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Described as the “Saudi Silicon Valley”, the $500 billion city is Crown Prince and de facto ruler Mohammed bin Salman’s (MBS) most ambitious attempt to transform a remote part of the country into a high-tech, semi-autonomous state. A top tourist destination. Behind the plan, announced in 2017, is a desire to attract foreign investment to the kingdom and help diversify its oil-based economy.
According to the plan, Neom, which is scheduled to complete its first phase of construction by 2025, is expected to cover a total area of 26,500 sq km in Tabuk province in northwestern Saudi Arabia. 33 times the area of New York City.
The backbone of the project will be two 500-meter-tall skyscrapers that stretch horizontally and vertically from the Red Sea coast to the desert, housing residential spaces, offices and shops. According to the official project report, it will be the largest building in the world in terms of total area, not height.
The country began work on the Jeddah Tower in 2013, set to surpass Dubai’s Burj Khalifa as the world’s tallest building by a kilometer. However, due to labor issues, its construction has been stopped since 2019.
The kingdom already owns the world’s fourth-largest building, the Abraj Al-Bayt Clock Tower Hotel in Mecca.
Since his appointment as crown prince in 2017, MBS has sought to modernize Saudi Arabia, opening up the ultra-conservative kingdom more to culture and tourism and liberalizing some aspects of Saudi society.
However, the prince’s efforts to modernize the kingdom’s image were undermined by the death of Jamal Khashoggi, a journalist critical of the government, who was brutally killed by Saudi agents in his country’s embassy in Istanbul, Turkey in 2018.
Mohamed Badine el Yattioui, a professor of international relations at the American University in the Emirates, says projects like Neom’s are helping to put the prince back on track. “It’s a completely new city, it’s very modern, it can counterbalance cities like Dubai, the United Arab Emirates, and Doha, the capital of Qatar. These two cities, especially Dubai, are the most important in the Middle East in terms of economy, tourism and modernity,” he told El Comercio. .
It emphasizes the objective of strengthening the economy through diversification of the tourism, financial and media sectors. MBS has officially sought to change Saudi Arabia’s ultra-conservative image, which has created conflicts within the royal family, particularly with members of the more closed and conservative outlook and religious power.
“There is a fear that the image of the Saudi government will change. Islam’s holiest places, Mecca and Medina, are located in Saudi Arabia. The fear of social and political and religious power is that Saudi society will open up to the point where traditional and conservative values disappear.”, the expert points out.
He also explains that since the megacity should be ready by 2030, doubts about the project focus on whether the country has the capacity to build such a modern and ambitious city in such a short period of time. Other concerns are whether foreigners and investors will like it. Move to live or work in a desert like that, and as it promises, NEOM can be a green and sustainable city.
Prince’s lights and shadows
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman will make a strong return to the international stage with US President Joe Biden’s visit to the kingdom in mid-July.
The victory for Salman’s son comes after a US intelligence report concluded that Mohammed bin Salman had “sanctioned” an operation to capture or kill journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Saudi Arabia amid rising energy prices linked to the invasion of Ukraine. He refuses.
When Biden arrives in Riyadh, he will see some of the developments promoted by the crown prince in the cultural and social sectors. For example, in the past five years Saudi women have been allowed to stop wearing the veil, participate in public events and drive.
Even so, they cannot raise their voices against the force demanding more freedoms. In 2018, at least a dozen activists were arrested.
It was part of a wave of repression that affected princes and high officials suspected of corruption or disloyalty.
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