The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has been investing significantly in reinforcing its infrastructure and transforming and developing the meetings industry within the country to welcome meetings and business events. It now has more than 600 first class hotels, convention and event facilities and nearly all leading international hotel groups have properties in the major cities.
This was clearly seen at IMEX in Frankfurt 2017 last month where the Saudi Exhibition and Convention Bureau was exhibiting for the first time with many Saudi successful event organizing companies marketing their meetings and events facilities and services.
Currently public investment in the meetings industry in Saudi Arabia up to 2020 is estimated at 6 billion Saudi Riyals (US $1.6 billion). These investments include establishing five major convention districts – King Salman International Conference Center in Madinah; King Abdullah Financial District in Riyadh, at the King Khaled International Airport in Riyadh, the King Abdullah Economic City and at the King Abdulaziz Airport in Jeddah, to be completed within the next five years. These are in addition to private sector investments in the industry, represented by hotels with exhibition and conference facilities all over the Kingdom.
The investment is part of Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030, announced in April 2016, an ambitious but achievable blueprint which expresses long-term goals and reflects the country’s strengths and capabilities.
Vision 2030 is to position Saudi Arabia as a global investment powerhouse and a global hub connecting three continents, Asia, Europe and Africa, capitalizing on its status as the heart of the Arab and Islamic worlds and its unique geographic strategic location. Vision 2030 also aims to reinforce and diversify the capabilities of the country’s economy. As such, it will transform the economy away from a dependence on oil production into a industrial conglomerate and transform the Public Investment Fund into the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund. Hosting business events is one of the focal points of the reforms, along with leisure and religious tourism, all means to generate both revenue and employment.
Business events comes under the National Transformation Plan, the centrepiece of Vision 2030, which consists of 755 initiatives costing $100 billion dollars between 2016 and 2020.
HRH Prince Sultan bin Salman bin Abdulaziz, president of the Saudi Commission for Tourism & National Heritage and chairman of the Supervisory Committee of the Saudi Exhibition & Conference Bureau, has said that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia will become one of the key destinations in the Meetings industry.
Established in 2013, the Saudi Exhibition and Convention Bureau was created with a mandate to develop the meetings industry. Tariq A. Al Essa (photo right), executive director of Saudi Exhibition and Convention Bureau explains what the Bureau is doing and how it is making progress.
“We are a government organization responsible for developing and organizing the meetings industry in Saudi Arabia. The government recognized the importance of the meetings industry and it approved a development strategy. The SECB is operated differently to other bureaus around the world. Our mandate is not only promotion; it is also the development of the industry.
“As a first step, we identified the major obstacles to the industry’s growth, including regulatory framework, accessibility, infrastructure capacity, human resources, and the non-availability of information about meetings and events that are being organized”.
“To deal with the matter of visas, we are collaborating with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in order to smooth the process to obtain visas for speakers and exhibitors. Visitors, speakers, or exhibitors will apply through an e-system and will receive their visa online.
Long heritage in hosting meetings
“Saudi Arabia has a heritage in hosting meetings going back more than 2000 years. Our country has been staging one of the oldest meetings in the world, Okaz, originally an annual convention of Arab poets and of course we have 1437 years of experience in hosting the largest and most complex meeting in the planet – the ‘Hajj’. In 2016 more than 1.9 million international delegates from 163 countries took part in this meeting.
“Although Saudi Arabia is starting to pitch for international association meetings, it is also very keen to create unique and sustainable business events based on its strengths, competitive advantage and the needs of the national economy.
“There are plenty of opportunities for many sectors in Saudi Arabia. We are number one in the world for water desalination and water treatment, and obviously oil, power, petrochemicals, and Islamic finance. This gives the country an opportunity to host business events in these sectors which will positively enhance the economy and society. Our vision is to convert Saudi Arabia into a major destination for meetings in the world, which we can be.
“We started from strengthening this idea at a local level and we will gradually extend our campaign to regional and international level. We have spent time characterizing Saudi companies to highlight the importance of meeting, discussing, and exchanging opinions, views, and technologies. We also developed the “ambassador program” with the aim of selecting and training a number of Saudi medical professionals and scientific associations and federations who will be in charge of contacting international associations to discuss partnership opportunities for hosting events in our country. This will strongly enhance the image of Saudi Arabia as a meeting hub in the region and worldwide, and will make a positive contribution to the tourism sector.
Measuring economic impact
“In addition, to measure the economic impact of the meeting industry in Saudi Arabia and demonstrate the value of the investment we aim to provide information and statistics. We have created an electronic gate – a SAR12 million project that is at the heart of the Saudi meetings industry. All operations and events happening in Saudi Arabia are reported in this e-system.
“The gate is unique in the world, and it provides up-to-date data to assist business professionals from all around the world not only to understand the behavior of the meetings industry, but the behavior of all economic sectors in Saudi Arabia.
“Collaborating with other stakeholders is of crucial importance to us, not just for the industry but for the growth of the whole country, in relation to human resources. We want Saudi people to play a key role in the industry. We approached universities and other institutes, and right now some of them offer courses in event management. A recent study conducted by the Saudi Ministry of Labour revealed that Saudi graduate students selected “event manager” as one of the jobs they are most keen to do.
“We have also secured the involvement of investors in the creation of the Saudi Event Management Academy (SEMA), which is the first step in our bid to fill the gap between Saudi’s human resources and the competencies that the industry requires. The academy is unique in the Middle East region.
“Saudi Arabia is the heart of the Arabic and Islamic worlds, it is a pioneering investment powerhouse and the hub connecting three continents. We are creating an environment for successful meetings and exhibitions that will attract business in events and investments.”