Anyone taking a brisk drive through Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah Economic City would be easily misled. At the moment, it doesn't look like much of a city. There is a road network, a scattering of office and residential buildings, and a stunning coastline.
Nevertheless, there is a state-of-the-art school, and a huge number of construction sites. Companies including Total, Danone and Pfizer have set up a presence there, but that's more or less it. However, all that is about to change.
Muhammad Albakri, Chief Financial Officer and Chief Information Officer, Saudi Arabian Airlines, has a grand plan for KAEC, and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as a whole. Saudi Arabian Airlines (Saudia) has provisioned a $1 billion deal to implement KAEC's IT infrastructure, and Albakri is determined that the mega project will not only set a precedent for exemplary services and quality of life for the city's future residents, but will transform the economic prospects for Saudi Arabia's youth.
Announced in 2005 by King Abdullah, KAEC is due for completion in 2029, and will cover 186 km², an area the size of Washington D.C. It is envisaged that the city — which is situated 100km north of Jeddah — will play host to the world's top companies, and will be the biggest economic centre of western Saudi Arabia.
Albakri is unflinchingly ambitious in delivering his vision for what the deal could bring to KAEC, and Saudi, "Right now there is a real need to invest in the youth of this country," he says. "We have several aims in this project: to create an elite technology development centre for Saudi graduates, to provide a first-rate quality of life for KAEC's residents through technology, and to drive economic development in the country through our cloud services."
A quick glance at KAEC's location and assets suggests it has the potential to become a trading powerhouse in the Middle East. Located along the coast of the Red Sea, the site boasts a port which could hold up to 20,000,000 containers if running at full capacity, and the construction of train lines to Mecca, Medina and Jeddah are currently in progress. It is ideally situated as a bridge between the West and the East.
KAEC will be self-regulating, following a similar economic model to Singapore, where it will be able to bypass the normal procedures of Saudi government agencies to do things such as issuing visas, and it is partly owned by Dubai-based property development firm Emaar.
Saudia was privatised in 2000, and subsequently various non-core subsidiaries of the airline, including Catering, Ground Handling and Maintenance have been sold. Albakri believes that the company's evolving IT arm has only begun to gather pace "in the last four to five years" since it has procured more external contracts, such as KAEC.
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