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July 29, 2013

Q&A: Part 1 – The prince and the reporter

Duncan MacRae gets to know Saudi-born Stanford University graduate and technology entrepreneur, HRH Prince Fahad Al Saud.

By Duncan Macrae

You studied on a variety of computing classes at Stanford University in the USA. Have you always been interested in technology?

Yes, definitely. I mean, we’re 80s babies. We’re the first generation to play video games, use cell phones and pagers. I have all the games consoles. My favourite to this day is the Nintendo 64. I have the first Atari and I have something that you could describe as the Arabic equivalent to the Mac.

And technology intrigues me in a different way. I always saw it as a tool. It always solved a problem for me, so I decided to enter and emerge in that space and it made sense being at Stanford to take advantage of that.

After graduating this summer you landed a job at Facebook. How was that?

I was lucky that I got the opportunity to go to Facebook. I started in customer service, resetting passwords. I just needed a foot in the door. They actually told me I was overqualified when I got the job but I saw the opportunity.

Real education happens after you graduate. That’s what Facebook was for me. My father always says, a very traditional Middle Eastern argument, when are you going to go get your Masters or MBA and I said that Facebook was that for me. It was definitely a huge learning experience.

I saw what this platform could do and I wanted to offer a cultural voice, making sure that the tool is sustainable and can exist in the Middle East in a way that going to affect us positively. I really wanted to push for the Arabisation because if we can’t understand what we’re using we’re never going to utilise it and take advantage of that opportunity. So I pushed for Arabic and within three or four months Arabic was introduced.

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When it comes to technology, in the past the Middle East has generally been five or 10 years behind the likes of the UK. How’s the sector developing now?

That is still completely true when it comes to infrastructure. However, today, when it comes to information and consumption of information it isn’t. Now we watch, for example, something as simple and superficial as TV shows, in real time with the US. So we’re up-to-speed when it comes to information.

The fact is that 70% of the population is under 30 years old in the Middle East. We’re growing up with access to trends immediately. The problem is infrastructure, however I see this lag as an advantage. It’s a region where technology has skipped generations. We went from Bitamax and VHS to Youtube. We never did DVDs. We went from no phone and barely pagers to now having 80% penetration when it comes to smartphones.

So i think it’s an advantage for us to be able to sit back and look at how other countries have progressed infrastructurally and then pick the best practices and apply it to us. Therefore, not only will we ensure the technology doesn’t skip another generation but probably catapult it further because we have a lot of financial resources that a lot of countries don’t have.
How is the IT training in the Middle East compared with elsewhere in the world?

Three years ago, IT training in Saudi Arabia was non-existent. The word entrepreneur might have been a four letter word. Today there are an influx of incubators and accelerators. One just opened in Mecca in Saudi Arabia and there is a lot of teaching.

Banks are actually contributing to the teaching as well. A lot of internship programmes and partnerships are starting to materialise with international companies. We have the City of Science and Technology, based out of Saudi Arabia, and the University King Abdullah, which is the number one IT university in the world right now and has been reaching out to Silicon Valley to do exchange programmes.

I just came back from Harvard where I conducted a lecture there for Harvard Innovation Lab and they’re incubating Saudi students as part of an initiative headed by Dr Hiyatt Sindi who is an advisor to the king. So, today, there is a huge push for education, training and experience that wasn’t even there last year. So it’s changed. I’m not going to say we’re ready to go to space but I can tell you that we’ve sent 15 satellites to space already that were built in Saudi Arabia by Saudi engineers.

How difficult is it for the Middle East to attract educated and skilled workers back to the region once they’ve travelled abroad to study?

For me, I was educated in the USA in a degree that didn’t exist back home. And once I graduated there are two options for me. I could go back and try to be a pioneer in the region but then you need help from the government and private sector. As a new graduate with zero experience, we’re averse to risk in the Middle East so you can’t get a lot of money put into you until you’ve proven yourself. Then you have the idea of culture. It’s not common for Saudis to go abroad to get work experience.

However, by choosing the other way, which is to stay out in the respective countries you got educated in, find a job, empower yourself and come back with more credibility, that’s how you can actually bring progress from the outside in.

I think the only reason people are possibly reluctant to go back to the Middle East to work right now is just down to the lack of infrastructure. It makes no sense if you’re paying X amount of dollars or Riyals, putting yourself through a Masters or PhD to go back and sit at home. They recognise that and there are moves towards incubating these talents and probably, in the next two or three years, you’re going to see a shift. They’re working on it but right now can’t support it just yet.

Q&A: Part 2 – The prince and the reporter

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