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As a driving force in the nationwide digital transformation and a key player in sustainability, the Saudi ICT sector plays a vital role in supporting the Kingdom in achieving the Saudi Green Initiative’s (SGI) goal to reach Net Zero by 2060. Guided by this inspiring roadmap, the Kingdom is transitioning towards a sustainable future.

Saudi Vision 2030 has inspired policies that intersect with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Demonstrating its commitment to enhancing connectivity and diversifying the economy’s energy mix, the ICT industry continues to leverage partnerships with the private sector to accelerate the transition. Through their sustainability-first strategy, Zain KSA is at the center of this dynamic ICT ecosystem, leveraging eco-friendly business practices and championing tech for sustainability. Additionally, this fostering spirit will have a cascading effect in supporting the Middle East Green Initiative on its journey to “mitigate the impact of climate change on the region, and to collaborate to meet global climate targets.”

Telecom Review had an exclusive interview with Zain KSA’s CCO Rayan Al-Turki and CST’s Assistant Deputy Governor for Planning and Development & Chief Digital Officer Naif Sheshah, both of whom shed light on Saudi Arabia’s ICT roadmap for sustainable development and growth.

How does the Saudi ICT sector model and leverage strategic partnerships to drive sustainability efforts?

CST’s Naif Sheshah: The ICT sector has driven innovative businesses, contributed to environmental sustainability, attracted investments in science and education, and facilitated advancements in healthcare, education, and job creation, enriching lives across the Kingdom.

The surging demand for connectivity is fueling energy consumption, posing critical environmental threats like rising emissions. To address this, the Saudi ICT industry adopted legacy infrastructure, promoting energy-efficient technologies to achieve net zero. The public and private sectors synchronized sustainability efforts in alignment with Vision 2030's target to increase private sector contribution to GDP to 65%. Mapping each sector’s role in reaching net zero, the ICT industry made significant steps towards sustainability, minimizing direct and indirect emissions through reduction, reuse, and removal efforts. 

Paving the way for green ICT, the Kingdom plans to invest USD 186.6 billion, targeting net zero emission and boosting job creation. By March 2023, 65 digital innovation labs had empowered 26,000 beneficiaries through sustainable innovation across industries.

As a prominent digital provider and innovator, how is Zain KSA leveraging its advanced tech capabilities to set new standards in sustainable development?

Zain KSA’s Rayan Al-Turki: Fueled by Vision 2030’s digital blueprint, Zain KSA is championing digital inclusivity and environmental sustainability by deploying cutting-edge infrastructure to match the pace of innovation in the Kingdom. We have evolved our strategy from pioneering and upgrading advanced 5G networks in the Kingdom to exploring and integrating more eco-friendly infrastructure technologies with the goal of reducing carbon emissions. 

Contributing to ecology preservation, our pioneering project with Red Sea Global (RSG) resulted in the launch of the first zero-emission 5G network, worldwide. The project prioritizes three key goals: preserving the environment during setup, minimizing operational emissions, and mitigating visual disruption. Fully aware of the importance of preserving biodiversity in the Red Sea ecosystem, Zain KSA is engineering cutting-edge tower technologies through a sustainable network model that leverages the 750,000-panel solar farm installed by RSG.

Prioritizing green choices, we made EV charging stations accessible to 10,000 employees and joined CST’s e-waste recycling initiative, involving 100,000+ devices.

Zain KSA’s sustainable commitment extends to bridging the digital divide in remote communities. Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) are part of our company DNA. As is empowering women in STEM fields through our Women in Tech program, with over 4900+ applicants and 250 graduates from across all 3 editions. Through Zain KSA’s Tamam microloans, we offer vital financial tools, fostering inclusion.

Furthermore, we invest in building local talent and content. Zain KSA achieved a milestone in talent localization by earning the HRSD Labor Award 2023 for contributing to developing the national workforce. Prioritizing robust governance, we have earned an 'A' rating on the MSCI ESG Index. We are also proud of the fact that we continue to maintain a prestigious CDP Rating of ‘A’ after Zain ranked highest among telecom operators in the Middle East and Africa in the category of tackling climate change on the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP) global index in 2021.

As a regulator, how do you see digital innovations complementing sustainability practices in the Kingdom? And how is that driving a digital economy?

Naif Sheshah: To ensure technology is leveraged to serve our sustainability goals, CST has adopted the ‘C.I.R.C.L.E’ framework: Cutting-Edge Infrastructure, Innovation, Renewable Energy, Circular Economy, Leading Cities, and Equality and Inclusion.

ICT intersects with different sectors, empowering them to achieve sustainability goals and driving stakeholders towards a green ecosystem through digital transformation. MCIT has launched initiatives, including expanding broadband coverage, to connect homes with optic fiber and cover remote areas.

Beyond data, the sector tackles challenges of water scarcity and carbon emissions. The deployment of 10 million smart meters by the Ministry of Energy empowered residents to manage energy usage, slashing household consumption by 15%. Similarly, advanced desalination technologies cut power usage by 14,000 tons.

We believe a healthy environment and a healthy economy go together. The Kingdom commits to a holistic approach to sustainability, prioritizing circularity by optimizing resource utilization, minimizing waste, and maximizing value. This goal is backed by a SAR 120 billion investment in circular economy, propelled by digital innovation. Driving economic sustainability, modern technologies and AI functionalities have resulted in significant savings and revenue opportunities for government entities, amounting to USD 13.6 billion.

Through the Emerging Technologies Sandbox, we empower ICT innovators to pilot new technologies. The initiative has, so far, brought 87 Saudi-made tech products. MCIT also has several capacity-building initiatives to support the talent needed to build a digital economy and foster a knowledge-based society.

How does Zain KSA envision the private sector’s contribution to the future of sustainable tech in Saudi Arabia?

Rayan Al-Turki:  The future of sustainable technology appears promising, marked by a shift towards eco-friendly solutions. Saudi Arabia's investment of SAR 120 billion from 2023 to 2035 signifies a robust dedication to circularity. Cutting-edge technologies such as 5G, AI, and IoT are propelling energy efficiency and productivity, notably in industrial zones and smart cities.

Zain KSA balances progress with environmental responsibility, focusing on climate change, inclusion, empowering the youth, and adopting responsible business practices. Building on our initiatives and practices within the framework of environmental and social responsibility and effective governance, we will continue to seek out partnerships with like-minded industry players who place a premium on sustainability and a shared vision to make the world a better place.

As partners in Saudi Arabia's sustainable future, we are committed to playing our role in the national fight against climate change. Our commitment aligns with SGI's goals, especially in accelerating the green transition and investing in the Circular Carbon Economy (CCE). Our approach targets initiatives that blend innovation with environmental responsibility, leveraging our role as enablers of nationwide digitalization to drive the shift to digital operations for a variety of enterprises and governmental entities, and supporting the lifestyles of climate-conscious consumers.

We also recognize our role in building a skilled workforce and supporting tech localization through talent building efforts and training programs designed to create a collective mindfulness of environmental impact and social value.

Another pivotal element of our strategy involves empowering the youth of tomorrow with green skills through our ZY (Zain Youth) initiative. ZY, a component within our DEI pillar, is tailored for individuals aged 18 to 27, preparing them for professional life while encouraging resilience in the face of uncertainty. ZY is accessible to employees, university students, and the general public. This initiative is specifically designed to hone green skills, recognizing our crucial role in providing the younger generation with the knowledge and tools to address the impacts of climate change.

To support inclusion, we aim to bridge the digital divide by providing tools for underserved communities' development and actively promote workforce diversity, with a focus on female empowerment. Initiatives will target digital literacy among children and address youth unemployment.

Through such endeavors, Zain KSA will continue to drive innovation to support the Kingdom’s sustainability efforts and realize the objectives of Saudi Vision 2030, in line with our corporate sustainability strategy, and supporting our goal of being a trusted partner in the Kingdom's digital economy and knowledge-based society.

Based on your successful ESG experience, how can the private sector leverage ESG for growth?

Rayan Al-Turki:  Saudi Arabia stands at the forefront of the digital revolution, a thriving community driven by cutting-edge technologies that’s committed to sustainability. The collaboration of ESG stakeholders is pivotal and businesses need to place more value on the long-term gains of their green investments. Zain KSA sees a great opportunity in committing to responsible growth, not only in ICT but across diverse industries. This is a chance for the private sector to lead KSA’s smart future, characterized by enhanced lifestyles and a healthy planet.

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