When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu flew to Saudi Arabia to meet Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman last week, the location chosen for the secret rendezvous was Neom, the futuristic megacity being built under the Prince’s watch. Saudi authorities denied reports of the historic meeting, but unnamed officials in the Kingdom, Israel and the U.S., told the media that the leaders, in the presence of U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, discussed the possibility of normalising relations between the two countries and the challenges posed by Iran.
The planned city along the Red Sea coast is emerging as the new centre of power in the Kingdom as Crown Prince Mohammed, popularly known as MBS, is largely running the government from there. Since the COVID-19 outbreak, he has been chairing the Cabinet meetings from Neom, where a palace has been built, using video links. In September, he hosted Jared Kushner, U.S. President Donald Trump’s son in law, in Neom.
MBS unveiled the plan of building a city state on the northwestern coast of the kingdom months after becoming the Crown Prince in 2017. As part of the Vision 2030 plan, which seeks to diversify the Kingdom’s economy and reduce its dependency on oil, the $500-billion ambitious project plans to build a carbon-neutral, technologically advanced city state that can house up to 1 million people. The name Neom, a combination of Greek and Arabic words, means ‘new future’. “The future has a new home,” claims the Neom website.
Flying cars, fake moon
The Saudi government hired international consultancies such as Boston Consulting Group, McKinsey and Oliver Wyman to draw up plans for the city. According to the documents they prepared, which were leaked to the press, Neom, which is expected to be open for residents by 2025, will have flying cars, artificial rain generated through cloud seeding, a giant fake moon and robot dinosaurs once it is complete. The entire project, coming up on 26,500 square km of land in the Tabuk province (roughly the size of Belgium), is expected to be powered by clean energy resources. The autonomous city will have its own tax and labour laws and judicial system, independent from the existing governing system in Saudi Arabia. The city will have “a progressive legal system compatible with international norms and conducive to economic growth,” claims the website. MBS wants Neom to be “the largest city globally by GDP,” according to the planning documents.
The first phase includes the construction of an airport and a resort. The airport has already been built, but Neom doesn’t give any update on the progress of constructions. In 2019, Saudi Arabia floated a company in the name of Neom. The company, wholly owned by the Public Investment Fund, Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund with an estimated asset of $383 billion, is to develop the city’s economic zone. While the initial investments will be made by the kingdom, the city needs large-scale international investments for the project to be completed in the planned scale. But both Saudi Arabia’s finances, which were already in trouble due to low oil prices, and its investment climate took a beating after the pandemic.
While construction activities began, Neom ran into another trouble. The region where the city is being built is home to some 20,000 people, mostly from the Huwaitat tribe. Members of the tribe have been living on the Red Sea Coast spread over northwestern Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt’s Sinai for generations. Saudi authorities faced resistance from the local population to taking over their land. Abdul Rahim al-Huwaiti, one of the outspoken critics of the project, had released several videos alleging the authorities were forcibly evicting the local people. In April this year, Abdul Rahim was killed by the police. Saudi authorities said he was killed in a shootout. Several others who were protesting against land acquisition were arrested.
Despite the economic woes and controversies, Saudi officials say, Neom remains a top priority of MBS and that they are hopeful of completing the project by 2030. “It’s an attempt to do something that has never been done before,” says the company. The city is being built as a “living laboratory – a place where entrepreneurship and innovation will chart the course for this New Future”.