While international pharma has long been present in Saudi Arabia, the ambitious goals outlined in the country’s Vision 2030 economic transformation plan have encouraged companies to reinforce their commitment to the Kingdom. In recent PharmaBoardroom interviews, Saudi pharma country managers reveal their priorities and concerns.


Saudi Arabia holds immense significance for Lilly, not only as a strategic market but also as a hub for innovation and growth

Felipe Borges dos Reis, general manager Saudi Arabia RHQ, Eli Lilly


A Regional and Manufacturing Hub

While Big Pharma has a well-established presence in Saudi Arabia, companies like Eli Lilly, active in the kingdom for 40 years, have been encouraged by the country’s transformative ambitions set forth in its Vision 2030 to step up their local commitment. “In 2019, Lilly became one of the first pharmaceutical companies to establish a legal entity in the country, and in 2021, we established our regional headquarters, which is now fully operational,” says Felipe Borges dos Reis, general manager Saudi Arabia RHQ, Eli Lilly. For Borges dos Reis, “Saudi Arabia holds immense significance for Lilly, not only as a strategic market but also as a hub for innovation and growth.”

GSK also has a long history in Saudi, spanning five decades and leading the company in the early 1990s to become the first multinational to establish a manufacturing plant there. “We take immense pride in our longstanding commitment to Saudi Arabia, with approximately 80 percent of all products available in the country originating from our manufacturing facility at various stages of production,” asserts Farrukh Rehan, VP & general manager, GSK Saudi Arabia. “This includes vaccines and pharmaceuticals, showcasing our substantial contribution to the local healthcare landscape.”

Rare disease specialist Kyowa Kirin is another international company that has increased its stake in the country. “We have allocated greater resources in Saudi Arabia,” says Mohamed Abu Shawish, cluster GM GCC, Kyowa Kirin. “This strategic move strengthens our ability to serve the Saudi market and foster an environment of continued support to the healthcare community and patients.”

Moderna, while currently working through local partners, has also set its sights on Saudi and developing the kingdom as a major hub. “The aim is for Saudi Arabia to become a MENA hub for biotech by 2030 and a global hub by 2040,” attests Dan Staner, VP, GM Germany & Switzerland and Head of the Middle East Region at Moderna.


Government Partnerships

The major transformation Saudi Arabia has undertaken through its Vision 2030, which encompasses improvements to healthcare and regulatory processes, is an important driver for international pharma to not only build its presence, but to ramp up collaboration with the Saudi government.

“Lilly has always positioned itself as a partner to the Saudi government to foster the Public Private Partnership (PPP) and align with the country’s healthcare sector transformation’s vision of having a more vibrant and healthier community,” says Eli Lilly GM Borges dos Reis. This is particularly the case for obesity, a disease that effects some 30 percent of the population, and where the company is looking to work with the government to prioritize education, de-stigmatization, and access.

“I’m continually struck by the bold vision and ambition of the Saudi healthcare system, particularly under the transformative umbrella of Vision 2030,” GSK’s Rehan confirms. “The Ministry of Health, in alignment with this vision, is undergoing substantial.” GSK has subsequently entered into several MoUs with both the Ministry of Health and the Public Health Authority, and Rehan claims, “our strategic partnerships with the Saudi government have facilitated the prioritization of our country for all GSK product launches, including critical vaccines and oncology treatments. As a result, we’ve been able to swiftly introduce cutting-edge medical solutions to the Saudi market, addressing the evolving healthcare needs of the population and enhancing access to essential medicines.” Within the realm of vaccination, Rehan confirms that “approximately 60 percent of the Saudi national immunization program’s vaccines are provided by GSK.”

Mohamed Abu Shawish corroborates the radical shift that Saudi healthcare has undergone. “I’ve witnessed a remarkable transformation in Saudi Arabia, characterized by a positive shift in mindset and continual enhancements in healthcare capabilities.” In the Kyowa Kirin GM’s view, a few key initiatives have helped to advance healthcare in Saudi Arabia, including “the transition towards a value-based healthcare system, where Health Technology Assessment (HTA) plays a key role in the drug reimbursement decision-making process, including the development of the first National Multi-Criteria Decision Analysis Framework.” In addition, he notes, “Saudi Arabia’s regulatory environment has undergone significant transformation and witnessed further improvement in terms of efficiency and alignment.”

Dan Staner cites the Saudi Biotech National Strategy as another decisive government move with three of its four pillars (vaccines, bio-manufacturing, and genomics) “aligning perfectly with Moderna’s expertise and ambition.”


Willingness to Address Challenges

Despite the positive outlook, Saudi Arabia country managers are aware that challenges remain, particularly with respect to access. “The regulatory environment, spearheaded by the Saudi FDA’s robust processes, is conducive to the introduction of new medicines and vaccines,” says Rehan. “However, while regulatory frameworks are in place, the process of ensuring widespread access to these innovations may encounter delays. Nonetheless, initiatives are underway to streamline access frameworks, reflecting the government’s dedication to advancing healthcare innovation for the benefit of the Saudi population.”

“Despite positive strides, we recognize challenges remain in ensuring that patients we serve receive the optimal intervention, given the nature of rare diseases,” laments Abu Shawish. One particular area he notes as a bottleneck is sustaining treatment post-diagnosis. “This is partly caused by logistical hurdles, especially for patients in remote areas. To tackle this, we’ve partnered with local entities to facilitate treatment delivery and expedite follow-up testing, alleviating the need for patients to travel long distances, sometimes requiring flights, for treatment or testing.”

Regardless of the challenges, in Borges dos Reis’s view, the government’s willingness to address them has built trust among pharma companies. “While there are challenges such as IP and data protection, data generation, and scarcity of some expertise, the clear intent of the country to improve and address these challenges instils confidence.”


A Focus on Developing Talent

Developing local talent is a priority for Saudi country managers, so much so that Lilly’s Borges dos Reis claims that one of his central objectives is to transform the affiliate with its 100 some employees, 80 percent of which are Saudi nationals and 45 percent women, into “a talent powerhouse.” In addition, he aims for Saudi Arabia “to be globally recognized as a source of talent, with individuals being developed locally and assuming higher positions both within and outside the country.”

GSK is also focusing on developing local talent, and most importantly on empowering women in the workforce. “We have implemented various programs aimed at nurturing Saudi pharmacists and engineers, fostering their leadership skills, and providing opportunities for advancement,” Rehan contends. “Notably, our organization has witnessed an impressive transformation in women’s leadership roles, with Saudi women comprising 30 percent of our commercial arm. This progress is further exemplified by the fact that in 2023, half of our new hires were women.”

Beyond employees, pharma GMs are looking towards the empowerment of the Saudi patient community as Abu Shawish points out. “Encouragingly, we are seeing that patients are becoming more vocal through social media and feeling more empowered during discussions with their healthcare providers and caregivers.