Times they are a changing in Saudi Arabia. Winds of reform are blowing in the desert land. The kingdom’s crown prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) appears to be a man in a hurry. Since his father became king two years ago, MBS is consolidating power left, right and centre. He was made crown prince earlier this year, ousting his uncle Muhammad bin Nayef, and upsetting the chain of succession. All seemed well at the time, but Nayef lost a son in a plane crash and his bank accounts were frozen amidst the ongoing anti-corruption purge started by MBS, which has claimed some of the country’s wealthiest and most influential individuals, all princes no less.
Apart from the purge at home, MBS is trying to tighten the noose around Iran by going after entities such as Houthis in Yemen and Hezbollah in Lebanon, which are backed by the Shia country.
Apart from all this, MBS is also trying to reform his country and drag it into the twenty-first century. While the earlier kings walked a tight rope in trying to balance modernity and conservative clergy, MBS seems to have thrown caution to the wind. The kingdom recently made it lawful for women to drive cars. The crown prince has also announced a series of economic reforms to wean Saudi’s economy away from oil. His economic vision for 2030 Saudi Arabia is commendable.
But most ambitious of all announcements came at the end of last month when he launched a $500 billion mega economic zone called NEOM, where “neo” stands for new and M has been taken from mustaqbal, meaning future. “This is the blank page you need to write humanity’s next chapter,” announced a narrator in the promotional video of the NEOM launch, adding, “This is where we can prepare together for the next era of human progress.”
NEOM will be situated at the Red Sea coast overlooking the Gulf of Aqaba and merge into Jordan and Egypt. It will span across 25,000 square kilometres, slightly less than half of the area of National Capital Region (NCR). This new futuristic city has been envisioned as a centre for manufacturing, renewable energy, biotechnology, media, and entertainment, and will offer “an idyllic lifestyle…founded on modern architecture, lush green spaces, quality of life, safety, and quality in service of humanity paired with excellent economic opportunities.”
Lofty claims aside, will it be financially feasible? So far the details about how this will be actually funded have not been made public, except claiming that the city will be funded by the Saudi government, its sovereign wealth fund, and private investors. It’s not the first time that Saudi Arabia is attempting to design something of this sort. Earlier attempts – such as Abdullah Economic City, not far from where NEOM will be built, and Abdullah Financial District near Riyadh – have come a cropper. Envisioned over a year ago, they haven’t translated into ground realities so far.
The promotional video shows a city filled with people from all over the world and from all kinds of racial backgrounds, enjoying enriched lives full of leisure where robots take care of laborious jobs. Keep the technological aspects of the city aside for a second, which alone seem too futuristic for today’s standards, and take the social environment shown in the video. Is such kind of a society possible in Saudi Arabia? Will there be no push back from radical elements? Will the conservative clergy simply accept the revolution that MBS is trying to usher in and happily welcome women in shorts and bikinis enjoying on the beaches along the Red Sea in the land of the pure? If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
And then there is the Saudi bureaucracy. MBS has launched a number of reforms to make it less lethargic, and introduced incentives for them to work hard, but it will take time. He is trying to do too many things at once.
Will NEOM materialise, or will it remain just another pipe dream of a young prince? Only time will tell.
Featured image: NEOM will be situated at the Red Sea coast overlooking the Gulf of Aqaba and merge into Jordan and Egypt. (NEOM/Twitter)
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