The Saudi Prince's Motives Behind His Green Middle East Project

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman delivers a speech during the opening ceremony of the Saudi Green Initiative forum on Saturday.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman delivers a speech during the opening ceremony of the Saudi Green Initiative forum on Saturday.Credit: FAYEZ NURELDINE - AFP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

It seems that Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman has a plethora of ideas on how to spend the kingdom’s money. After his Saudi Arabia 2030 initiative, which includes construction of the futuristic city of “Neom” at an estimated cost of 500 billion dollars, he unveiled a new initiative: “The Green Middle East,” to which he has committed some 700 billion dollars.

Like the futuristic city project, the Green Middle East has got a website detailing with its goals and means of execution. Among other things, bin Salman plans to completely eliminate greenhouse gas emissions by 2060, plant 10 billion trees, of which 10 million have already been planted, halt the spread of the desert through expanding green spaces by 541 square kilometers, constructing alternative energy power plants to supply green electricity to some 600 households, laying 9,900 kilometers of railroad tracks to reduce road congestion, expanding nature reserves by thousands of square kilometers and employing some 10,000 workers at a designated environmental protection authority.

The grandiosity of the projects are impressive, and barring some dramatic twist in the plot, the 36-year-old prince will be a 75-year-old king upon their conclusion, young compared to his own father and previous monarchs. The more interesting question is whether the kingdom can foot the massive bill of some 1.2 trillion dollars to complete these visions. For in the meantime it is facing financial difficulties, including a national debt of some 230 billion dollars and a budgetary deficit estimated at 5 percent of GDP.

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These are not dramatic figures, especially not after gas prices skyrocketed in the last quarter, helping the kingdom reduce its deficit by 38 percent. But there is a difference between constructing the city of tomorrow, which is intended to draw foreign businesses and investments to the kingdom – and immense outlays on nature reserves, construction of environmental conservation studies and teaching centers, and the planting of billions of trees, none of which directly contribute to the economy.

What reason did the crown prince have to announce the convening of a summit to be held in the kingdom on Monday, attended by heads of state, multinational corporations, financial institutions and experts from around the world? The avowed motive is the global trend of combating global climate change, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and develop alternative sources of energy.

File photo: Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attending the Middle East Green Initiative Summit (MGI) in the Saudi capital Riyadh.Credit: BANDAR AL-JALOUD - AFP

This is no new fad, but it has received a booster shot from U.S. President Joe Biden, who has turned protection of the earth into the centerpiece of his legacy-to-be. Bin Salman may dream of a green, blooming Arabia at night, and perhaps he even composes poetry, in flawless classical Arabic, about clean, unpolluted air. But it seems that fixing his relations with Biden is much higher on his list of priorities, seeing as the latter still refuses to meet with him because of the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

So if the environment, reducing air pollution and eliminating toxic gas emissions are the American president’s hobbies, bin Salman must play and excel on the same pitch.

Although Biden has and still does hold talks with King Salman, Washington-Riyadh relations remain strained and chilled. In September, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin was supposed to visit Saudi Arabia, and of course meet with his local counterpart bin Salman, who is serving as the kingdom’s defense minister, but the visit was canceled at the last moment. Washington said the cancellation was due to “changes in the secretary’s schedule,” while Riyadh in its own media claimed that it was the one that canceled the visit.

Shortly thereafter, the U.S. announced the removal of the Patriot missiles, stationed in Saudi Arabia in 2019, and their transfer to the Asian theater in preparation for a possible Chinese attack. The Saudis were furious. The former head of intelligence, Prince Turki al-Faisal, who serves as a sort of unofficial spokesman for the mood at court, told CNN, “The kingdom and the Middle East must be certain of the United States’ commitment towards them. … For instance, that it not remove the Patriot missiles precisely at a time when Saudi Arabia is attacked by Iran.” The Saudi court-affiliated newspaper Okan published a scathing article, suggesting Saudi Arabia should seek alternatives to its ties with the U.S.

Biden sought to allay these tensions in late September when he sent his national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, to meet bin Salman. Sullivan is the first senior administration figure to meet with the crown prince. Administration spokesmen explained that the meeting was to be dedicated to discussions of human rights and the war in Yemen. Both thorny issues cloud relations between the two countries. But it seems that another sensitive topic was added to the agenda, related to establishing diplomatic ties and normalization with Israel.

Last week, Barak Ravid published on the Axios website that “Sullivan raised the issue with bin Salman, who posed a series of conditions for normalization. Among these were resumption of normal ties between the kingdom and Washington, and also a clarification that establishing ties with Israel would [only] be a part of a broader process, related to solving the Palestinian problem. In diplomatic terms, these conditions are what are known as “non-starters.” Meanwhile, though, perhaps the Jewish National Fund will agree to donate a few thousand trees as a gesture of goodwill, in lieu of withdrawal from the occupied territories.

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