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AI and cloud investments dominate Saudi Arabia's LEAP tech summit

Amazon Web Services and DataVolt were among the companies that made significant cloud investments in the kingdom, which is looking to become a global technology hub.
Photo from LEAP 2024.

LEAP, Saudi Arabia’s international technology conference, witnessed $11.9 billion of investment deals across different sectors over its four days this week, with artificial intelligence and cloud services being the main beneficiaries of the financing spree, as the summit wrapped up on Thursday.

The summit, dubbed by some as “the digital Davos,” ran in Riyadh on March 4-7 and saw more than 600 start-ups exhibiting and over 1,300 investors attending, as well as some of the world's major tech companies. The forum started off with a significant announcement from the host: The kingdom would be pumping $1 billion into a regional AI start-up accelerator. The accelerator, called GAIA, is a collaboration between the Saudi Data and Artificial Intelligence Authority, the US-headquartered global AI community New Native and the Saudi National Technology Development Program. It has already recruited more than 50 AI start-ups.

Saudi Minister of Communications and Information Technology Abdullah Alswaha announced the $11.9 billion in total investments, an increase from last year’s total of $9 billion. The kingdom is looking to become a global technology hub in line with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's Vision 2030 initiative to wean the country's economy off of its reliance on oil.

Speaking on Saudi Arabia’s VC (venture capital) funding, the minister said, “When it comes to resilience, while the whole world was facing headwinds when it comes to VC funding with negative 30 to 40%, the kingdom, under His Royal Highness’s leadership, we adjusted the sail and changed the headwinds into tailwinds and we grew by 33%.”

On the first day of the conference, the UK and Saudi Arabia announced they had signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to deepen technology research and development links, including in science and energy.

Saudi Data and Artificial Intelligence Authority (SDAIA) signed three MoUs at LEAP, including with Samsung Electronics Co. to cooperate on digital technologies and innovations.

SDAIA will develop models tailored for Arabic language and launch an advanced virtual laboratory for AI, as well as a center for generative AI experiments.

Alswaha also announced the introduction of Amazon Web Services (AWS) in Saudi Arabia, making the kingdom the only country in the region with hyperscalers, large cloud service providers. As part of its long-term commitment, AWS is planning to invest $5.3 billion in a new cloud zone in the kingdom.

Other major players in the cloud space, including IBM, DataVolt and ServiceNow, attended the event and made similar multimillion-dollar pledges.

Computer company Dell Technologies announced it would open a manufacturing and fulfillment hub in the kingdom, the first of its kind in the region.

New funds, boost for esports  

Bahrain-based private equity company InvestCorp announced at LEAP that it would be adding to its $500 million fund that is targeting Saudi businesses in their growth stages. The fund led the pre-IPO round with TruKKer Holding Limited, the Middle East and North Africa’s largest digital freight network that works across Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and neighboring countries. Investcorp led the initial close of this round with a $51 million investment alongside new and existing investors.

Saudi Arabia, for its part, attracted $888 million in investment deals during the conference. There was a significant investment in esports on the Saudi side, with the National Development Fund and the Social Development Bank setting up the $40 million Gaming and Esports Investment Fund, managed by Impact46. Riyadh-based Merak Capital launched an $80 million fund to support game accelerators in the kingdom.

Saudi Arabia’s Takamol Holding launched a $50 million fund to support early stage companies, while two more funds from Plug and Play and X by Unifonic were also announced to support technology start-ups and business software services for young businesses.