Ever since Mohammed bin Salman, popularly known as MBS, became the crown prince of Saudi Arabia in 2017 at a young age of 32 year, he has been working on twin objectives of liberalising the conservative laws of the country and diversifying its oil based economy.
In the last 2 to 3 years Saudi Arabia has done away with religious enforcers, allowed women to drive, loosened the strict clothing norms for women, reopened the cinema and other entertainment events by scaling down many of its ultra conservative rules and regulation.
On the economy front, MBS has started many projects to lessen the dependence on oil, of which Neom is the centerpiece. NEOM is a technologically advanced mega-city being built from scratch in the sands at the coast of the Red Sea and is considered to be the dream project of MBS. This magnificent city, will take about $500 billion to complete and be thirty three times the size of New York City. This project will make the country a technology hub, attract international tourists, and will reduce Saudi Arabian economy’s over-dependence on oil.
Neom will boost some of the features which are today seen only in some sci-fi movies. It will employ cloud seeding technology to bring rain in the desert town, display an artificial moon, and use flying taxis for intra city travel. The town will have some functional autonomy which include relaxed laws for women and tourists.
Three of the biggest consultancy firms of the world, Boston Consulting, Oliver Wyman and McKinsey & Co, were roped in by MBS in 2017, to bring his vision of Neom to life. “This is a challenge. The dream is easy but making it come true is very difficult” MBS said.
While the entire project is slated to be completed in 2025, the international airport is already constructed at Neom. Phase-1 of the project was supposed to be completed in 2020, however it was delayed due to the oil price crash and COVID-19 pandemic. “All of these projects will be delayed. It's not paused; it's continuing more slowly” said Ali Shihabi, a Washington-based analyst on the Neom advisory board.
Saudi Arabia has done a wonderful job of letting the imaginations run wild to come up with an idea and start implementation, there are few downsides as well. The area where Neom is being built is home to the Huwaitat tribe who have to relocate elsewhere for the construction to take place. While most of the tribe members agreed to move on, few were not willing to do so. Abdul-Rahim Al-Huwaiti was one such member who actively resisted and criticized the government in videos posted on youtube. He was unfortunately shot dead by the government forces during an operation to clear his house in April, 2020 giving a blot to this wonderful project.
There are still some obstacles in the ‘perfect’ project of modernising Saudi Arabia. “The main project risk probably is the potential lack of large private investors. The local and international private sector will want to hear a lot more detail than what has been published to date” said Steffen Hertog, a leading scholar on Saudi Arabia, pointing out that a lot of clarifications and work is still required.
There is still time before this magnificent town rises to its full glory on the coast of the red sea in Arabian desert. We are eagerly waiting to see the flawless execution of a grand vision of Saudi Arabian crown prince Mohannad bin Salman in the form of the modern marvel, Neom.