Analysis |

Saudi Crown Prince's City of the Future Is Nothing but a Desert Mirage

While Neom hopes to be model for all future cities, right now Saudi Arabia can't find jobs for its unemployed, and Riyadh is full of empty skyscrapers

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Crown Prince Mohammed presents 'The Line' at the Saudi Royal Palace in January.
Crown Prince Mohammed presents 'The Line' at the Saudi Royal Palace in January.Credit: BANDAR AL-JALOUD - AFP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

There’s no place like it on the face of the earth. At least that’s how it seems when you’re swept into the utopian video that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman presented last month at the dedication of The Line, the first phase of construction of Neom, the Saudi city of the future.

Anything one would ever dream for is in the video.

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There are luxury smart homes and interior roads without cars, because they won’t be necessary. Everything is within a 20-minute walk. There are also fantastic mountain views, shopping centers, sports facilities, vacation spots and workplaces.

The Line is an approximately 160 kilometer (100 mile) strip that is to link the white Red Sea beaches to the mountains. Somewhat autonomous communities will be built along its length, or as the video puts it, there will be “modules” providing all of the residents’ needs. The anticipated cost of the Line is also fantastic – between $150 billion and $200 billion – out of a $500 billion total budget for Neom, an acronym combining the Latin prefix “neo” and Arabic “mustaqbal,” in other words, “new future.”

The video doesn’t lack for modernly dressed women without head coverings or buff young people surfing in the Red Sea. There are also interviews with the official in charge of culture and entertainment, who isn’t Saudi, and with senior Cisco Systems executive Joseph Bradley, who is responsible for the technology and digital side of the project.

The video also features a strange introduction presenting the most important scientific inventions, such as the radio and kidney transplants, as well as the image of the founder of the Saudi royal family, who is presented as an integral link in the chain of human invention. It culminates in the construction of the city of the future, “as if he’d been a Steve Jobs-style innovator rather than a camel-riding desert warrior,” writes Robert F. Worth in the New York Times. Worth also wonders whether the young Saudi woman presenting the future city would actually want to live there.

The plan speaks of roughly a million people living in the city, which would provide more than 380,000 jobs. It is due to stretch across three countries – Jordan and Egypt in addition to Saudi Arabia – and provide a model for all future cities around the world. For the time being, the kingdom is having trouble supplying jobs for all of its unemployed. Some 60 skyscrapers in Riyadh’s financial center stand empty and foreign investors aren’t rushing to go there.

Saudi capital of Riyadh, 2019.Credit: Bloomberg

Saudi image problem

Contrary to the lavishly produced video, Saudi Arabia is in the midst of a huge image problem. The major stain to Crown Prince Mohammed’s reputation following the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul isn’t helping the crown prince’s advertising campaign to promote his Saudi Vision 2030 strategic development plan.

Saudi Arabia, the leaders of which were always welcome guests of American presidents and the first place in the Middle East that the presidents would turn to, has become an outcast. Prince Mohammed hasn’t visited the United States for two years, and the U.S. Congress barred the sale of weapons to the Saudis, although President Trump was able to release some of them. Now the country has to deal with a new president, Joe Biden, who hasn’t concealed his abhorrence of the crown prince. In addition to suspending the sale of F-35 jets to the United Arab Emirates, as part of review that the administration is undertaking of all such transactions, the Saudi purchases have also been frozen. Until Biden’s policies become clear, major investors won’t be knocking at Riyadh’s door.

Google had signed an agreement with the Saudi oil company Aramco to move cloud servers to Saudi Arabia, but the step has been met by strong criticism on the part of human rights organizations that warn against putting the information of millions of users under Saudi control. Google has promised that the information would main secure and that the Saudi regime won’t have any access to it.

The question, however, is whether Google could withstand Saudi pressure if it were to be asked to provide specific information about Saudi citizens or if it were pass laws such as Turkey has requiring the owners of major social networks such as Facebook and Twitter to delete content or to provide information about users the country’s authorities demand.

Skilled labor

The race for advanced technologies, particularly those to be deployed in the new Saudi city, highlight the tough problem that Saudi Arabia is facing when it comes to skilled labor. Saudi representatives have been pursuing intensive contacts, presenting tempting offers to high-tech companies in every sector, including offers of major tax breaks, protection from regulatory obligations and exemption from minimum requirements with regard to hiring Saudi nationals. That requirement is a part of the drive to reduce reliance on foreign labor in the kingdom.

It generally obligates business owners, local as well as foreign, to maintain a set proportion of Saudis among their staff. Violations are punishable by fines, the withdrawal of work permits and even plant closures.

In the realm of high tech, the Saudis have nothing to offer. Years of neglect have created generations of young people who have preferred to study “easy” professions that have given them access to government jobs that offer them perks, job security and a pension, with little supervision and requiring no efficiency.

By contrast, the UAE has much more quickly developed a considerable scientific education system. The launch of the Emirati satellite set to land next month on Mars has provided major impetus for advanced technology, and hundreds of students from other Arab countries are seeking out the chance to study in the UAE, which also provides generous scholarships and comfortable living conditions.

A new law published on Saturday will also enable professionals with needed skills, particularly in technology, to receive UAE citizenship and to purchase property. That’s in addition to the close cooperation already underway between Israeli high-tech firms and companies in the UAE.

At a virtual conference in January that had the participation of the heads of chambers of commerce and industry from Israel, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt Jordan and other countries, Hamad Buamim, the president of the Dubai chamber of commerce, who is also the head of the World Chambers Federation, said in the near future, Israel will be among the UAE’s 10 leading trade partners. He forecast that the countries’ bilateral trade would reach the $4 billion mark.

Until the Saudi urban Line is built, which is anticipated by 2025, Crown Prince Mohammed has been coming up with new initiatives and its unclear how they would mesh with plans for new city. At another virtual conference last week entitled Future Investment Initiative, the crown prince told thousands of participants that he intends to make the Saudi capital, Riyadh, one of the wealthiest cities in the world.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin SalmanCredit: GIUSEPPE CACACE / AFP

He predicted that within a decade, its population would double from the current 7.5 million to more than 15 million.

That is how he would make Riyadh a business magnet. The city is already a hub for about half of the country’s non-petroleum-related business. That isn’t a particularly impressive figure though, since more than 90 percent of the country’s economy is based on oil. It means that about 5 percent of the country’s economy is based in its capital city.

Bin Salman, as is usual for him, has highlighted the environmental aspects of his initiative and plans to plant millions of trees in Riyadh to cool the air as part of his development vision, but fewer than 10 years remain for the realization of his 2030 vision. During that time, Riyadh is due to be turned into the London of the Middle East and the city of Neom is to be built.

It might be hoped that enough funding will also be left in his coffers to carry out his country’s more than $110 billion weapons deal with the United States.

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