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5 Aug 2020 10:45
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  •   Home > News > Business

    Saudi Arabia's Neom development wants to be an 'accelerator for human progress'. Will it happen?

    The Neom vision is ambitious. A city in the Saudi Arabian desert with futuristic buildings, flying taxis, robot maids and its own artificial moon. But is it achievable or fantastic folly?

    A vast mega-city is rising from the Saudi Arabian desert, 30 times larger than New York, built with a mixture of concrete, steel and unbridled ambition.

    Part financial hub, part technology lab, part futuristic playground, Neom is slated to become the innovation capital of the world, according to its creators, striding both East and West.

    The initial budget is huge — $US500 billion — and as a pet project of Saudi Arabia's young ruler, Mohammed bin Salman it's backed by the vast wealth of the House of Saud.

    "It will attract the best minds and the best projects and be an accelerator for human progress, that's what they are calling it, and that line has been repeatedly trotted out," says journalist and Saudi Arabia watcher Bill Bostock, who writes for Business Insider.

    "Some of the lines have fallen away, but that 'accelerator of human progress' line is really at the forefront."

    Pivoting away from the past

    "A start-up the size of a country," is the way the Neom project is being spun.

    The promotional material promises "25,000 square kilometres of inspiration", replete with flying taxis, robotic maids, glow-in-the-dark sand and even — rather mysteriously — its own artificial moon.

    "A part of the world set aside for those who want to change the world."

    For Crown Prince Mohammed the development also has a highly nationalistic edge. It's designed to reset his kingdom's global image and move the country's economy beyond its dependence on oil.

    "The vision is to be a shiny new toy, not a smoggy old backstreet. He is very forward-thinking in terms of technology," Mr Bostock says.

    "He's desperate to move Saudi Arabia away from the sort of old stultified oil-based formality to a more modern diverse and technological place.

    "This is the year that Saudi Arabia chaired the G20, this is the year that women were permitted to join the army, it's saying to the world — we are ready, we are open for business."

    Phase one of the project, completed in mid 2019, involved the construction of the Neom Bay Airport and several residential districts, but there are doubts about whether the original completion date of 2025 remains realistic.

    The brutal state-sponsored murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in late 2018 tarnished the Crown Prince's reformist credentials and scared off some initial international investors, according to Mr Bostock.

    While construction has slowed, he says overseas interest in the project remains significant.

    "There's a lot of business being brought in, there's a lot of pitching going on," he says.

    "The UK Department of International Trade has been working very closely with British start-ups and trying to get them out there, flying them back and forth to Riyadh."

    But the project is not without controversy. And human rights advocates say it risks dividing the Saudi nation and further entrenching inequality.

    Blood in the sand

    The land earmarked for the mega-city fans out from the shores of the Gulf of Aqaba, where the waters meet the Red Sea.

    Strategically, it's a prime position, but before the bulldozers began moving in, it was already occupied by the 30,000 strong Huwaitat tribe, who have lived in the region for hundreds of years.

    "The government wants to get rid of these people because they don't quite fit into the cosmopolitan international city of the future that Mohammed bin Salman wants to build," says Sarah Leah Whitson, a lawyer and former director of the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch.

    Attempts at forcible acquisition saw local protests in early April and the killing by police of a lead demonstrator named Abdul-Rahim al-Howeiti, whom the Saudi Government immediately labelled a terrorist.

    Ms Whitson says the heavy-handed approach of the authorities and their plans to introduce a Chinese-style mass surveillance system in Neom puts paid to the Crown Prince's claims of building a more open and cosmopolitan society.

    And she says plans to establish a separate, less draconian justice system within the boundaries of Neom will effectively see ordinary Saudis become second-class citizens.

    "Why shouldn't the Saudi people benefit from the very same justice system that presumably will provide more equal rights for men and women, that presumably will allow for privacy and some modicum of free expression?" she says.

    "It's really somewhat strange that a modern legal system is something that only this new and visionary city will have the benefit of."

    The COVID-19 factor

    While Saudi Arabia's economy is the biggest in the Arab world, the coronavirus pandemic has seen the country's finances hit hard.

    The kingdom has also had to deal with falling oil prices sparked by an acrimonious dispute with Russia.

    Oil revenues reportedly dropped by 24 per cent in the first quarter of 2020 and Finance Minister Mohammed al-Jadaan has spoken of "tightening the belt" ahead of a further drop in revenue later in the year.

    He's foreshadowed the need for further painful, but necessary measures to ensure "public financial stability".

    Some, like exiled dissident Saad al-Faqih, believe a lack of foreign investment will stall the project.

    But, according to Bill Bostock, the Crown Prince's determination to fulfil his Neom dream shouldn't be underestimated.

    "The Crown Prince is trying to say that he as a young man as well as a monarch is willing and ready to join the global world order. 'I am not my father, I am not the previous Crown Prince, please get on board, please come here, this is the focus of the Arab world from now on'," Mr Bostock says.

    "So, it's a reflection of him as a person."

    And, he says, despite the global economic downturn there's no sign that the Saudi regime has any intention of abandoning its futuristic project.

    "They are absolutely committed. There has been no news of cutting back on the plans. It's very much on schedule."

    © 2020 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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