by John Benny

Saudi Arabia’s technology investments pay off in coronavirus battle

News Analysis
Apr 04, 2020
Emerging TechnologyEnterprise ApplicationsGovernment

The COVID-19 outbreak in Saudi Arabia has become an unexpected catalyst for demand for mobile apps, government portals, and emerging tech like drones.

healthcare technology / medical data
Credit: Metamorworks / Getty Images

Digital services that were introduced to bolster government institutions over the last few years are proving to be effective as Saudi Arabia locks down parts of the country.

From an app that allows people to book hospital appointments from their homes, to an e-learning portal, the country is now slowly bearing the fruits of a digital push that began with the announcement of the Vision 2030 program in 2016.

“Technology is being relied on heavily by the government to provide digital services, manage healthcare operations and identify those infected with COVID-19,” said Carrington Malin, an entrepreneur and technology writer.

The Central Appointment System (Mawid) is an example of a successful digital service. The mobile app, which was launched by the Saudi Ministry of Health last year, is being used to streamline individual applications for COVID-19 tests and has become central to the Kingdom’s coronavirus response.  

The app recently started offering a symptoms self-assessment feature as the number of confirmed cases spiked. To use the Mawid app, a user must have an account with the Saudi Ministry of Interior’s Absher platform, which gives residents of the country access to government services and also allows individuals and businesses to make financial transactions. Services are also offered via a web portal.

Saudi Arabia is utilising existing investments

The use of thermal imaging for screening is another example of how government departments are leveraging existing investments.

The country has been long been using thermal-imaging cameras at airports to help screen for infectious diseases such as Ebola and MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome), in particular during the annual Hajj season. These cameras are now being used to screen for the novel Coronavirus, which causes COVID-19.

However, one of the biggest measures introduced by Saudi Arabia in recent weeks is the closure of thousands of schools across the Kingdom and implementation of e-learning.

“Again, Saudi’s previous investments seem to be paying dividends here,” said Malin.

The Ministry of Education has spent the last five years developing the National Education Portal, known as iEN. The portal, which is already being used by many schools to support traditional teaching methods, now supports millions of Saudi students studying at home.

The digitization of services is not restricted to health and education alone.

Justice Ministry offers services via portal

The Saudi Ministry of Justice’s Nagis portal offers electronic judicial services for matters related to court services, agencies, real estate, and even marriage contracts. By using the Ministry of Interior’s website, residents can now avail a wide range of services from their homes, including renewal of passport and extension of visit visa.

“Saudi Arabia has done a remarkable job in utilizing technology as one of the main tools in their efforts to contain the situation,” said Bilal Sununu, the CEO of Business to IT Services (B2ITS), a Saudi Arabia-based consulting and infrastructure solutions provider.

 Like its neighbors in the Gulf including the UAE and Oman, the country has removed restrictions on remote working tools like Microsoft Teams and Zoom.

Saudi Arabia has also been promoting e-channels and e-payments by helping service providers set up the needed platforms to facilitate stay-at-home needs, Sununu said, adding that the government was “officially recognizing” delivery service applications and promoting “Whatsapp-based” ordering.

This move to digital comes amid growing internet penetration in the country.

According to Statista, nearly 75 percent of the Saudi population used the internet in 2018. This share is projected to grow to more than 96 percent in 2023 – matching levels observed in Europe and North America.

Using emerging tech to fight coronavirus

In some instances, Saudi Arabia has used emerging technologies to halt the spread of the virus. It is using drones in the central Qassim region to read the body temperature of people in open areas. If a person is found to have an “abnormal” temperature, preventive measures are taken, state media reported.

“This is part of the precautionary measures implemented by the Municipality of Al-Qassim to prevent corona virus,” the Saudi Press Agency reported.

In neighboring UAE, drones are being used to carry loudspeakers to broadcast messages and take photographs.

The expansion of digital services is part of the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 program – a comprehensive plan aimed at transforming Saudi Arabia’s economic landscape, while reducing its reliance on crude oil exports.

According to the official document, the country will “expand the scope of current online services further to include areas such as geographic information, health care and education. Quality will be improved by streamlining processes, and diversifying communication channels.”

It goes on to say that the government will support the wider use of online applications in government agencies, such as cloud applications, data sharing platforms and HR management systems.

Saudi Arabia’s quick ascendance on the technology ladder is also supported by strong government spending. Overall spending on information and communication technology (ICT) in the country is set to reach US$37 billion this year, up 2.4 percent from 2019, according to an IDC report last month.

“Countries that are able to quickly apply new technologies and offer new digital services to solve today’s problems, will be well positioned to reap rewards from these technologies in the future,” Malin said.