Saudi Arabia leverages disruptive technologies to solve pressing challenges

Economy-wide digitalisation and a steadily developing innovation ecosystem are aiding socioeconomic development in Saudi Arabia. When strategically implemented and harnessed, innovative and disruptive technologies not only positively impact commercial economic performance, but also equip nations to find cost-effective solutions to pressing challenges.

Saudi Arabia’s government has built its long-term socioeconomic development blueprint, Vision 2030, around its appreciation of that fact, prioritising the continuous and rapid expansion of digital infrastructure and research, development and innovation (RDI) capabilities in order to enhance its economy’s global competitiveness. Sectors such as transport and logistics, retail, education and public services have undergone scaled digitalisation in recent years, raising economic performance and greatly benefiting the Kingdom during the Covid-19 pandemic. Advanced and innovative technologies across a number of key sectors and flagship projects will propel the next stages of Saudi sustainable development, with self-sufficiency paramount in the drive to solve major socio-economic challenges. While these technologies will be implemented throughout the Kingdom, NEOM – a mega-project designed to be the world’s first cognitive city – will harness them all, providing a concentrated showcase of the government’s vision for the future.


As the worldwide transition to renewable energy gathers pace, Saudi Arabia is aiming to retain its prominence in the global energy landscape by becoming the largest producer and exporter of hydrogen fuels. Existing industrial capacities will be adapted and utilised for production and storage of blue hydrogen, which is derived from natural gas and emits less carbon than traditional fossil fuels, while major investment is under way in the construction of carbon-free green hydrogen facilities. By 2030 the government aims to meet 50% of its energy needs with renewable energy and the remaining 50% with natural gas. Net-zero carbon emissions are targeted by 2060.

Hydrogen Energy

Hydrogen’s potential as the fuel of the future lies in its proven efficacy, but its economic and commercial viability remain in question due to high production, transportation and storage costs. Global energy players are applying their RDI capacities to find solutions to these challenges as they look to establish a leading presence in a market in which its value could reach $700bn by 2050. Converting hydrogen to ammonia makes it safer for transportation, and in 2021 Saudi Aramco made moves in establishing global hydrogen supply chains, shipping 40 tonnes of blue ammonia to Japan. As part of its drive to generate new income streams to lead the company away from fossil fuels dependency, the company has identified the carbon-intensive transport sector as offering commercial opportunities for hydrogen. The firm has partnered with several international entities, including French clean transport solution provider Gaussin, for the production of hydrogen-powered vehicles, and has deployed its new innovation arm, LAB7, to develop hydrogen fuel cell technologies.

Air pollution costs 270,000 lives across MENA each year and an estimated $141bn – equivalent to around 2% of the region’s annual economic output. Traffic pollution and hydrocarbons production emissions are central to this problem, so the dual effect of the world’s largest fossil fuel-based company demonstrating a commitment to lowering its emissions, while directing its expertise and resources towards related commercial avenues, represents a significant step in combatting this issue.

NEOM is set to host the Kingdom’s first green hydrogen plant, Helios, which is being developed as a joint venture between Riyadh-based ACWA Power, NEOM and US company Air Products. Its 4-GW capacity will make it the largest hydrogen-to-ammonia plant in the world. The $5bn project, set to commence commercial operation in 2026, will be powered entirely by wind and solar energy.

Through partnerships with King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology (KACST) and various industry players, the Jeddah-based University of Business and Technology (UBT) is playing a leading role in developing technologies to diversify and raise the efficiency of wind and solar energy production. “We are working on a proof of concept for an airborne wind energy system for implementation in the Kingdom,” Basma El Zein, director-general at UBT Techno Valley, told OBG. “We also hold patents relating to nano-technologies for use in solar cells and for energy storage in batteries and super-capacitors, and we will be working hard to industrialise these technologies,” she said.

Water Desalination

While the Kingdom’s environmental conditions benefit wind and solar energy production, an arid climate means it has a limited supply of groundwater. Currently, Saudi Arabia produces around 3bn cu metres of desalinated water per year – the highest volume of any nation – which is primarily used for municipal and industrial consumption. The Ministry of Environment, Water and Agriculture (MEWA), through its offshoot the Saline Water Conversion Company (SWCC), is applying a portion of its RDI budget to devise new technologies to reduce the energy consumption involved in the desalination process. SWCC is currently able to produce 1 cu metre of water using 2.7 KWh of electricity and by 2030 aims to reduce that to 1.5 KWh.

Furthermore, by 2040 Saudi Arabia is aiming to become the world’s leading exporter of desalination technologies. Notably, KACST is collaborating with a research partner on a breakthrough technology that enables the capture of water from air. Annual Saudi water consumption stands at around 24bn cu metres, with 85% of that figure earmarked for agricultural use. Over 90% of water used for agriculture is groundwater, making its scarcity a threat to national food security. “We are confident that by reducing the cost of desalination and by enhancing crops’ resilience to salinity we will be able to produce desalinated water for agriculture. Innovation has a vital role to play here,” Hamad Al Batshan, deputy minister at MEWA, told OBG. In addition, the government’s biotechnology strategy encompasses the localisation and privatisation of the research and production of animal vaccines in a bid to strengthen agricultural and food security.


Saudi Arabia’s largest biotech project is the Genome Programme – now in its second phase – through which scientists are working to genetically map the Kingdom’s population. Saudi Arabia has a high prevalence of certain genetic and non-communicable diseases, and the central aim of the Genome Programme is to identify the genetic variants underlying those conditions. Since the inauguration of the programme, scientists have sequenced over 61,000 samples, identifying 7500 variants, around 3000 of which are novel mutations responsible for 1230 rare diseases.

This process is allowing scientists to develop sophisticated tools for diagnosis and prevention, raising the quality of care offered to patients, particularly infants, through personalised treatments. At its outset, the project was expected to save the government SR3bn ($800m) annually but the figure is now thought to be higher. Such advancements are resulting in improved quality of life for the Saudi population while also driving progress for domestic biotech industries by establishing advanced genomics and bioinformatics infrastructure, which in turn is boosting human capital in those specialised areas.


Enhanced public health is one of the core goals of the $500bn NEOM project. Over half the world’s population lives in urban environments, a fact that carries significant challenges, including environmental degradation, high energy use, poor air and water quality and a plethora of related health issues. While smart city technologies are being retrofitted across the Kingdom’s urban spaces in an attempt to better manage these issues, renewable energy, biotech, artificial intelligence, robotics and advanced water production, preservation and desalination will be core to NEOM’s construction, operation and commercialisation. The Line, a planed 160-km development integral to the NEOM project, exemplifies the Saudi vision for the future of healthy urban living. With no roads or cars, the promotion of active, healthy lifestyles is central to the project’s design. NEOM is expected to attract major international investment in the coming years, with the UK’s Virgin, among other multinationals, stating interest soon after the project was announced – a signal that some of the world’s leading RDI entities are supportive of the government’s vision of how innovation can be harnessed to solve global challenges.

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The Report: Saudi Arabia 2022

Innovation chapter from The Report: Saudi Arabia 2022

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