A Dubai Lynx talk by Tala Alem, FP7 Riyadh’s Head of Digital, revealed six ways that the Kingdom’s young entrepreneurs are addressing cultural pain points.
A vibrant creative hacking culture is emerging in Saudi Arabia, according to Tala Alem, head of digital, FP7 Riyadh. In a country where, according to GaStat, 58.1% of the population is under 30, young Saudis are developing new, often digitally-led solutions to everyday problems.
In a talk at the Dubai Lynx festival on Tuesday 12 March, where Alem shared the stage with FP7’s Regional Head of Strategy, Tahaab Rais, she cited six ways in which entrepreneurial Saudis are responding to cultural pain points.
Prayers take place five times a day in Saudi Arabia and all shops and businesses must close during those periods. “It’s beautiful but inconvenient and annoying,” explained Alem. Enter the app YMDI, roughly translated as ‘there’s enough time’, which calculates distance from particular stores with the time before prayers in mind. Created by young Saudi IT developer Ahmed Alawaji, the app also sends out notifications about upcoming prayer times. UK broadsheet newspaper The Sunday Times described it as “the answer to Saudi prayers”.
Hacking stereotypes and restrictions
Open mic nights are becoming a regular feature in Saudi cities. Draft Café in Riyadh is one such venue where men and women can be seen playing different types of music together. Having long been renowned for their hiphop sound, young Saudi musicians are now playing soul, rock or more acoustic styles of music. Alem singled out Nourah, who describes herself on Instagram as a ‘vocalist and aspiring songwriter’.
Hacking driving lessons
There are just five driving schools catering for female drivers across the Kingdom. In other words, not enough to cope with the 20,000 applications from Saudi women wanting to learn since a royal decree enabled women to drive from March 2018. And while the driving schools are state-of-the-art, they are expensive, costing up to six times as much as equivalent schools for male learner drivers. It’s also taking a long time to process applications: Alem reported that she had applied in April 2018 and had received a text prompting registration in January 2019.
To speed things up, a few entrepreneurial women who possess a licence issued in another country are offering lessons to novice women drivers. Advertising their services on Instagram and Whatsapp, they collect new drivers and teach them how to drive in their neighbourhoods. They also determine when their customers are ready for their driving test. Costing 150 Saudi Riyal (around USD40) an hour, the price tag also comes in at a fraction of the more established driving schools.
Alem said that, while young Saudis are physically fitter than previous generations, their mental health is not as robust. In fact, studies conducted by FP7 indicate that 28% of young Saudis believe that, due to stress, their mental health is suffering. The country’s 2030 Goals include an ambition to boost the number of people exercising at least once a week from 13% of the population to 40% (see the other 2030 Goals in an infographic here). Meantime, younger Saudis are turning to more mindful experiences to help alleviate stress. An example that Alem shared was the sound bath experience, a gong-based relaxation trend that’s become increasingly popular in North America and parts of Europe over the last few years. The Saudi version involves small groups visiting the desert to immerse themselves in sound and feel healed. “This is a beautiful combination of spirituality and Islamic values,” she said.
Mecca is beautiful but crowded, attracting 15 million visitors in 2018. During the annual Hajj pilgrimage, 2.4 million people descend on it, inflating hotel prices into the thousands. Entrepreneurs are now establishing peer-to-peer services that connect locals with visitors during Hajj, encouraging them, for instance, to advertise spare rooms. This means that pilgrims can visit affordably and locals can benefit financially.
While the Saudi Telecom Company’s Unveil Saudi campaign was all about opening up the country to its residents so they could appreciate its natural beauty, Saudi entrepreneurs are now offering adventure-fuelled trips to those youngsters who’d like to discover more about the Kingdom. One such example is Masarat, which organises tours and hikes in caves and mountains.
Not only do all these hacks provide convenience and memorable experiences to Saudis, they also play another key role, according to Tahaab Rais. He believes that they also make a powerful contribution towards “showing Saudi Arabia in a positive light to the rest of the world”.