Saudi Arabia — Tradition & Digital Transformation

Thoughts from my visit to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia in October 2018.

I see why people fall in love with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. As an anthropologist, I try not to romanticize the places I’m invited to visit. However the appeal of KSA (Kingdom of Saudi Arabia) has been seared into my mind since I first saw Lawrence of Arabia as a kid, and read the autobiographies of Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali (earlier known as Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr.) as a teenager. And so, as I found myself transported from being a Blexican growing up in East Texas in the 1980s, to landing at King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh, KSA on October 5, 2018, there was and still is the tingle of excitement. I was in The Kingdom; a place in my mind as mysterious and foreboding as any on earth.

Cutting to the chase, the traffic in Riyadh is atrocious. It reminds me of Atlanta, Georgia during rush hour. I loved it. Sitting in bumper to bumper traffic surrounded by Fords, Chevrolets, Mercedes, Nissans and a variety of styles and types of vehicles, I couldn’t help but smile. The drivers, both male and female, had been drawn into the most mundane activity of so called modern life — the rush hour traffic jam. I wondered what they were listening to in their cars. Were they listening to a podcast, the radio, audible books or just thinking to themselves? What did they do with this thirty minutes to an hour plus of solitude, alone in their cars going wherever people went after work.

It seems like a trivial thought but keep in mind that women have only been allowed to drive in KSA since June 23, 2018. Thinking about the car culture of America in the 1950s, I couldn’t help but wonder,

“What new social norms, thoughts or culture will evolve as women find themselves behind the wheel, alone in their thoughts?”

Some women drivers sat in their cars in head coverings; while others’ heads swiveled left and right, looking for openings in traffic to change lanes, with no head covering on at all. I found myself wondering what life at work must be for these women drivers. As surely, they must have jobs. Why else would someone brave the doldrums of an ocean of traffic in the desert on a Monday, at 4:30PM, if they weren’t leaving work? Then pondering what they might think of Death of a Salesman or Golconda, the painting of businessmen falling like raindrops by Belgian surrealist René Magritte.

Would this paradigm of women in the workforce ultimately lead them to Lean In…or perhaps even Lean Out?

And so, like many countries, KSA is a country “in transition.” Where the tradition of being Saudi is evolving. There are technical aspects of modernization from the various social media platforms, to Uber, to mobile banking, to fintech and blockchain permeating the region. The digital transformation of The Kingdom is fascinating because it’s less of a process of technological change and more one of cultural and social change. The “new normal” of what it means to be Saudi and Saudi Arabia’s role in the modern world, is really this century’s premier Change Management case study.

Saudi tradition is being transformed. Not so much by technology, but policy. KSA’s transformation is one of policy designed to push it wholesale into the 22nd century. This tradition transformation is also a revenue transformation, as the last 50 years of entrenched oil tradition, give way to digital oil — data. But the real driver of changing traditions is vision. The vision of the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS). MBS is pushing The Kingdom to modernize. This push is not one without growing pains. Some, more painful than others as recent events have highlighted.

What will the future of KSA hold? A few predictions and projects to be aware of:

  1. KSA will adopt blockchain technology in its banking and finance sectors, second only to Dubai in the MENA region (MENA = Middle East North Africa).
  2. NEOM — A startup as large as a country and you’ve never heard of it.
  3. New Free Economic Zone in Jeddah and throughout KSA will be game changers for businesses within the GCC.
  4. Women unemployment will be down to 17~% by 2021 and continue to decline year over year.
  5. Traffic in Riyadh will continue to be horrible until 2022, when construction of their $22.5B metro system is complete (progress is an ugly and beautiful mess sometimes).
  6. The merger of Saudi Aramco and Sabic will ensure a $2T Saudi Aramco IPO.
  7. There will be as many women in C-Suite positions, per capita, in The Kingdom as the USA by 2025.

Note: This is not investor advice, just casual observations from my recent trip to KSA. I’ll be back in KSA in December. Looking forward to experiencing more of KSA hospitality and life.

My name is Samson. I’m a human and an anthropologist at Axes and Eggs, a Washington, DC based think tank and Adjunct Professor at University of New Hampshire School of Law. If you like what you read, share it! If you disagree, share what you know or how you feel in the comment section below. Feel free to hit me up on Twitter or Instagram @HustleFundBaby or follow me on LinkedIn.

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Samson

Cheerleader of all things startup and entrepreneur. Life's a hustle, invest in something worthy of you. @AxesAndEggs @UNHLaw #Blockchain #Cryptocurrencies