At the London Fintech Week event recently I attended a presentation from the Saudi Arabian general Investment Authority (SAGIA). Omar Rebhan, head of the UK office of the organisation, was talking about the opportunities for fintechs to set up shop in Saudi Arabia.
I am always told that countries like Dubai and Bahrain in the Middle East are very welcoming and flexible in their efforts to attract international businesses and workers. But these are small countries with limited internal market. Dubai has about 3 million people and Bahrain about 1.5 million. It is often a case of companies set up there to take advantage of investment, skills, supportive regulations, and financial incentives like attractive tax rates. For IT firms and others it probably isn’t the internal market that is most attractive, but access to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) market.
But Saudi Arabia is a bit different. The country has 32.5 million people. And even more enticing for businesses in the digital sector, over 50% of its people are under 30. It has 88% smartphone penetration. The country is modernising. For example E-commerce sales in Saudi Arabia are expected to surge to $13.9bn by 2021, from about $8.7bn in 2017, according to market research firm BMI.
It offers the largest ICT market in the Gulf and has long been attractive to outside players. Major US IT suppliers such Cisco and Microsoft have been operating in there for years
And the country is accelerating this change. It wants to reduce its economic dependence on oil with fintech one area target for growth. It has even established Fintech Saudi will help foreign fintechs find customers, navigate regulations, find investors, connect to service providers and recruit local talent.
But perhaps the most compelling attraction to companies shaking up an industry is its approach to regulation. The country will work with businesses to create regulations that help them prosper. As a result regulations are changed on a weekly basis.
Recent changes to regulations to entice foreign businesses include reducing the time taken to get a work Visa from 30 days to 24 hours and a rule that allows businesses to be 100% foreign owned. In the past foreign companies had to have a Saudi Arabian partner.
But there are still challenges and Saudi SArabia is by no means there yet. According to, Andreas Krieg, assistant professor at King’s College London’s department of defence studies, the global tech sector thrives on “innovation, liberalism and freedom of thought” – all preconditions that are currently not met in Saudi Arabia.
“If Saudi Arabia is to become a truly global tech leader, the nation must become a liberal society that is not in fear to think outside the box, a business climate of openness and trust, where business is conducted according to the rule of law,” he said.
He said Saudi Arabia could eventually create a more liberal environment but that it will take a long time.
I would like to hear from fintechs about whether they would be tempted by what’s being offered by Saudi Arabia so please comment. You can read more about it here.