Saudi Arabia has set his sights on a new record. In more than one, actually. The Sunni kingdom has been promoting the project of a futuristic and sustainable megacity called Neom for several years. Built in the middle of the desert, the megalopolis equipped with domestic robots and flying taxis is presented as an intelligent city that adopts all kinds of technologies and in which the largest and tallest buildings in the world stand out. “The new era of human progress” can be read on its website along with images worthy of a science fiction movie.
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The $500 billion city, described as “Saudi Silicon Valley,” is crown prince and de facto ruler Mohammed bin Salman’s (MBS) most ambitious bid to turn a remote region of the country into a high-tech, semi-autonomous state. in a high-profile tourist destination. Behind the project, announced in 2017, is the desire to attract foreign investment to the kingdom and help diversify its oil-dependent economy.
According to the plan, Neom, whose first stage of construction is scheduled to be completed in 2025, will occupy a total area of more than 26,500 square km in the province of Tabuk in northwestern Saudi Arabia, with which it is expected to cover an area 33 times the size of New York City.
The backbone of the project will be two skyscrapers up to 500 meters high that will extend horizontally and linearly for tens of kilometers from the Red Sea coast to the desert, housing residential spaces, offices and shops. The official project report states that it will be the largest building in the world, not in terms of height, but in terms of total area.
The country had also started work in 2013 on the Jeddah Tower, which at one kilometer in height was poised to surpass the world’s tallest building, Dubai’s Burj Khalifa. But its construction has been stalled since 2019 due to labor problems.
The kingdom is already home to the fourth largest building in the world, the Abraj al-Bait clock tower hotel in Mecca.
Since being appointed crown prince in 2017, MBS has wanted to modernize Saudi Arabia by making the ultra-conservative kingdom more open to culture and tourism and by liberating some aspects of Saudi society.
However, the prince’s efforts to modernize the kingdom’s image were undermined by the death of Jamal Khashoggi, a journalist critical of the government who was brutally murdered by Saudi agents at his country’s consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, in 2018.
For Mohamed Badine el Yattioui, professor of International Relations at the American University in the Emirates, projects like Neom help the prince get back on track. “This is a totally new city, very modern, which could establish a counterweight to cities like Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, and Doha, the capital of Qatar. These two cities, especially Dubai, are the most important in the Middle East in terms of economy, tourism and modernity, ”he tells El Comercio.
It emphasizes the objective of strengthening the economy through the diversification of the tourism, financial and media sectors. He adds that MBS has authoritatively sought to change the ultra-conservative image of Saudi Arabia, which has generated conflicts within the royal family, especially with members with a more closed and conservative vision and with religious power.
“There is fear that the image of the Saudi kingdom will change. The two holiest places in Islam, Mecca and Medina, are in Saudi Arabia. The fear on the part of society and the political and religious power is that Saudi society will open up so much that traditional and conservative values will disappear”, points out the expert.
He also explains that doubts about the project focus on whether the country will have the capacity to make such a modern and ambitious city in a short time, since the megacity should be ready in 2030. Other issues of concern are whether foreigners and investors will want to move to live or work in a desert like that and if, as it promises, NEOM will be able to be a green and sustainable city.
lights and shadows of the prince
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman will make a strong return to the international stage with US President Joe Biden’s visit to the kingdom in mid-July.
The trip, against the backdrop of rising energy prices linked to the Ukraine invasion, is a victory for King Salman’s son, after a US intelligence report concluded that Mohammed Bin Salman “approved” an operation to capture or kill journalist Jamal Khashoggi, something Saudi Arabia denies.
When Biden arrives in Riyadh, he will see some developments promoted by the crown prince in cultural and social fields. For example, in the last five years Saudi women have been allowed to stop wearing the veil, participate in public events and drive.
Even so, they cannot raise their voices very much against the power to demand more freedoms. In 2018, at least a dozen activists were arrested.
This is part of a wave of repression that has also affected princes and high officials suspected of corruption or disloyalty.