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KSA’s Neom mega-city: From sand dunes to flying taxis

Yehia El Amine

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Saudi Arabia’s Neom Mega-City

“A start-up the size of a country,” is how Saudi Arabia’s futuristic mega-city Neom is being described by Saudi officials, investors, contractors and the like.

The city will take up a whopping 10,000 square miles of rocky desert and empty coastline in the country’s remote northwest Tabuk province, where the kingdom will look to attract the world’s brightest and best.

However, the seaside of the northwestern province was considered so barren that the only identifiable resources were sunlight and an infinite supply of salt water.

Yet Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman didn’t see a coarse wasteland when he landed in his helicopter there years ago. But a future where human civilization and progress can be propelled forward in every sense of the word.

What is Neom?

Neom is a portmanteau of the Greek word neos, meaning “new,” and mustaqbal, the Arabic word for “future.”

With a price tag of more than $500 billion, as well as seeking foreign investments to fully foot the bill of its ambitious goals, the project is expected to be a crossover between Silicon Valley’s innovations, Hollywood’s entertainment aura, mixed with a French Riviera vacation spot.

Neom will be 33 times the size of New York City and nearly the size of Belgium, more than one million people will work and reside within it and will include a number of towns, ports, and research centers.

“The city will drive the future of human civilisation, energy and water, mobility, biotech, food, technological and digital sciences, advanced manufacturing, media and entertainment,” Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz described the project to reporters.

What this means for the Kingdom

According to reports by Al Arabiya, Energy Minister Prince Abdul Aziz bin Salman and Neom CEO Nadhmi Al-Nasr signed the memorandum of understanding in several energy fields as of late August.

This shows the kingdom’s relentless push and unwavering willingness to achieve the monumental goals they’ve set for themselves as put forth through its 2030 Vision; as well as diversifying Saudi Arabia’s economy away from its dependency on oil and more into renewable energy and human capital.

“We all hope that as citizens, the Neom project will accomplish all its goals and on time…and if we want to do so, we have no choice but to be up to the work and ambition required for this project,” Prince Abdul Aziz told reporters.

Neom aims to produce 15 gigawatts of renewable energy by 2030, which is equivalent to a quarter of the country’s electricity consumption at peak times, the minister added.

Neom, which is coastline bordering Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt aims to lure serious international investments to make it the number one destination for both work and pleasure worldwide.

This futuristic mega-city, however, isn’t the only plan on the horizon. The kingdom will also look to push multibillion-dollar plan to erect a handful of new cities in the hopes of kick-starting the country’s economy into the future.

The developments include a sports and entertainment city outside Riyadh, luxury tourism resorts spread across an archipelago of pristine Red Sea islands and an ancient Arabian trading post turned wildlife reserve called al-Ula.

Infrastructure

From an infrastructure perspective, Neom Co., the developer of the smart-city, has chosen US-based engineering and construction firm Bechtel to design, build, and manage the construction efforts of its transportation, as well as its power and water infrastructures.

“Neom is one of the most complex projects in living memory and we are proud to be part of it. The vision for a futuristic, innovative and sustainable ecosystem is unique and bold, and we believe Neom will change the way new cities are developed by future generations,” Brendan Bechtel, Chairman and Chief Executive of the family-owned company, said in a press release.

Bechtel has long experience of working with the kingdom, beginning with the construction of the Trans-Arab Pipeline in 1947.

In addition, Neom Co. also signed a number of contracts with Saudi telecom company STC to establish and lay the ground work for a 5G network, as well as a $5bn partnership with US-based Air Products and Saudi ACWA Power to develop the world’s largest green hydrogen and green ammonia plant, to be operational in 2025.

While in parallel, Aecom has also been awarded a contract to work the city’s general design, alongside a plethora of environmental and geotechnical support.

“We are excited to be playing such a pivotal part in delivering one of the world’s largest and most complex infrastructure projects,” said Lara Poloni, president of Aecom in a press release.

She added that with Neom being the centerpiece of Saudi Vision 2030, it will become one of the world’s leading destinations to attract talent and investment and drive economic change in the kingdom.

Hollywoodesque Features

Seeing that Neom will be constructed in one of the world’s driest climates, the city’s architects are planning to draw on “cloud seeing” technology to create artificial clouds, producing more rainfall than naturally possible in the desert.

Also, plans have surfaced that include the construction of an artificial mood drone that would light up during night-time, as well as showcasing live-streamed images of outer space.

The project also aims at constructing a Jurassic Park style island filled with a myriad of robot dinosaurs, alongside a vast stretch of glow in the dark sand on its coastline.

It’s estimated it will take around 7 to 10 years to finish the project.

This smart city will aim to lead the world when it comes to healthcare, education by using holograms to give classes and quality of life.

At the moment, there’s nothing but golden sands and gorgeous coastline on the Saudi stretch of the Red Sea, and currently construction is underway to build an airport and resort.

What about Covid-19?

This is where the uphill battle begins.

The kingdom suffered harshly due to the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic. Shortly after introducing tourist visas for the first time back in September, the country was forced to close its borders to the most vital source of tourism income: religious visitors.

While Saudi Arabia’s economy is the biggest in the Arab world, the country has been hit hard by coronavirus. The kingdom has also had to deal with falling oil prices sparked by an acrimonious dispute with Russia.

However, steps taken by the Saudi government to keep the momentum going has been accelerated showing a strong fortitude toward getting the job done regardless of any hurdle that may come along.

Despite the difficulties ahead, the kingdom will see to it that the Neom dream will not turn into a distant mirage within the covid-19 era.

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Yehia is an investigative journalist and editor with extensive experience in the news industry as well as digital content creation across the board. He strives to bring the human element to his writing.

Technology

The year when smartphones dominated

Yehia El Amine

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The year when smartphones dominated

The year 2020 will always be remembered as the year where the world’s population locked itself indoors to ward off COVID-19 pandemic.

Last year will also be remembered as the year that smartphones became one of the few tools for communication, playing games, downloading apps and accessing news and information in most countries around the world.

The year welcomed more downloads than ever before, with apps specifically focusing on influencing user discovery.

According to U.S.-based analytics firm App Annie, during 2020, time spent on mobile surged at 4.2 hours on Android, which amounted to 3.5 trillion hours in total, a figure up by 20 percent and 25 percent respectively from 2019.

“The world has forever changed. While people stay at home across the world, we saw mobile habits accelerate by three years,” said Theodore Krantz, Chief Executive Officer of App Annie.

Cohesive brand and reputation, combined with a seamlessly connected user experience, continues to drive new user acquisition in an increasingly competitive market.

As the year elapsed, demand for new apps and games consistently jumped seven percent YoY, reaching 218 billion download globally. This increase can be determined by consumers migrating more of their physical needs onto mobile, as spending hit new heights at $143 billion.

“37 percent of app users we surveyed reported they found a new app through a friend or family member. 67 percent of users agree when discovering and purchasing new apps they trust what they learn from online research, and 50 percent only consider well-known apps,” Imma Calvo Managing Director of Apps at Google, said in the App Annie report.

It is worth mentioning that mobile is the only channel with this level reach and depth of engagement.

In the U.S. alone, eight percent of people spent more time on mobile than watching live TV daily. “The average American watched 3.7 hours of live TV a day, whereas they spent 4 hours on their mobile device in H2 2020. The weighted average among countries analyzed for time spent surpassed 4 hours 10 minutes during the pandemic,” the report highlighted.

In the streaming sphere, popular Chinese video sharing app TikTok and Google’s YouTube reigned supreme over rivals.

According to App Annie’s report, TikTok easily outpaced top social networking apps in hours per user, registering a whopping 325 percent in YoY growth.

TikTok ranked in the top 5 by time spent and its average monthly time spent per user grew faster than nearly every other app analyzed, including 70 percent in the US and 80 percent in the UK — surpassing Facebook. TikTok is on track to hit 1.2 billion active users in 2021.

During 2020, 40 percent more hours were streamed on mobile phones, with time spent peaking in Q2 of 2020 in the west as the first wave of COVID-19 forced people inside.

“By 2021 and in the new normal, the average mobile streamer in the US, South Korea and the UK will download 85 percent, 80 percent and 60 percent more video streaming apps, respectively, compared to pre-pandemic levels,” the report explained.

In parallel, YouTube witnessed a surge in time spent per user on the platform, which is 6x increase from last year, recording a watch time of 38 hours a month.

While YouTube was one of the most dominating forces in the video streaming industry across all markets except China, Amazon’s Twitch made headways against many video streaming platforms, which showcases the rise of user-generated content, live streams, and e-sports. 

The increase in demand for apps and games resulted in 97 percent of publishers monetizing through the iOS App Store earned <$1 million per annum and would benefit from Apple’s App Store small business program — reducing fees from 30 percent to 15 percent.

“Many publishers — particularly gaming publishers — roll up under larger companies or parent companies and monetize across both stores — taking home much more per year in aggregate,” the report added.

According to data by market research firm Crunchbase, $73 billion in investment capital poured into mobile companies, reporting at 26 percent YoY growth in 2020. These investments were mainly led by financial services, transportation, e-commerce, and shopping.

“Investments in companies with a mobile solution represent 26 percent of total global funding dollars in 2020, per Crunchbase data. Mobile has driven consumer and enterprise technology innovation with geo-location, cloud services and Artificial Intelligence, creating leading companies in transportation, financial services, health care and entertainment,” Gené Teare Data Researcher Crunchbase, said in the report.

Throughout the year, smartphones and mobile services fueled 45 percent more financial engagement, as consumers quickly opted for contactless digital payments in light of the pandemic.

“Time spent in Finance apps during 2020 was up 45 percent worldwide outside of China in 2020 YoY. Whether leveraging wallet apps, financial services like loans, shopping for major purchases like a car or a house, or investing in the market, FinTech apps are in high demand and a critical part of the decision-making process for consumers,” the App Annie report explained.

Within the gaming industry, core gamers mainly chose mobile consoles at home, account for 66 percent of spending, and 55 percent of time spent on mobile games.

“Casual games dominate downloads with the popularity of easy- to-use names like Among Us, ROBLOX and My Talking Tom Friends. APAC drives a significant portion of spend and time spent among Core games, yet Console and PC-gone-mobile titles bridge the West into Core mobile gaming,” the report noted.

Mobile gaming is on track to surpass $120 billion in consumer spend in 2021 — capturing 1.5x of the market compared to all other gaming platforms combined.

As humanity is still not completely out of the woods in terms of the pandemic, experts forecast that while the world enters into an economic recession, technology will continue to accelerate forward regardless of the events surrounding the human race. 

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COVID-19 changes business habits of tech companies in 2021

Karim Hussami

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Tech and telecom predictions for 2021 and beyond

The pandemic has changed many aspects of our lives by enhancing specific ways of doing things remotely, while shaking up some patterns in the telecom industry including advertising with new technologies.

With the start of 2021, mobile telecom networks and service providers plan to adapt and better cope with the changes that sidestepped them last year and its impact on their businesses.

“The coronavirus pushed last year’s predictions way off track, becoming a critical driver behind IT trends in 2020,” said Jan Gilg, President of SAP S/4HANA at software company (SAP).

“For 2021, COVID-19 continues to be a central story and a galvanizing force behind this year’s forecast. Digital companies had clear advantages in 2020, and in 2021 those with a strong digital plan will have the flexibility to pivot as needed. What’s exciting is that the appetite for digitization is larger than ever before, and the desire for digital, intelligent environments will lead to transformations happening at rates faster than we have ever experienced,” he added. 

The following points are some predictions for the impact on the mobile and digital world for:

1- No speed limit and more digitization

Telecom operators continuously seek new 5G innovations and expand it to reach more users as most people increased usage of video calls and look for more ways to be entertained, collaborate, and spend more time remotely from their friends and colleagues.

With the rise of the 5th-generation technology combined with many activities depending on it, digitization has increased. Open Signal, an independent mobile analytics company, expects that 5G operators will use group video communication to accelerate uptake and will promote the benefits of the added mobile capacity that the technology generates.

New projects and categories will gain control and go mainstream faster than ever before, leading to more participants and greater pressure on the capacity of mobile networks and more data traffic.

Gone are the days when users when internet subscribers and innovative developers fumed over the limited speed of their connectivity thanks to the emergence of 5G.

For example, Apple made 4K Facetime a feature that requires a 5G connection and is incompatible with 4G, which brings more demanding experience.

2- 5G and the trial of the Internet of Things (IoT)

2021 is the year local telco operators will be busy launching standalone 5G, expanding its availability, and optimizing mobile broadband while testing the technology for IoT purposes.

After all those months of struggle due to the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic and its consequences on the telecom sector, the developers of the 5G standards will continue to target IoT markets such as smart agriculture, industrial automation or automotive.

Therefore, the ongoing challenges the world faces will alternate operators’ focus to become mostly on traditional mobile telecom markets that do not require the very latest edge 5G standard to be deployed.

This procedure allows enterprises to get a glimpse of 5G technologies that are strong just as the network slicing, before relying on them. Until the COVID-19 crisis is gradually contained, companies will remain reluctant to make big bets on completely new markets without ensuring that the necessary 5G foundations are fully in place.

Moreover, contactless, and touchless mechanisms of consumer and employee interaction will gain more adoption in 2021, leading to implementation of more IoT equipment for better services.

3- Growth in demand for cashless payments

The virus continued to expand the company’s focus towards contactless activities such as cashless payments or e-commerce via smart phones.

According to MobilePaymentsToday, worldwide transaction value of global transfers reached nearly $88bn in 2020, which is 10 percent year-over-year growth (YoY). The urge to avoid human contact when paying cash led to the demand for virtual payment options, including cross border payments.

Industries that are experiencing a significant rise in international growth in particular demand digital payments in the form of direct selling, distributed development, and travel.

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WhatsApp denies its privacy update will violate privacy of users

Yehia El Amine

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WhatsApp has been at the epicenter of worldwide backlash and controversy in the first week of 2021 following their announcement of updating their privacy policy, which many around the globe found to be too intrusive.

Under the terms of the new policy, Facebook will be able to collect users’ data from the app such as their phone number, email address, contacts, location, device ID, user ID, advertising data, purchase history, product interaction, payment info, crash, performance, and other diagnostic data, customer support, and metadata.

Users will have until February 8, 2021 to accept the new terms of service or will lose their account permanently.

In response to the backlash, the popular instant messaging app published a statement to address the hailstorm of worries and enact some damage control while the iron is hot.

“We want to be clear that the policy update does not affect the privacy of your messages with friends or family in any way. Instead, this update includes changes related to messaging a business on WhatsApp, which is optional, and provides further transparency about how we collect and use data,” the statement by WhatsApp said.

WhatsApp is the biggest instant messaging app in the world with a global user base of 2.5 billion.

The statement titled “the privacy and security of your personal messaging” tackled a myriad of issues and red flags that triggered privacy alarms from people from all professions and walks of life over its ultimatum approach.

“We can’t see your private messages or hear your calls, and neither can Facebook: Neither WhatsApp nor Facebook can read your messages or hear your calls with your friends, family, and co-workers on WhatsApp. Whatever you share, it stays between you,” the statement read.

The social media giant explained that the messages displayed on the app are always protected by end-to-end encryption, since they “will never weaken this security and we clearly label each chat, so you know our commitment.”

WhatsAppst stressed that it does not keep logs of who everyone is messaging or calling, saying that “while traditionally mobile carriers and operators store this information, we believe that keeping these records for two billion users would be both a privacy and security risk and we don’t do it.”

The messaging app indicated that it cannot see people’s shared location neither can its parent company Facebook, citing end-to-end encryption as the security layer protecting it.

“We don’t share your contacts with Facebook; when you give us permission, we access only the phone numbers from your address book to make messaging fast and reliable, and we don’t share your contacts lists with the other apps Facebook offers,” the statement continued.

The company elaborated that group chats on the app will remain private, since group memberships are used to deliver messages and to protect our service from spam and abuse. “We don’t share this data with Facebook for ads purposes. Again, these private chats are end-to-end encrypted so we can’t see their content,” it continued.

The statement stressed that the new privacy policy will mainly tackle WhatsApp Business, noting that the company will always be clear through the app of these new features when users communicate with business accounts.

The social media titan explained that these business accounts need to use hosting services to manage their communication, thus, giving them the option to use secure hosting services from Facebook to manage WhatsApp chats with their customers, answer questions, and send helpful information like purchase receipts.

“But whether you communicate with a business by phone, email, or WhatsApp, it can see what you’re saying and may use that information for its own marketing purposes, which may include advertising on Facebook,” the statement read.

However, WhatsApp explained that people who choose to interact with shops, shopping activity can be used to personalize the experience and the ads seen on Facebook and Instagram. “Features like this are optional and when you use them, we will tell you in the app how your data is being shared with Facebook,” the statement stressed.

Although the statement addressed many fundamental details regarding their privacy update, the company still hasn’t answered the broader question behind the need to access private data such as battery level, ISP information, IP Address, phone IDs and many more.

Many cybersecurity experts around the world consider that the social media titan already has de-encryption algorithms that work on surfacing private user data for commercial use. To the extent where WhatsApp’s co-founder Jan Koum resigned as CEO in 2018 in protest of Facebook’s strategy of monetizing personal data.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has also appeared in front of the U.S. 116th Congress, and the EU Parliament several times to testify about these tactics and strategies that  placed the platform under fire worldwide.

Be that as it may, the approach taken by WhatsApp is shady to say the least, giving users an ultimatum of handing in their data or leaving the app without a choice of opting is an eyebrow raiser in and of itself.

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