Saudi Arabia had hoped to use its 2020 G20 presidency to focus on growth and diplomacy, but now it can play an even bigger role in healing the world from its coronavirus hospitalization.
When I attended the G20 Domestic Capital Markets Development Summit in Riyadh on 30 January, the year had gotten off to a good start, and Saudi Arabia was looking forward to utilising its leadership to advocate for stronger capital markets and an enabling ecosystem for financial inclusion.
Fully aware that capital markets are the ultimate democratizer in terms of access to capital, Saudi officials were keen to build upon a successful year for the Kingdom which saw foreign cash injection into the Saudi capital market reach 76 billion riyals, with over 800 licenses for foreign investment being granted, up from 259 in 2015.
Addressing delegates from across the public and private sectors, Mohammed El-Kuwaiz, Chairman of the Saudi Capital Markets Authority (CMA), summarised the Kingdom’s hopes for its G20 presidency in a simple yet powerful message: The strengthening of capital markets and the development of local currency debt and bond markets is one of the Kingdom’s key priorities during its presidency as part of its commitment to global economic prosperity.
Fast forward three months and over one-third of the world population is in quarantine, stock markets around the world have lost close to one-third of their value and many economies have been put on life support by the largest rescue package in modern history.
Yet despite the terrible human impact that COVID-19 is having on communities around the world, Saudi Arabia faces an unprecedented opportunity to play a pivotal role in coordinating the global response to the greatest economic and public health challenge of our generation.
By utilising its G20 leadership, Saudi Arabia can provide the platform for public and private sector players to collectively address our global challenge and explore ways to strengthen biomedical responses to the disease and build a foundation to help business and government adapt to massive disruptions in supply chains, workforce, capital flows, and other areas. In particular, Saudi Arabia can play a key role in three ways.
First, by leveraging technological innovation to lead the worldwide containment effort to halt the spread of COVID-19. We are witnessing first-hand the ways technology, particularly AI, is combating the spread of the coronavirus by speeding up the development of testing kits and treatments, by tracking the spread of the virus and by providing citizens around the world with real-time information.
AI is also helping combat the virus itself by predicting which antibodies will match with which drugs in the right way and by allowing us to identify much faster drug candidates, which can then be tested en masse.
Saudi Arabia, through the Saudi Data and Artificial Intelligence Authority (SDAIA), is at the forefront of AI innovations and a regional leader in healthtech. A number of Saudi healthtech companies, such as healthcare tech start-up Sihatech and the world's first Arabic health AI platform Nala are already leading the way across the MENA healthcare market, which is estimated to be worth $144 billion by 2020.
The Global AI Summit to be held in September in Riyadh represents an opportunity for the Kingdom to once again show its leadership as the AI community comes together to develop tools that solve this crisis and prevent new ones.
Second, by leading a joint global initiative so that a great economic recession does not become a great depression. Although the media focus is rightly on the public health crisis resulting from COVID-19, a common approach is also required for fostering international economic policy cooperation to address the shared challenges we face and improve the prospects for inclusive and sustainable growth once the dust settles.
To this end, Saudi Arabia from its role at the presidency of the G20, can lead the effort to strengthen both institutional and informal links among national governments, international organizations and other stakeholders.
Third, by creating a global forum and leading the way in finding opportunities for positive change after the crisis. For example, with millions of students getting a crash course in remote learning, a question worth asking is: Can remote learning be better than traditional learning? The answer to this question has deep implications for EdTech. Similar opportunities are likely to arise, or indeed have already arisen in sectors from FashionTech to FinTech.
Ultimately, we are all facing a common challenge and leading a battle against a largely unknown enemy that has an egalitarian approach to infecting people and industries. Therefore, the need for international collaboration is now greater than ever. Saudi Arabia, for example, moved faster than most countries to contain COVID-19 grounding all international flights and suspending pilgrimages to Mecca by mid-March when it has less than 100 cases.
Quick action seems to have helped as the Kingdom has fewer than 5,000 confirmed cases, among the lowest per-capita numbers in the region and in the world. It must now exercise its G20 leadership to coordinate a global response.