What is the world’s largest tech event? If you ask ChatGPT, it will consistently name Consumer Electronics Show (CES) which takes place every January in Las Vegas. In fact, I visited CES for eighteen years in a row before the pandemic to learn about what’s new in technology. In 2023, CES attendance topped 115,000. CES was founded in 1967 – 55 years ago. Every CES is also a media sensation. Every respectable mass media outlet covers the event. When I searched my favorite professional media, Forbes.com, for “CES 2023” hundreds of articles popped up with dozens of senior contributors covering the event.
This year, I missed CES. Instead, I attended LEAP in Riyadh, a gargantuan event organized by the Informa Group, which took place 6-9th of February, 2023. I did not speak at the event, I came with a colleague as a regular non-VIP delegate to sign an agreement with Aramco on using generative AI for sustainability and longevity. It was supposed to be a quick two-day trip. But what I saw at the event was completely unexpected. It was jaw-dropping, spectacular, massive, and mind blowing! The official attendance was 172,000, with some estimates exceeding 300,000. Honestly, on site it felt like 500,000. I had to stand in line for more than 15 minutes just to get in. And the event app regularly sent warnings telling the delegates that the event was over capacity.
Disclaimer: the pictures presented in this article show Alex Zhavoronkov and were not intended to capture any Saudi nationals or breach any policies concerning photography in Saudi Arabia.
Unlike CES, LEAP was organized in a mile-long conference center with the main bi-directional walkway in the center and the many pavilions, company booths, and conference rooms on each side. It started with the largest, and the most impressive booth belonging to Aramco, the largest company in the Gulf and one of the top two largest companies in the world producing some of the finest and most natural organic products consumed by pretty much everyone around the world – oil and gas. Almost everyone as concerned about climate change as I am, would feel uneasy thinking about oil as a natural organic product, and associating it with innovation. Massive anti-oil media coverage, mostly focused on oil spills. ensures that we have this reaction. But even the electric cars in use today get their energy mostly from fossil fuels that represent the lion’s share of energy sources globally, and very few people know the positive facts about oil. For example, the starting material for the chemical synthesis of aspirin is benzene, derived from petroleum. One of the ways to massively impact the production of greenhouse gasses is the invention of new processes and methods of extracting energy from fuels so that the level of pollution is minimized or eliminated. And while Aramco is one of the leaders in optimizing fuels and engines, its booth was not focused on oil and gas. They demonstrated their investments in new sources of energy, efficient transport and infrastructure, new materials, carbon capture and other technologies. The booth showed every innovation imaginable designed to make the energy and materials production greener, more sustainable, and efficient reinforcing the country’s focus to build a sustainable economy in line with the country’s new Vision 2030.
The walk from Aramco to the main presentation hall took about 20 minutes and the “main highway” was packed most of the time. Along the way you would encounter the giant booths by Huawei, Ericsson, Mobility, Dell, Cisco, Microsoft, Oracle, HP, IBM, SAP, AWS, Lenovo, Zain, Neom and many others. The Neom booth was probably the most futuristic as it demonstrated the country’s vision for the new gargantuan sustainable development projects that get so much coverage in the press.
One of the most interesting stands at the conference was the stand by the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), one of the most prominent research universities in the MENA region. Its CEO, Tony Chan, in his signature KAUST baseball hat, was at the booth with the many professors introducing their work in VR, AI, sustainable energy, material science, and wearables. KAUST has been very active in academia and industry for years. My first research paper with a KAUST student titled “Cancer megafunds with in silico and in vitro validation: accelerating cancer drug discovery via financial engineering without financial crisis” was published in 2016, a topic requiring multidisciplinary competence possessed by only a few universities in the world. Since then, the university experienced exponential growth. To bolster their standing in AI, they recently recruited one of the brightest minds in the field, Jürgen Schmidhuber who works there full time. The stand featured prototypes, production systems, interactive displays with local innovations and a large model of the new campus. I especially liked the wearable activity trackers developed specifically for the local clothing. Think FitBit for your Agal/Igal (the hoop worn on the head by the Arab males).
According to the official website, the conference had over 700 speakers. I was not especially impressed with the list from the technical perspective, and attended only a few talks by Aramco, the Prosperity 7 team, and the Chief Executive of Hong Kong, John Lee. The presence of John Lee, the high-level technology and commercial delegation from Hong Kong and the CEO of the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, Nicolas (Gucho) Aguzin following in the footsteps of president Xi’s recent visit, highlighted the importance of Saudi Arabia to China and its regions.
From Theocracy to Inclusive Technocracy could spend hours covering the technological advances presented at LEAP but the most important impression I got at the conference was not related to technology. It was the people that were the most impressive. LEAP clearly demonstrated that Saudi Arabia went from the ultra-conservative state run by the religious clerics where a decade ago you could be prosecuted for wearing the wrong clothes to the technocratic country run by the young management, and where the young people are incredibly optimistic about the future.
After setting up an R&D center in the Middle East, all of our AI scientists and I got an hour-long cultural and religious guide and even developed our own Thawb uniform with a company name and logo on the back as a sign of respect. And at the Aramco booth the green Thwabs that we were wearing caught the attention of the local media. In the past, I was taught not to shake hands with the females unless they extend their hand first and we were told that this is a very unlikely event. To my surprise, my colleague and I were approached mostly by the women in Abayas with and without headscarves and Niquabs every few minutes, they extended their hands and asked about what we do. Most of them were pharmacists, medical doctors, healthcare professionals, medical, pharmacy, biotechnology, and chemistry students who read the word “Medicine” on our Thwabs. And after hearing the usual intro they asked questions very characteristic of a country that never discovered and developed a drug. They did not understand the drug discovery process and how the pharmaceutical industry works, and very often I had to pull out the laptop and explain the many stages from disease hypothesis to hit discovery and preclinical work. And small groups got together to listen and absorb – it was fascinating. Since my main interest in life is longevity, I tried to explain that now they have a local biotechnology initiative called Hevolution, dedicated to making people live healthier longer, which, to my surprise, was not represented at the LEAP conference, and invited them to the largest conference in longevity biotechnology – the 10th ARDD run by the University of Copenhagen. After the meeting, we got hundreds of CVs and LinkedIn requests from people who read some of the papers I recommended, and some people asked for tips with their newly-formed biotechnology businesses.
Saudi Arabia’s Cultural Renaissance: Thousands of Young Ambitious, Proud, Optimistic, and Ready for ActionAnother interesting fact I learned at the LEAP meeting is that the young Saudis naturally love and praise the new young Crowne Prince MBS who could easily win in a democratic election. Everyone from Uber drivers (Uber works very well in Riyadh) to the young girls asking questions about the pharmaceutical industry are praising the change, freedom of speech and expression, and the new focus on technology and mega-projects. During one of the rides, our Uber driver who was also shocked by the number of people coming to and from the LEAP, told me a long story about how he wants to get a job at Neom, where the salaries are high and he can contribute to the new future of Saudi Arabia. Driving a Lexus ES, a standard for an Uber ride, he explained how the country went from having members of the religious police chasing him with sticks because of the length of his Thwab, to a regime focused on sustainability, clean energy, technology and futuristic mega projects. Some of these mega projects may be costly and difficult to implement, but they certainly have helped change the mindsets of the young people, and they are clearly united behind this new Vision 2030.
At LEAP, I also saw the many Saudis moving back from the other countries to take advantage of this new cultural renaissance and moving their businesses to KSA.
The meeting was full of technological optimism, rapid transition from a closed state to the open roaring economy with the many young people, and this optimism is infectious. You feel happy about being alive knowing that places like Saudi Arabia are now pushing hard for innovation and are likely to emerge as key players in technology.
The Western Media Ignored the Event
When doing research for this article, I performed a Google search with “LEAP 2023” and other related keywords. I was also surprised that there was virtually no coverage in top-tier media. In fact, I could not find a single top-tier coverage of the event. A quick search on Forbes.com resulted in no official or contributor articles or even mentions.
Most likely, the majority of the media still has the impression of Saudi Arabia from a decade ago and there is a strong sense of dislike. A quick Twitter poll showed that most of my followers, who are mostly Western scientists and longevity enthusiasts, who are usually very neutral and friendly, do not like Saudi Arabia.
LEAP clearly demonstrated that the country is opening up, is investing heavily in technology, and is paving the way for the young people to realize their potential. Absence of top-tier coverage shows that traditional PR techniques are very unlikely to change the Western attitude and the country needs to innovate in this area.
I highly recommend attending LEAP 2024 and making Saudi Arabia your next travel destination.