Saudi Arabia’s planned $500 billion mega-city is an oasis of stunning cliffs, sandy beaches and high-tech projects powered by wind and solar energy where robots outnumber humans and a cosmopolitan lifestyle offers sports, concerts and fine dining.
That vision showcased in a promotional video at an international investment conference in Riyadh this week bears little resemblance to the kingdom’s present where an oil “addiction” has created dependency on state handouts and a puritanical clergy imposes ultra-conservative mores.
It is the latest dream of 32-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who rose from relative obscurity two years ago to the top echelons of power, becoming heir-apparent in June.
Ambitious and energetic, the modernising prince is driven by regret that his kingdom, the largest Arab economy and the world’s top oil exporter, has fallen behind smaller neighbours.
Early on, he laid out a plan to shake Saudi Arabia out of its slumber after decades of gerontocratic rule.
But his aspirations are a tall order in a country where the royal family rules in a pact with austere and powerful Wahhabi clerics wary of modernisation.
His latest plan to build the 26,500 square km (10,000 square mile) business zone called NEOM, getting on for the size of Belgium, captures both the scale of his ambitions and the worries surrounding them.
Some executives at the conference – dubbed “Davos in the desert” – remained sceptical about Riyadh’s ability to execute its grand design given its primitive legal system and sluggish bureaucracy.
The young prince acknowledges the difficulties but has pledged to push ahead, saying:
This is a challenge. The dream is easy but making it come true is very difficult
NEOM is to span an area of 26,500 square kilometres, stretching across the borders of northwest Saudi Arabia into Jordan and Egypt. It is designed to operate as an independent economic trade zone with its own laws, and is to become the first private business zone to span three countries.
Saudi Arabia will pump $500 billion (£382 billion) from its sovereign wealth fund, the Public Investment Fund, into nine key investment sectors in the city: energy and water, mobility, biotech, food, technological and digital sciences, advanced manufacturing, media, and entertainment.
The city would be be solely powered by renewable energy harvested by the sun and wind via fields of solar panels and windmills, creating a pollution-free environment. The population would be fed from the produce of vertical farms and solar-powered greenhouses.