Smart cities: The future of Saudi Arabia

Smart cities make up about 80 percent of the global GDP
Smart cities: The future of Saudi Arabia
Riyadh advanced to 30th place on the IMD Smart City Index

The term ‘smart cities’ has dominated the real estate sector and the technology arena around the world. It has become a new concept adopted in any new city a country wants to develop or any old city that it wants to transform.

Smart cities have an environmentally friendly digital ecosystem that stimulates learning and creativity.

The importance of smart cities

Smart cities, also known as digital cities or eco-cities, describe technologically advanced cities that adopt governance and environmentally friendly means of transportation. Smart cities are preview of the future, across society’s economic and social aspects. Their goal is to provide a sustainable environment that enhances feelings of happiness and well-being.

Smart cities contribute to attracting digital investments, strengthening industry, and increasing productivity using modern technology and Artificial Intelligence (AI). They are also considered a powerful engine for growth, making up about 80 percent of the global GDP.

Saudi Arabia rides the wave of smart cities

The smart cities model quickly spread in Arab countries that adopted and implemented it in their urban development strategies. Among these is the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which began moving towards smart cities in 2017 with the launch of the Smart City Initiative.

Strong population growth in Saudi Arabia

Saudi cities witnessed a clear increase in the growth rates of their population with their population doubling from 9.32 million people in 1980 to approximately 32 million people in 2018. That is nearly a threefold increase. With rapid urbanization, the population of cities will reach 90 percent of the total population by 2030. Moreover, Riyadh’s population alone will reach 8.2 million.

Expectations are that the annual population growth rate will reach 0.78 percent. Therefore, this will bring the urban population to about 38.5 million people by 2030. This growth in population and rapid changes will impose more pressure on urban areas and will limit the ability of cities to keep pace with the demands of the increasingly growing population.

Kingdom’s policies and plans

Policies and plans must take into account the kingdom’s environment and support social, economic, and cultural development sustainably. To achieve the goals of the National Transformation Program in the field of digital transformation, the Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs announced 5 new smart cities in the kingdom.

In 2018, the ministry identified projects that could be implemented in 5 major smart cities until 2020. The cities include Riyadh, Mecca, Medina, Jeddah, and Dammam.

Accordingly, Riyadh ranked 30th globally, and third in the Arab world, on the IMD Smart City Index. Medina followed ranking second on the index, 73rd globally, and 4th in the Arab world.

New strategy

In 2022, Saudi Arabia adopted a new strategy for smart cities. The strategy aims to transform municipal and residential sector services into smart services.  That is through the use of digital technologies and the Internet of Things to provide services that enhance economic prosperity, environmental sustainability, and effective government supervision.

The strategy was built with the participation of all secretariats in the municipal sector. Moreover, each secretariat developed a strategy of its own including a road map extending to 2030. Additionally, the strategy set 6 goals that take into account the priorities and challenges of each region.

The Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs stated that by 2030, more than 50 initiatives will be launched in 9 sectors. The initiatives include:

  • Smart parking
  • Systems to preserve the environment
  • Waste disposal systems
  • Housing and smart community management
  • Land and asset management
  • Urban landscape improvement
  • Urban planning

The Ministry stressed that it seeks, through the strategy, to achieve three main goals: improving the quality of life of citizens, achieving financial sustainability, and improving the quality of services provided.

Thus, smart cities will contribute to creating solutions to the difficult challenges associated with development. The most important challenges include sustainability, congestion, transportation, and energy use. They also seek to improve the quality of life for all members of society.

smart cities

Saudi cities advance on the IDM index

In 2023, Riyadh advanced to 30th place on the IMD Smart City Index. Mecca, Medina, and Jeddah also entered the index, bringing the total number of Saudi cities within the index to 4.

The Saudi capital maintained its position as the third smartest Arab city on the Smart City Index 2023 by the International Institute for Management Development (IMD). Globally, Riyadh ranks 30th out of 141 cities.

This classification confirms Riyadh and Saudi Arabia’s commitment to adopting smart technologies and innovative urban planning to improve the standard of living and sustainability.

Moreover, Mecca ranked fourth, Jeddah fifth, and Medina seventh in the Arab world. Globally, Mecca ranked 52nd, Jeddah 56th, and Medina 85th.

The entry of these cities into the index indicates a broader commitment within Saudi Arabia to developing urban areas with smart technology and sustainable practices.


In light of the current changes, Saudi Arabia seeks to reduce its dependence on oil revenues in the future and move to rely on abundant non-oil resources to support its national economy.
To achieve this, the Kingdom took the initiative to transform thousands of square kilometers into smart cities of the future. That is part of its efforts aimed at urban expansion, generating new job opportunities, encouraging investment, and transforming into a diversified economy. Thus, it seeks to include communications, power generation, natural gas, and private investment sectors that will provide more job opportunities for Saudi youth

Smart cities consist of many buildings, transportation systems, urban security services, flood and rainwater drainage, street lighting, city readiness in crises, and the economic support of small, medium, and large enterprises.

Read: The intersection of technology and sustainability


In the Kingdom, smart city projects built on unused lands are gaining great momentum. The Kingdom has unveiled the giant future city project NEOM, which is being built from scratch in the northwest on the shores of the Red Sea. The project is being built on an area of 26,500 km2, for 500. Billion US dollars.

This project comes within the ambitious aspirations of the Kingdom’s Vision 2030, which seeks to diversify the Kingdom’s economy outside the oil sector.

This city will base its economic projects on advanced manufacturing using AI, the Internet of Things, biotechnology, media, and advanced security. Moreover, it relies on advanced logistic services and advanced health care services to improve the lives of its residents and guests. It seeks to encourage business models and rely more on robots instead of humans.

Amid this urban momentum and the widespread demand that Saudi Arabia is witnessing in the field of smart cities, the question remains: What will Saudi Arabia look like by the year 2030? It seems like we are heading towards a model country by all standards.

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