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Saudi start-ups in a charm offensive in Paris

For the past three years, Saudi Arabia has been fully committed to the innovation and technology sectors as part of its economic diversification program. It is in this context that several Saudi start-ups were taking up residence at the Parc des Expositions de la Porte de Versailles in Paris this weekend with a clear objective: to show that the kingdom is turning into a major player in innovation and attract foreign investment.

On April 25, 2016, the Saudi government announced what was to be a major economic transformation: the Vision 2030 plan. Its objective: to get the country out of its oil rent by diversifying its economy. In this context, Saudi Arabia has made technology and innovation key catalysts in its ambitious reform agenda, with the objective of becoming an international player in innovation.

Three years later, although Saudi Arabia is not a world leader in the sector, it is at least a reference in the Arab world. In the “100 Arab start-ups that are shaping the fourth industrial revolution” list established by the World Economic Forum in 2019, ten are Saudi Arabian. In this list, only Jordan (29) and the United Arab Emirates (21) do better.

“A huge growth”

Among these ten young companies, Unifonic was present this weekend in Paris at the Vivatech technology and innovation exhibition. The company, which describes itself as “the largest cloud communication platform in the Middle East”, hoped to “find more investors and work with major operators” in the French capital, as explained by its software engineering director, Saud Albazei. “We know that major phone operators are present (at VivaTech),” explains the 30-year-old. While waiting to build a global network, the presence of a start-up like Unifonic testifies to the renewal of the Saudi tech scene in recent years. And Saud confirms it: “I can tell you, from my experience in telecommunications and information technology, that there has been tremendous growth in the industry and there are more opportunities for start-ups to innovate.”

Saud Albazei
Saud Albazei

HalalaH is also part of this “top 100” and also represented the Saudi pavilion at Vivatech this year. The digital banking platform offers “an intelligent, fun and smart banking experience (…) that helps you spend smarter and more efficiently”, as explained by its development director Baraa Koshak. He too is here for “opportunities” and he too agrees: “(The Saudi tech scene) is growing day by day. Many technologies and innovations are popping up and it is very inspiring to be part of them.”

“Land of opportunity”

It is no coincidence that these start-ups are in Paris. HalalaH and Unifonic’s presence in the French capital is part of a major program to promote Saudi innovation led by the MiSK philanthropic foundation. The institution’s mission is to “develop Saudi youth and empower them to participate actively in the regional economy”, according to Deemah AlYahya, Executive Director of MiSK Innovation, the foundation’s innovation division.

Deemah AlYahya
Deemah AlYahya

For this 2019 edition of the Paris technology fair, the organisation is sponsoring seven young entrepreneurs from Saudi Arabia. Air tickets, accommodation, exhibition stands… Nothing is too beautiful for these young standard-bearers of the “Saudi Tech”, as long as they get the grail: partnerships with foreign companies or, better still, a fundraising from an investor. In either case, it will be a great publicity for the kingdom. “Saudi Arabia is a land of opportunity,” says Deemah. And what better platform than Vivatech to present and evangelize this opportunity and invite foreign investors to come.”

“Beautiful stories to tell”

The presence of a Saudi pavilion certainly attracted curious visitors and observers during this 2019 edition of Vivatech. Among them, Sébastien Bourguignon, Vice-President of Margo, an IT consulting firm. The leader who personally met the start-ups of the Saudi delegation says he was “pleasantly surprised” to discover this potential in this part of the world.

“I have seen many motivated and dynamic young entrepreneurs who all have growing projects and have very interesting levels of training and skills,” he says. We feel a great dynamic in place, very competent people, the right level of expertise to do great things in the coming months and years” The Frenchman is affirmative: “There will still be great stories to tell in the years to come”.