Saudi Arabia is not the first country that most tourists think to visit. But if the Saudi Crown Prince has his way, the new city of Neom will become a major attraction and promising place to live with tourists using a Saudi Visa to get there.
“You can look at these ancient hills and see nothing, or you can see nothing to hold you back,” a British-accented voice says on a slick promotional video for the new city, called Neom; this, as a woman dressed in black leggings and no veil turns cartwheels across the sand. “No set ways of thinking, no restrictions, no divisions, no excuses—just endless potential.”
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman unveiled the plan for the huge city and business zone in the northwest of the country during an international conference in the capital of Riyadh. He said the city, which will be larger than the African country of Rwanda, would be financed by the state as well as local and international investors.
“Neom’s contribution to the kingdom’s GDP is projected to reach at least $100 billion by 2030,” the Crown Prince said in a statement. “It is set to become a new vibrant destination” on the coast of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aqaba.
The estimated cost is astronomical. Salman said it will be backed by more than $500 billion from the Saudi government, a new sovereign wealth fund, and local and international investors. It includes a bridge spanning the Red Sea, which would connect Neom to Egypt and Jordan.
The prince, 32, has vowed to transform the Saudi economy and lessen its dependence on oil. But some analysts believe the Kingdom might be moving too fast.
The first phase of Neom is not slated to be completed until at least 2025 so it will take at least eight years until companies and people will be able to move there.
There are also questions about the location. It may overlap with parts of Egypt and Jordan, including the Sinai Peninsula, which abuts Israel. Sinai has been the scene of dozens of violent clashes between Egyptian security forces and jihadi terrorist groups.
“Saudi Arabia has had a patchy record when it comes to fulfilling mega-projects,” Jason Tuvey, an economist focusing on the Middle East at Capital Economics in the UK told The Media Line. “For example, the King Abdullah Economic City (KAEC) near Jeddah has faced repeated delays and has already been through four master plans.”
Tuvey said that KAEC was expected to have as many as two million residents but that so far only 5,000 people live their permanently. He stressed that Neom also risks “diverting attention away from [Saudi Arabia’s] previously-announced economic reforms.” Moreover, the country is already suffering from dwindling resources, the result in a major fall in oil prices.
It is also not clear that conservative clerics will go along with the freewheeling nature of the planned city. Last month, Saudi Arabia announced it will lift its ban on women driving but other laws of guardianship for women will remain in place.
Neom is slated to cover some 25,000 square kilometers, a region of “inspiration with room for your biggest ideas,” the promotional clip promises. “A land created to free people from stress—a truly global culture from every place and background you can imagine that can show the rest of the planet how it’s done.”
It is not exactly prototypical “Saudi-speak” but, irrespective of the future success of the project, that might be the point.