Aerial photos of Mecca capture the emptiness of the holy city. During the entire month of Ramadan, worshippers couldn’t get access to Masjid al-Haram, the great mosque of Mecca, Saudi Arabia’s holiest site. This was part of the government’s precautionary measures to stop the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) from spreading. While Saudi Arabia is planning to end a nationwide curfew on June 21 – in which schools and universities are closed and government and private sector employees are teleworking from home – Mecca will remain on lockdown. As of today, the Ministry of Health has reported a total of 78,541 cases, the highest among neighboring states, with an average of 2,000 new cases per day. With 91% of the population covered by mobile broadband 4G networks and 3 million homes connected to fixed broadband, social distancing was made easier. Ritual prayers became virtual, and online schooling quickly became the new normal.
Leveraging two decades of continued investment in modern digital infrastructure and robust digital government platforms, the country’s digital capabilities have provided a solid foundation for key aspects of the COVID-19 emergency response, including continued access to various e-government services. Internet speed was rising at a rapid clip for the last few years and has maintained a relatively high speed at 59.24 Mbps despite increased demand during the pandemic.
Securing access to digital infrastructure
Saudi Arabia’s government and telecom operators have responded to this massive demand for telecommunications and data by implementing several measures, including increasing speeds and data capacity, providing free services, opening spectrum, enhancing network management, facilitating remote learning and continuity of business services, and enabling integrated data sharing and mobile money transactions. The Communication and Information Telecommunications Commission (CITC), in partnership with the Ministry of ICT, has also acted on calls for changes in network configuration, use of supplementary technologies, and access to available government infrastructure and resources to provide the needed connectivity. This investment in modern digital infrastructure has been part of a long-term plan articulated in Vision 2030. The country continues to strengthen its digital infrastructure by deploying 5G networks and investing in 6500 new towers, essential for the shorter radio wavelengths to provide effective coverage.
Ensuring business continuity
Thanks to the Yesser e-government program, the country has developed an integrated and interoperable digital government, and this investment has paid off in securing business continuity. The digital government platforms have helped various agencies deliver safe, reliable and user-centric services while enabling flexibility in sharing data across the government ecosystem. Mawid and Absher are examples of digital channels that have helped ensure access to government services for citizens and businesses. The national portal, Gov.sa, maintained reliable access to over 900 government services despite a surge in traffic when the curfew was applied nationally.
With the complete shutdown of educational institutions, the iEN national education portal is now the main channel of education for more than 6 million users (a tenfold increase in the portal’s utilization). An upgrade to the education digital platform has been complemented by an extended campaign for the provision of 30,000 devices to students in need, help ensure inclusion of all students and access to more than 100,000 interactive digital educational hours for undergraduate students.
The emphasis has also been on enhancing the capacity of public servants to ensure continuity of service delivery; 94% of government agencies have staff who are currently working from home. E-Morasalat, a unified national digital system for government correspondence, has enabled various public entities virtual access to exchanging, tracking and retrieving correspondence and documents, increasing their agility in accessing archived material with greater accuracy and accelerating the transformation towards a paperless government. The Cio.gov.sa was also launched in March to create an interactive portal that offers the government’s technology leaders access to common national services and applications, and to international standards and best practices.
The way forward
Saudi Arabia’s government is showing digital agility in addressing the COVID-19 crisis and continues its efforts to strengthen national resilience. Resilience, combined with agility, will be the new focus for digital government as countries emerge from the COVID-19 crisis. By harnessing secured emerging technologies and data, expanding broadband connectivity, focusing on citizen and business needs and expectations, and leveraging multiple stakeholders’ interests and engagement, governments will be well positioned to reap rewards from such digital capabilities in the future.