documents once an investor has decided to start operations in the Kingdom.

For Al-Dabbagh, making the wheels of bureaucracy turn that bit faster is essential to SAGIA achieving its goals.

“We have announced a very aggressive plan to finish in Saudi Arabia by 2010 among the top 10 competitive nations in the world,” he said. “This programme, Asaleeb, will help us to do so in many areas,” he added.

“Not only that but we are also providing a service of SAGIA internationally. Investors in their home countries can from now on secure the investment licences for all international offices before even having to fly to Saudi Arabia,” he went on to say.

“We wanted to provide world-class services, services that are second-to-none that we would be distinguished with as an investment authority and we found these offerings available in SAP’s offerings,” Al-Dabbagh concluded.