How Saudi Arabia’s digital investments softened the impact of COVID-19
Saudi Arabia's digital investments are paying dividends in ways that nobody could have anticipated. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Saudi Arabia has been able to leverage its digital infrastructure and services to minimise the disruption and burden that the outbreak has imposed.
Over the last two decades, the Kingdom has made continued investment in modern digital infrastructure and robust digital government platforms. Then in 2016, Saudi Arabia unveiled Vision 2030, the bold initiative to unlock the region's digital economic potential and drive their digital revolution even further.
As such, while many countries talk the talk of digitalisation, Saudi Arabia was walking the walk, investing heavily in technologies to facilitate its ambition. Thus, by the time the coronavirus hit, Saudi Arabia had a unique advantage in its response.
Lockdown in Saudi Arabia
Lockdown came as no easy decision for any country; each region had to consider the unique impact that the pandemic would have on their economy, culture, and population, among many other deliberations.
In Saudi Arabia, lockdown led to a shutdown of the holy city of Mecca, as well as a cessation of ritual prayers in communal settings. Religious traditions are a large part of Saudi culture, and disruptions to them would indeed be sorely felt across the country. Then of course, there are the many other factors of daily Saudi life, such as schooling and work, to consider.
However, the region's technological investments are a good foundation for the country to build further digital services on. According to a World Bank blog, “[i]nternet speed was rising at a rapid clip for the last few years and has maintained a relatively high speed at 59.24 Mbps despite increased demand during the pandemic.”
In turn, Saudi Arabia has been able to facilitate virtual prayers and e-learning portals in response to the lockdown thanks to its solid digital infrastructure. Perhaps among the country's most notable offerings is the Kingdom's Central Appointment System (Mawid). This healthcare service enables patients to book, cancel, or reschedule appointments at primary healthcare centres. The Saudi Ministry of Health launched Mawid in May of 2019 – months before anybody would hear of COVID-19 for the first time – to empower patients to manage their own health, while also enabling the country to save on overall healthcare costs. Of course, once the coronavirus surfaced, Mawid was at the ready for patients to use, and able to withstand any increase in demand due to the country's prior digital investments.
However, Mawid is just one example of Saudi Arabia-specific digital services available in the country. Another notable service is the Yesser e-Government program. This service facilitates a digital government platform, which offers around 2,500 services for the people of Saudi Arabia. Amid the pandemic, it has been invaluable in ensuring business continuity, enabling various agencies to “deliver safe, reliable and user-centric services while enabling flexibility in sharing data across the government ecosystem” (World Bank).
As well as Yesser, citizens of and residents in Saudi Arabia can use Absher, a smartphone app, for a variety of governmental services. These services include reporting electronic crimes, applying for jobs and Hajj permits, and updating passport information.
Both Yesser and Absher experienced a significant surge in usage during the pandemic. Despite this, they have each been able to withstand the increased demand given the country's robust foundation. According to World Bank, 91% of the population are covered by 4G, and 3 million homes are connected to broadband, meaning an great majority have access to the apps and information they need.
COVID-19 has created quite the compelling case for digitalisation. From countries to businesses, those that gained good momentum in going digital pre-pandemic have fared proportionately better than those which haven't. Saudi Arabia has been able to demonstrate great resilience in the face of the pandemic, and it will be exciting to see where the country's digital capabilities take it in the future.