CGTN Exclusive: Connecting the unconnected a top priority for G20, says Saudi minister
Updated 17:28, 19-Nov-2020
Asia;Saudi Arabia

Connecting the unconnected world through digital technology is a top priority of G20 and is key to "empowering people," a senior Saudi official told CGTN Digital in an exclusive interview Wednesday ahead of the bloc's leadership summit this weekend.

Saudi Minister of Communications and Information Technology Abdullah A Alswaha made the remark during an interview with CGTN over a WebEx video link from Riyadh, adding that "digitalization is the biggest social equalizer and economic multiplier" in a world still reeling under the shadow of COVID-19.

The 15th G20 Summit under the presidency of Saudi Arabia will be held virtually, as has been the case with most such international events this year, in a testimony to the significant role digital technology has played in keeping things rolling during the pandemic.

"At the start of 2020, even before COVID-19, we made a commitment to the world that this G20 is going to be historic. That we're going to actually drive consensus to make the world realize the opportunities of the 21st century by 'empowering people', 'safeguarding the planet' and 'shaping new frontier'," Alswaha said, outlining the three main agendas of the summit.

"After COVID-19 hit us, there's only one truth in life right now, which is that undoubtedly digitalization is the largest social equalizer and an economic multiplier, and this is going to be the fuel that would help us achieve further consensus," added the minister who has worked in the field of IT, entrepreneurship and digital consulting for over 15 years. Before entering public service, he was the CEO and managing director of American tech firm Cisco's Saudi operations.

Even though a world without digital connectivity is unfathomable today, around 3.6 billion people still do not have access to internet, according to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). German data firm Statista recorded the global internet penetration at 59 percent with 4.57 billion total active internet users as of July 2020.

China, India and the U.S. rank ahead of all other countries in terms of internet user numbers. China has more than 854 million internet users, and India has approximately 560 million online users. But both countries still have large parts of their population offline.

"Having half of the world not connected is absolutely not acceptable. Because this means no access to education, basic health care and resilience back to life," Alswaha said, underlining that the situation could get worse due to COVID-19 if timely action isn't taken.

"We have done a study with the ITU that shows four months' worth of lockdown is going to cost the global economy close to $10 trillion in the next 10 years. This is why in the Saudi G20 presidency, we drove consensus to make sure that connecting the unconnected world and connecting humanity is a top priority," he added.

The ITU study estimated $428 billion as the cost of achieving universal connectivity by 2030. "What it takes to connecting the unconnected world is close to half a trillion dollars; to make sure that no kids are left behind when it comes to education; everybody has access to opportunities ...," Alswaha said adding that a consensus towards funding this mission is being worked out at the G20.

Measuring digital economy

The Saudi minister is also the chairman of the G20 Digital Economy Task Force that organized the G20 Digital Economy Ministers Meeting in July this year. The Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and ITU participated as knowledge partners. Among the core topics discussed at the meeting was to develop a common framework for measuring digital economy.

"This is undoubtedly another home run for the Saudi G20 presidency. You cannot manage what you cannot measure. It will definitely be helpful to measure the digital economy, which is projected to be in the next five years, a quarter of the global economy, the lifeline for jobs and switching from a survival mode to a thriving mode," he said

"Our ability to dissect what does that digital economy look like; where can we focus for the highest GDP and jobs and local content impact to make sure that no one is left behind; has been such a remarkable achievement for us. We are very proud that we finally drove consensus, and we inked it all together as G20 nations," he added.

Youth, women drive digital agenda

Delegates pose for a group photo at Global Partnership for Financial Inclusion, an event held at the sidelines of the G20 2020 in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, January 22, 2020. /

Delegates pose for a group photo at Global Partnership for Financial Inclusion, an event held at the sidelines of the G20 2020 in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, January 22, 2020. /

In recent years, Saudi Arabia has made tremendous progress in digital technology. The kingdom is ranked first among 140 nations for its digital competitiveness, in a study by the World Competitiveness Report.

Asked what has been the main driving force behind this phenomenal success story, Alswaha promptly attributed it to the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's Vision 2030. "Under Vision 2030, we have launched a National Digital Agenda, in which we made a distinct decision that we're moving into a digital society, economy and government underpinned by our focus on foundation coupling it with talent and technology for innovation for leapfrogging from a factory-based economy to an innovation-based economy," he explained. "As a matter of fact, the results have been remarkable."

The Saudi minister counted the increasing participation of youth and women in the National Digital Agenda as a big takeaway. "We have seen results, even pre-COVID-19, once you focus on youth. And the growth in tech and digital jobs in the kingdom in the past three years have grown from 250,000 to 300,000 jobs," he noted.

"But once we doubled down on women, we saw the thriving peace because we have seen women participation in ICT jump from 7 percent to a staggering 21 percent, surpassing the EU average and a lot of the G20 peers. Once you double down on youth and women, you can see prosperity and growth," Alswaha concluded.

China-Saudi ties on innovation highway

Saudi Arabia's ties with China has witnessed an exponential growth in recent times with the two G20 members also collaborating in the field of technology and innovation.

"We're very proud of our strategic relationship with China, whether on the technological front or even on the oil and gas front. They are our No. 1 trade partner from the thermal economy type of perspective of being a factory-based economy and definitely they're helping us leapfrog to becoming an innovation-based economy," the Saudi minister said.

"We've seen it in e-commerce with partnerships with Jollychic and Alibaba. With Alibaba, specifically, we're working closely with them, whether in cloud technology, AI or smart cities. Indeed, we are very proud of our partnership with China and we look forward to strengthen it as we progress together towards becoming an innovation-based economy," Alswaha affirmed.

Chinese tech giant Alibaba has increased its footprints in Saudi Arabia and is collaborating in a range of projects in sync with the kingdom's aim of becoming a regional technology hub; and the Chinese startup Jollychic is one of the most popular e-commerce apps in Saudi Arabia and across the Gulf region.

Alswaha emphasized that Saudi Arabia is open to business and partnership for innovation from all over the world as long as they align with Riyadh's ambition, goals and regulatory requirements.

Interviewer and script: Abhishek G Bhaya

Video editor: Chen Shi

Cover image: Li Yueyun

Director: Mei Yan