Building the Kingdom

Opportunity for audiovisual integrators abounds in Saudi Arabia as a royal education push and a booming oil export business create a huge demand for high-tech facilities across the Kingdom. Anna Mitchell reports.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is the world’s largest exporter of petroleum and one of the fastest growing countries in the world. Furthermore, by 2020 the country plans to have completed six new industrialised cities that are expected to bolster an already robust economy.

The capital, Riyadh is a focal point of the Arab country for both travel and trade. Saudi Media Systems, a company that designs and integrates multimedia systems and advanced technology facilities, is based in the busy metropolis. Claude E Wells, managing director of Saudi Media Systems, helped found the company 25 years ago and has extensive experience of the Saudi market place.

He says, perhaps rather predictably, that business is good in Saudi Arabia with plenty of work available in the audiovisual market. However, more surprisingly, the first area of opportunity he mentions isn’t oil related but education based.

"When King Abdullah came into power he really placed a great focus on the development of the education sector," explained Wells. "Part of that focus centred on creating high end educational facilities for both men and women. So all three of the largest education projects on the face of the earth are currently in Saudi Arabia. The King Abdullah University for Science and Technology, the Riyadh Women’s University and an expansion of the King Saud University are all three to five billion dollar (€2- €3.5 billion) projects."

Wells offers an example of his company’s involvement in the education push. "We are involved in a large project at the Prince Mohammad Bin Fahad University in Dhahran. We are supplying full campus wide audiovisual systems including the conference centre and video conferencing network for distance learning. We’re also doing the conference centres for four other universities at the same time. These projects all include large auditoriums with anywhere between 2,000 and 5,000 seats."

Alongside education, Wells says security projects represent an important revenue stream. "Security projects are also providing a lot of opportunity because that’s always been the nature of the Middle East," he notes. "On the integrated security side the large projects we’re involved with at the moment are secure facilities for British Aerospace, the Royal Saudi Airforce and Saudi Aramco."

And, of course, there’s oil and gas. "As far as control rooms go," Wells explains as an example, "we’re currently working with Saudi Aramco on four rooms. Furthermore we’re involved with its geosourcing operations centre. It’s a huge collaborative environment – not a control room, more an operations, hands-on sort of centre." Saudi Business Systems has similar projects in non-oil areas. "We’re also doing NOCs (network operations centres) for the airforce and several of the plants for SABIC (Saudi Basic Industries Corp.). In addition, we’ve just completed the specifications for all the low current systems for the Ministry of Defence’s Tier2 Command Centres."

Wells explains why in these types of installations are so popular, saying: "All process industries are upgrading their operations centres and control centres because they are moving across to work station based process control. That changes the configuration of their control centres and display walls and what they are able to see at any one time. We’ve had a lot of demand for video streaming applications as process control comes into the control room."

However, oil prices fell dramatically at the end of December 2008 and, despite making a partial recovery throughout 2009, the oil companies must have felt some sort of impact. "There were some major development projects put on hold," Wells agreed. "But it did not affect the audiovisual or security segments. That was due to strategic decisions that were taken by Saudi Aramco at the upper management level. They decided that the security needs, in particular, needed to be addressed now and could not be delayed. Furthermore manpower development was prioritised creating a need for audiovisual components as high end training facilities and distance learning programmes were implemented."

Saudi Media Systems’ newest division, telecommunications, is also being kept busy as the company gets heavily involved with the roll out of 3G wireless networks and fibre in the country. "We’re underneath a six-fold expansion of the telecomms networks in Saudi Arabia," says Wells.

He predicts large potentials in digital signage and visual communication as the telecommunication infrastructure grows and broadband service availability improves. "There will be more HD content available to come into homes and businesses, which has been largely constrained by the availability of bandwidth. That looks like it will be solved within the next two years when we should have some of the best broadband infrastructure in the world and fibre going into homes and offices.

"At that point," he predicts, "with competition the cost of broadband will come down and we will see an explosion in the kinds of digital media offerings that are available and the kinds of systems that hang off them. So I think we’ll have the bandwidth that will support HD conferencing, HD streaming and IPTV and those sorts of services that are currently constrained by the infrastructure.

"There’s roughly eight billion Riyals (€1.5 billion) being spent on telecomms across the next two years; 25 billion on higher education; and oil, gas and petrochemicals is, of course, the bread and butter of the Kingdom. Every one of these sectors has large movements and it’s a real thriving economy right now.

Saudi Arabia is also building six new economic cities, a huge construction feat that must be good news for audiovisual integrators in the Kingdom. However, Wells says most of the opportunities in the audiovisual market are related to education. "We have worked with some of the contractors," he explained, "but, in the cities themselves, unless it comes down to a municipal security control room, for example, they’re largely housing and industrial estates. There are some central facilities for municipal management, or large education institutions but the cities themselves are not intensive in our area.

"There is some business in hotels," continues Wells. "But Saudi Arabia doesn’t have a market that is anywhere near comparable to Dubai or Bahrain. We have done room controls for what is billed as the seven star Hilton in Jeddah. And we have some things taking place in some of the newer hotels here but it’s not a big business. As we speak there are four or five hotels going up in Riyadh but that doesn’t compare to the 200 or so there are in Dubai. It’s not a major market in Saudi Arabia. There are some projects that are being developed in the science learning centres and some tourism projects that will involve audiovisual facilities. Again, the entertainment market is not huge. There was an attempt for the first cinema in Saudi Arabia about three months ago but it’s still not a cinema market and it’s not an entertainment venue market."

Events that do buck this trend however, are weddings. "We’ve kitted out large hotel ballrooms that are specified beyond what is expected for normal ballrooms," says Wells. He explains this is good for the rental companies in Saudi Arabia, adding that it’s a growing market.

It appears Saudi Arabia has been protected, to some extent, from the economic crisis that has engulfed the world over the last few months. Wells says that on some level it’s even been good for business as skilled professionals look to wealthy countries for work. However, he does add that it can be hard to obtain visas for expatriate labour. On a positive note the vocational training schools are starting to produce larger numbers of Saudi electronics technicians and Saudi Media Systems currently employs anywhere between 30 and 50 Saudis.

As a country known for its huge reserves of oil, in an oil hungry world, it’s no surprise that Saudi Arabia has a robust economy and is providing multiple opportunities for audiovisual integrators. However, it’s interesting that the Saudi marketplace isn’t just about oil, or even security, its diversity is growing as the country pushes education and an ever-widening business scope.

Article Categories

Most Viewed