Prince Mohammed bin Salman is desperate to shake Saudi Arabia’s addiction to oil. Its price has still not recovered from an American fracking boom seven years ago, and decades of excess have left the world’s largest exporter now needing £55 a barrel to balance the books — more than Iraq, Libya, Oman, Kuwait, Qatar, and the UAE.
Looking to reinvent his kingdom, MBS is building a new city, NEOM. Sold as a rival to neighbouring Dubai, which has long been the capital of business and tourism in the Middle East, the city will cost £360 billion, will be the size of Belgium and is expected to be completed by 2030. Or at least that's the idea.
From the very beginning, the project has been surrounded by controversy over who is working on it, how it will be built, and whether it is even physically possible.
In October 2018, as concerns about the disappearance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi grew, the Saudi government announced NEOM’s advisory board. Apple’s then design chief Jony Ive and billionaire Silicon Valley investor Marc Andreessen were among 19 figures supposedly signed up. But several now claim they never wanted to be involved. They say they were contacted by the Crown Prince’s office, perhaps expressed interest in the project, heard nothing more about it, and then saw their names streamed across the world’s media.
At the same time, some board members quit because of the Khashoggi incident. MIT’s Carlo Ratti and the British architect Norman Foster publicly suspended their positions (although, according to others on the board, Ratti has now discreetly re-joined). Under the cover of the high profile resignations, those who were pushed onto the board quietly left. They didn’t want to ‘embarrass' the government by making a fuss, someone close to a former board member told me.
If this is an early sign that NEOM is going to be run like the rest of the Saudi economy, then it won’t be the open business haven that MBS has said it will be. Firms in the kingdom are often subjected to checks on whether their workforce is sufficiently ‘Saudized’ (whether it has enough Saudi employees), and, in February, the kingdom decided that any foreign businesses who want to work with the government will have to move their regional headquarters there by 2024.
It doesn’t look promising. One advisory board member — who compared NEOM’s relationship to the rest of the country with Hong Kong’s to China — told me that the Middle East Broadcasting Centre, the region’s largest media group, has pledged to move its HQ from the capital, Riyadh, to NEOM. But this isn’t exactly a coup: its founder, Waleed Al Ibrahim, reportedly gave control of his company to MBS when he was one of nearly 400 wealthy Saudis locked up at the Riyadh Ritz-Carlton in 2017 and accused of corruption.
Aside from the pushy government, there are practical problems too. NEOM’s first development is called The Line. It’s billed as a Star Wars-style city built on a 105 mile straight line. ‘With zero cars, zero streets and zero carbon emissions, you can fulfil all your daily requirements within a five minute walk, and you can travel from end to end within 20 minutes’, MBS coolly explained when he announced it in January.
To reach speeds of 317 miles per hour — the average speed needed to travel 105 miles in 20 minutes — The Line will have to use Hyperloop or maglev trains, two similar technologies which use magnets to hurtle passengers towards their destination. Neither looks plausible by 2030. Virgin Hyperloop (a collaboration between Tesla's Elon Musk and Richard Branson) is likely the first choice — bin Salman has already invested in the company — but it has been repeatedly delayed. The joint enterprise conducted its first human test in November 2020, but only over 550 yards at 99 miles per hour. Meanwhile, Japan has been trying to build a maglev line from Tokyo to Nagoya since 2014. It was set to open in 2027 at a cost of £36 billion (around half of The Line’s entire budget) but work has stopped because of tunnelling problems and coronavirus cutbacks. Tokyo can manage without its maglev, but The Line without its train just doesn’t work.
Even the idea of public transport is strange in Saudi Arabia. Anyone with money — the kind of people The Line wants to attract — travels by car. The video of November’s Hyperloop test showed passengers strapped into a harness in a cramped cylindrical tube. Streamlined maglev carriages aren’t much better. Making them comfortable will take longer and cost more.
There are other difficulties too, such as the water supply. The Line runs across an almost untouched northwest corner of Saudi Arabia, and so access to water, crucial for making concrete, is limited. Individual tankers are currently being driven hundreds of miles from major ports like Jeddah. This is not a long-term solution. A British company, SolarWater, is building massive purifying domes that will take in seawater, heat it up into condensation, and pump out the clean H2O, but work on the first trial dome has only just started and it isn’t expected to be ready until the end of the year. ‘Nothing can happen without the water,’ a figure working on the project explains.
Other parts of NEOM are simply inexplicable. A bridge across the Red Sea to the Egyptian resort Sharm El Sheikh is being discussed, and reports speculate about transport links to Eilat, an Israeli tourist hub. But with only nine years to build The Line, these don’t seem credible. Those involved instead talk up the possibility of a boat shuttle between the NEOM and the Egyptian town, and one Israeli diplomat says that links between Eilat and MBS’s ‘Las Vegas strip’ are out of the question until the two countries re-establish official relations. There were also plans for an artificial moon and a Jurassic Park-inspired island populated by robot dinosaurs, but these have now been dismissed by board members as the ‘wilder visions’ of western consultants. ‘Communication has never been a strong point in Saudi Arabia', says Ali Shihabi, the project’s self-appointed spokesman.
Palaces on the Red Sea for the prince and his father, though, are complete. MBS spends most of his time at his and uses the compound, which is complete with an 18-hole golf course, to entertain VIPs. One former US official who visited the palaces with Donald Trump’s secretary of state Mike Pompeo describes entering through ‘a long drive down a dusty road’, with ‘nothing along the side of it other than lights’. It looked like it was ‘plopped down in the middle of nowhere,’ they told me, but it did have ‘magical’ sea views.
More money might help get NEOM built, but the kingdom has inconveniently run out of that. VAT was tripled last year and the £9 billion cost-of-living allowances, given to government employees and military personnel, was scrapped as part of what finance minister Mohammed Al-Jadaan called ‘painful’ austerity measures necessary after a coronavirus-induced dip in oil prices.
Delay won’t do either. NEOM is the centrepiece of MBS’s ambitious ‘Vision 2030’ crusade to restyle Saudi Arabia as the liberal, competitive capital of the Middle East. Missing that decadal deadline would be personally embarrassing for him. The Crown Prince understandably dreams of transforming his kingdom, but clumsy government and robot dinosaurs are not, as he is likely soon to discover, the answer.