Saudi Arabia Has Become the Next Tech Battleground
Strengthened by internal strategic cohesion, Riyadh is transforming into a tech hub for competing global technologies.
Technological innovations have brought tectonic shifts in global geopolitical dynamics over the past decade. A technological competition between the two major powers, China and the United States, is now underway, with implications for the globe. And like every war needs a battleground, the emergent tech war, too, needs a platform for the tech powers to showcase their strength and achieve victories.
Saudi Arabia has embraced the situation with both hands. Having laid its Vision 2030 plan, which seeks to diversify its economy through increased focus on innovation, Riyadh has made digital transformation a critical goal. However, considering the contemporary geopolitical realities, Riyadh must also embrace diplomacy, strategic autonomy, and a multipolar perspective. There is reason to believe that the Saudis are ready to do so.
Saudi Arabia organizes several of the world’s biggest forums and platforms in the tech space. Its annual Global Cybersecurity Forum discusses the universal opportunities and challenges posed by the evolving cyber order, and the LEAP Tech Conference—an annual tech convention—serves as a global platform to exhibit future technologies and some of the most disruptive tech professionals from around the world.
But before taking over as a center for global tech attention, Riyadh has brought its house in order with strong policy and strategy frameworks, reflected in its second rank in the International Telecommunication Union’s Global Cybersecurity Index—a reference that measures the commitment of countries to cybersecurity at the global level.
After creating a National Cybersecurity Authority in 2017, Saudi Arabia created a Data and Artificial Intelligence Authority (SDAIA) in 2019 and launched the “CyberIC” program in 2022, seeking to develop its cybersecurity sector by localizing cybersecurity technology and encouraging indigenous cybersecurity startups.
The China story
The recently concluded LEAP 2023 gave a glimpse of Chinese interest and inroads in Saudi Arabia’s tech oasis. While Huawei displayed its latest innovation solutions under the theme “Unleash Digital,” demonstrating end-to-end innovations and industrial applications for some of Riyadh’s key focus sectors like oil, gas, and governance, Huawei Cloud announced its plans to invest $400 million over the next five years to establish its infrastructure in the country.
For Huawei, Saudi Arabia is a platform to present its advances in the cloud and artificial intelligence. This is exemplified by the unveiling of Huawei’s second store in Saudi Arabia in early February this year, having opened its biggest flagship store outside China precisely one year ago in Riyadh in February 2022. Furthermore, to strengthen the partnership, the Saudi Arabia-China Entrepreneur Association (SCEA) has been launched, comprising over 100 Saudi and Chinese businesses, government entities, academic institutions, and non-governmental organizations.
While Chinese media underlines SCEA as pivotal to driving continued progress in the digital transformation of both Saudi Arabia and China, in Saudi Arabia, it is seen as a critical step toward the Saudi-China strategic partnership in terms of tech and innovation.
A U.S. comeback?
The United States shifted attention to the Indo-Pacific in the past decade due to its decreased reliance on the Middle East region for energy needs. However, in light of accelerated decoupling from China, Washington is rejuvenating its regional strategic partnerships. This is visible in several recent announcements like I2U2 (a grouping of India, Israel, the United States, and the United Arab Emirates) and the expansion of the Abraham Accords to include cyber collaboration.
In May 2022, the Saudi minister of communications and internet technology met with the U.S. deputy national security advisor for cyber and emerging technology to review efforts to foster the partnership and develop bilateral cooperation in cybersecurity and emerging technologies. Then in July, Saudi Arabia and the United States signed the “Jeddah Communique,” outlining the strategic partnership between the two over the coming decades, aiming to advance mutual interests and offering a shared vision for a more peaceful, secure, prosperous, and stable Middle East. U.S. president Joe Biden remarked that Saudi Arabia would invest in new U.S.-led technologies to develop secure and reliable 5G and 6G networks, in Saudi Arabia as well as in developing countries, in coordination with the Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment. This collaborative effort by the G7 countries is based on trust principles of the Blue Dot Network (a multi-stakeholder initiative by the United States, Japan, and Australia) and is a vital component of the “Biden doctrine.”
These agreements are seen as a boost to containment efforts by the United States against the accelerating proliferation of Chinese technologies in the region.
A third tech pole?
Indian-Saudi Arabian relations have intensified on the political, diplomatic, and tech front in recent years. In November 2022, India’s national cybersecurity coordinator, Lt. Gen. Rajesh Pant, remarked that Saudi Arabia and India would soon sign a memorandum of understanding (MoU) to elevate cooperation in cybersecurity and that the bilateral talks are steadily progressing. Several major Indian companies like Tata, Wipro, and TCS have a strong presence in Saudi Arabia, with many others now in line to get a piece of Riyadh’s investment offerings. This was also visible at the LEAP 2023, which saw participation from over forty-five Indian companies and a delegation from the Confederation of Indian Industry—a non-governmental trade association and advocacy group representing the Indian industry’s interests.
On the sidelines of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos earlier this year, the Saudi minister of communications and internet technology met with his Indian counterpart to discuss strengthening the Indian-Saudi strategic partnership in technology, innovation, and digital entrepreneurship. At the recently concluded LEAP, the results emanating from the WEF meeting were underlined by Tech Mahindra—one of India’s top software companies—signing a MoU with the Ministry of Communication and IT to set up a “Data & AI and Cloud Centre of Excellence” in Riyadh, and Zoho Corp—another leading Indian multinational software company—announced plans to boost investment in Saudi Arabia.
Trends for 2023
Saudi Arabia has faced a slew of cyberattacks on its critical industrial sectors in recent years. In one estimate, 54 percent of Saudi organizations experienced business-impacting security incidents, while over 56 percent of organizations in the country faced ransomware attacks in 2021. Today, while over 50 percent of the Saudi IT sector workforce is non-Saudi, Riyadh has focused on encouraging universities to invest heavily in curricula to develop the required cyber skills among students. In the past decade, major international companies have hired and trained Saudis, and government policies now encourage companies to employ local talent aggressively. In addition, the Saudi government has inked an agreement with the WEF to explore cybersecurity cooperation and a deal with the United Nations to empower children in cyberspace.
Strengthened by internal strategic cohesion, Riyadh is transforming into a tech hub for competing global technologies. At the WEF in Davos, the Saudi finance minister emphasized that the country can be a conduit between China and the United States during heightened geopolitical tensions. While the United States has been a long-standing strategic partner, China and Saudi Arabia signed a strategic partnership agreement in December 2022—described by the Chinese Foreign Ministry as “an epoch-making milestone in the history of China-Arab relations.” Moreover, while Huawei has a broad penetration in the region—posing difficulties for new entrants—the new partnership with the United States based on open technology frameworks can help offset China’s inroads.
Indeed, it appears that there are three countries looking to develop and enhance strategic partnerships with Riyadh. As the United States and India embolden their bilateral partnership under the initiative on the Critical and Emerging Technology paradigm, it remains to be seen if a trilateral strategic partnership framework can emerge between India, the United States, and Saudi Arabia. For now, all the tech roads seem to be heading to Riyadh.
Divyanshu Jindal is a Research Associate at NatStrat, India. His research revolves around geopolitics, cyber, and influence operations. Views are personal.