Regional scope – Saudi Arabia

Healthcare fit for a king

The Saudi Arabian healthcare industry is flourishing with the support of a cash-rich economy and the government’s prioritisation of healthcare. The Editor, Callan Emery, visited the kingdom, spoke to influential people in the industry and visited some of the healthcare facilities.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a vast country, a large swathe of it occupied by the legendary inhospitable sandy desert known as the Rub al Khali or Empty Quarter. The country’s oil reserves are the largest in the world and it is from this source that the ruling elite, the royal family, derives enormous wealth. Following the philosophy that the health of a country’s people reflects the health of the country, the government has pumped, and continues to do so, billions of dollars into healthcare - making this sector one of the largest beneficiaries of the state budget. In short, the healthcare industry is flourishing and it is in the large and sprawling cities of Riyadh (4.5 million population) and Jeddah (about 3 million people) where the great strides in healthcare development are most visible.

In a great show of benevolence, the government has, over the past 30 years or so, built several mega healthcare institutions as well as smaller clinics in all the major cities as part of a two-tier plan to meet citizens’ health needs, from preventative care to surgery. The first tier is a network of primary healthcare centres and clinics set up across the country including facilities for preventative, prenatal and emergency medicine as well as basic health services. These facilities are supplemented by a fleet of mobile clinics that visit the more remote villages. The second tier consists of a network of advanced hospitals and specialist centres established in strategic urban centres throughout the country.

And early last year the Ministry of Health (MoH) approved measures to begin constructing 33 new hospitals across the kingdom as at a cost of US$217 million.

Government hospitals offer free treatment to all Saudi nationals and until recently offered the same to the several million expat workers in the country. However, it has recently been made mandatory for all expats to have health insurance and they are now required to pay for treatment. It is expected that, as the cost of healthcare provision increases for the government, the same regulation will be applied to Saudi nationals.

According to the Economist Intelligence Unit, the Saudi Arabian Government has targeted the health sector as a priority investment sector in the current five-year development plan in order to meet the rapidly growing demands of a fast-growing population. The plan (the seventh such plan, running from 2000 to 2004) seeks to introduce substantial public-sector investment in the sector.

Saudi Arabia spent 5.3 per cent of GDP in 2000 on healthcare, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), a relatively high proportion by regional and international standards. With the exception of 2001, the kingdom’s average governmental health spend per head has been rising gradually since 1998, despite relatively high levels of population increase.

According to a report in Ameinfo ( the kingdom budgeted US$6.19 billion for health and social care in 2003, one of the largest beneficiaries of the state budget, which highlights the kingdom’s prime concern, after education, to provide quality health services and facilities to its more than 22 million citizens.

The main provider of healthcare services to the general public is the MoH. Other government agencies operate separate hospitals for their employees, such as the Ministry of Defence and Aviation (MODA), the National Guard, Ministry of Interior and King Faisal Specialist Hospital and Research Centre (KFSH).

With such a huge budget at hand the government has built facilities which are large, sprawling and all-encompassing, and in several instances the name of the institution is aptly suffixed with “City”, such as the newly operational King Fahd Medical City in Riyadh. They are staffed by hundreds of doctors and many more support staff and, being relatively new developments, most of them house the latest medical technology and equipment. In short, they are medical marvels.

Saudi Arabia is the largest market for medical equipment and healthcare products in the Gulf and the Ministry of Health is the largest buyer, representing around 60 per cent of the market for such products.

About 30 years ago, during the reign of HH King Faisal bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud, the government, coerced by a handful of private entrepreneurs, realised it could not indefinitely sustain free healthcare funding for the entire kingdom. The state instituted a 50 per cent loan to entrepreneurs wishing to develop private healthcare facilities. With this incentive many magnificent private healthcare facilities, ranging from specialised clinics to general hospitals, have been developed throughout the kingdom. And in a magnificent show of entrepreneurial zeal many of these buildings display an architectural grandeur that reflects the new-found wealth of Saudi Arabia.
The success of many of these initiatives has enabled them to continue expanding across the country and the region. The Saudi German Hospital Group, for example, has visionary expansion ideas and plans to build hospitals in nearly all the capital cities of the Middle East-North Africa region. This is no doubt symbolic of the way the affluent Saudi healthcare industry, in general, is flourishing.

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