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NEOM: The Future of Saudi Arabia?

  • Opinion

Angus Robins (MSC Politics of the Middle East)

 ‘’This is a much-needed investment into Saudi’s bleak economic forecast; poor innovation and, graduate employment rates have resulted in a drastically underdeveloped private sector.’’ 

Saudi Arabia has recently released concept art for their new mega-project NEOM: The Line. At first glance, it appears to be an architectural masterpiece. From a topographical glance, it looks like a 170km pencil, stretching across the Saudi Desert. However, this vanity project may bring ruin to the country. 

NEOM (as a whole) is a $1 trillion giga-project designed to reinvigorate the Saudi private economy and pave the way for a post-oil future. The project has wide-ranging goals, from the establishment of a sea-born industrial zone, ski resorts, ports along the dead sea and, even 16,000 acres of genetically altered agriculture in the heart of the Saudi desert. The newest addition (The Line) is an accompanying $500bn consolidated city built with disruptive technologies. New concept art paints an interesting picture; a long, narrow city footprint (see above) that stretches from Egypt to Jordan (nearly 170km) across the desert of Saudi. The cherry on top of this major investment is The Line, acting as a honey trap to investors, tourists and businesses alike. By demonstrating the liberalisation of previously strict laws regulating everything from the private to the public, hopes are to establish long-term business interests in the country, outlasting global oil demand. 

 An artist rendering of the mirrored parallel buildings.Image: Neom

This is a much-needed investment into Saudi’s bleak economic forecast; poor innovation and graduate employment rates have resulted in a drastically underdeveloped private sector. With oil revenue accounting for 87% of Saudi state revenue, global attempts to transition to a post-oil future represent a significant threat to the nation’s future. This Project is part of ‘Vision 2050’ and aims to transition the country into a world-leading technological and manufacturing centre. This project has massive promise, with goals to create a regional trade hub, alongside world-class productivity, artificial intelligence and fully automated robotic labs.

To this point, the entirety of NEOM will be beyond Saudi jurisdiction in attempts to draw foreign talent to create a world-leading tertiary hub. This attempt to secure Saudi regional and global relevance is the brainchild of Mohammad bin Salman (MBS), the new Crown Prince of the Country, who represents massive reform within the Kingdom. From curtailing of religious police to the partial lifting of draconian Women’s rights laws, the young Crown Prince represents the most significant state-led reform of the country in living memory. Indeed, both reforms and the mega project can be seen collectively as an enticement to foreign businesses and workers to move to Saudi Arabia.

However, MBS’s program is fraught with complications, even before construction. Three men have recently been put to death following their refusal to leave their homes to make way for the project, accentuating the Kingdom’s already tenuous human rights record. The assassination of journalist and, dissenter, Jamal Khashoggi, is still fresh in everyone’s mind. As such, NEOM: The Line’s plan to make use of disruptive technology also represents a distinct threat; the use of espionage and, surveillance will be easier than ever in this high-tech city. Delivery of the project will also present significant complications; other mega projects within the kingdom have failed spectacularly, and, the Crown Prince’s unrealistic expectations (such as robot servants, flying cars and, reportedly even a fake moon) will also represent hindrance. There is no turning back from this either, the Crown Prince’s recent consolidation of power has resulted in total control of the project and, the partial sale of ARAMCO, Saudi’s state-owned oil producer alongside emptying of their coffers to fund the project will cripple the country in the event of the project’s failure.

The Project and the Kingdom’s future are now linked; both the reward and failure of the project will affect Saudi citizens for generations to come. The promises made of the project are vast, but delivery will almost certainly be wrought with delays, setbacks and, even broken promises. Its major aim, to draw transnational corporations into the company (along with their workforce) will all hinge on the success of this project. However, if successful the move will drastically alter the composition of the global technological elite from traditional research-heavy countries and will shift global focus in the direction of the Middle East.

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