Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman’s half-a-trillion dollar project for a shining new city called NEOM to rise on the Red Sea coast by 2030 and “extend across the Egyptian and Jordanian borders,” sounds rather like the Space-X fantasy dreamed up by Tech billionaire Elon Musk for putting humans on Mars.
But despite the huge odds, the prince’s vision is so extraordinary, it might actually come true. He told investors gathered in Riyadh Tuesday, “We try to work only with the dreamers.”
The city, which will be independent of the kingdom’s “existing governmental framework,” will be built across 26,500 square kilometers (10,231 square miles) near the Red Sea. Promising a lifestyle unknown in the oil kingdom, he told the assembled audience:
“NEOM will be powered entirely by regenerative energy, while also making use of automated driving technology and passenger drones. Wireless hi-speed internet will be free. “All services and processes in NEOM will be 100% fully automated, with the goal of becoming the most efficient destination in the world.”
It will straddle the Jordanian border and a giant bridge will be built to link the Arabian Peninsula across the Gulf of Aqaba to Egypt.
Prince Muhammad said: “We are a G20 country, one of the biggest world economies and stand in the middle of three continents. Changing Saudi Arabia for the better means helping the region and changing the world. So that is what we are trying to do here and we hope for support form everyone.”
The project will be backed by $500 billion from the Saudi government and its investment fund, as well as local and international investors.
The Saudi Crown Prince also broke new ground for the ultra-conservative kingdom’s ultra-sensitive religious ideology, when he vowed to restore “moderate, open” Islam and destroy holders of “extremist ideas today and immediately.”
“We are returning to what we were before 1979 — a country of moderate Islam that is open to all religions and to the world,” he said. “We will not spend the next 30 years of our lives dealing with destructive ideas. We will destroy them today,” he said, adding: “We will end extremism very soon.”
DEBKA Weekly’s Middle East sources see these comments as a declaration of war on the strict Wahhabist strain of Islam, which has held the kingdom, its rulers and religious institutions in its hidebound sway for decades. The clergy is unlikely to take the young prince’s revolutionary ideas lying down. They may also fuel Al Qaeda, which has been resurgent in Saudi Arabia in recent months. While many young Saudis will welcome the new spirit infusing their country, since the king’s son started opening windows to the outside world, others may deeply resent the westernized, modernizing influence on their society and stand up for extremist ideas.
Two further serious obstacles stand in the way of Prince Mohammad’s visions: The ruling monarchy, which is made up of tens of thousands of princes belonging to assorted family branches based on tribal affiliation – is one. The other is the structure of Saudi society which, too, is determined by tribal affiliation. This social make-up is reflected in the nation’s armed forces and its powerful National Guard.
The Crown Prince is not the first royal dreamer in Riyadh. Twelve years ago, the reigning King Abdullah inaugurated the King Abdullah Economic City in Rabigh as “the dawn of the world’s next great economic city.” A port town, it was designed for a population of two million. Today, this town has only some 5,000 permanent inhabitants and its port handles far less traffic than Dubai’s port of Jebel Ali.
Prince Mohammed Bin Salman has a hard and long row to hoe before he can bring the kingdom into the 21st century, but however it ends, Saudi Arabia has taken the first steps of a revolution.