Almost two years ago, I set my sights on moving to Saudi Arabia, in particular to Riyadh. At the time, I felt that the regional entrepreneurial center of gravity had shifted to the Kingdom and I felt it would be a great opportunity to be part of this new shift. I launched Nama Ventures, a venture capital firm that wanted to be the first line of funding support to Saudi startups.
In the lines below, I want to talk about my personal experience as a foreign investor setting up shop in Saudi, and demystifying some preconceived ideas of the Saudi ecosystem. The goal here is to help soften the landing of investors like myself looking to be part of the growth fabric of this country.
The first thing that stood out once I moved, which really is not evident when you look at the Kingdom from the outside, is how advanced the public sector is, everything is interconnected and interlinked. That first picture you take at the immigration counter once you land in the country as a resident will follow you in every transaction you make requiring your picture, so make sure you take a good one. I was able to open up 2 bank accounts from traditional banks without setting a foot in their branch. You can actually pay your government bills from your bank’s mobile app IN REAL TIME. The whole place feels paperless, everything is mobile enabled. It actually took me some time to really get how advanced the public sector is, I would argue it’s one of the few countries, where the public sector is more digitally transformed than the private sector. Not to mention, that it is the first country I’ve lived in, where when you order 200 Mbps of download you actually get 200 Mbps, the technology infrastructure Saudis enjoy is unparalleled.
The second thing you observe is the scale of the country, and the scale of its major cities, you really feel the strength of the economy. Riyadh feels like it’s a cluster of cities within cities, with a depth of a strong native population. I’ve lived in Riyadh for 2 years and I can say I’ve only been exposed to a third of it. On the national level, Saudi feels like it’s a country within countries; the culture, customs, even climates vary significantly from regional to the next, and that in terms produces a very diverse set of talent.
The third thing that really stands out, and you can’t miss once you land, is the speed of change happening around you, in all aspects. Infrastructure wise, at least in Riyadh where I live, the city feels like its ongoing 10 mega projects simultaneously, from greening its streets, to building a massive metro, to erecting new mini Manhattans all at once. I’ve seen more heavy machinery in one year out here than what I’ve seen in my last years.
Regulation changes are even faster, you have to work hard to stay on top of that change. The Ministry of Commerce completely revamped its company laws to be aligned with global standards. The Capital Markets Authority (CMA) has been driving new legislation to make Saudi very attractive for foreign investments. And lastly, the Ministry of Investments (MISA) which I can’t thank enough in terms of the support they give you to make sure you are empowered to operate in this country, and their work on the entrepreneurial license is in my opinion one of the strongest catalysts in making Saudi a dominant player in the MENA tech scene.
The fourth thing that really stood out to me once I started interacting with the ecosystem, was the depth of the raw talent in the Saudi entrepreneurial tech scene. Saudi is full of young and eager talent looking for their chance to create the next regional unicorn. They are at par and fully aware of global trends, technologies and news.
To conclude, the last two years have been a joy personally and professionally. To say the country has been welcoming is an understatement. I have no doubt that Nama Ventures has found the ideal country to launch its vision to MENA early stage funding partners and we look forward to keeping our Saudi story running for many years to come.