Saudi Arabia’s NEOM: Where Do We Draw the Line?

Saudi Arabia’s NEOM: Where Do We Draw the Line?

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By Ellys Sabet | Summer 2023

The Saudi NEOM project has been making headlines for a couple of years as a groundbreaking initiative that aims to transform a vast area in the northwest of Saudi Arabia into a futuristic city of innovation, technology, and sustainable living. Saudi Arabia’s Saudi Vision 2030 project adds up to a price tag of a whopping 500 billion USD. NEOM certainly is the most ambitious undertaking as it yet has to see tangible progress till this day.

Projected to be a 10,200 square foot site, NEOM encompasses various subregions intended for industry, tourism, and even a 110-mile-long city, aptly called The Line. One of the primary drivers behind the NEOM project is the ambitious vision to diversify Saudi Arabia’s economy and reduce its dependence on oil revenues. NEOM is expected to attract significant investment and generate numerous job opportunities in technology, tourism, renewable energy, and entertainment. Its proponents argue, optimistically, that it will create a substantial influx of jobs, stimulating economic growth and improving the overall standard of living in the region.

Moreover, NEOM emphasizes sustainability and aims to become a carbon-neutral city with minimal ecological footprint. Its development plans include the utilization of renewable energy sources, water desalination technologies, and environmentally conscious urban planning. By embracing sustainable practices, NEOM seeks to set a new standard for eco-friendly urban development. The integration of smart systems and sustainable practices could lead to advancements with far-reaching impacts, potentially benefiting the entire country and inspiring other regions globally.

While the project promises economic benefits and opportunities for the Middle Eastern powerhouse, it has also faced criticism due to the forced displacement of native Bedouin populations. The Bedouin people have a deep-rooted connection to the land, relying on its resources to herd animals and sustain their cultural practices. By expelling these communities, NEOM violates the rights of indigenous populations by disrupting their way of life and threatening the destruction of their heritage. There have even been cases where natives were arbitrarily charged with “terrorism,” though it appears to be an open secret that they have been sentenced to imprisonment for up to 50 years for merely getting in the kingdom’s way. One Bedouin of the al-Huwaiti tribe was even killed after a standoff with police, and Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman ordered a military siege with the intention of pressing natives out of their homes. Reports of exploitative labor practices, inadequate living conditions on site, and even allegations of physical abuses have also triggered public outrage and calls for accountability.

The controversy around NEOM reveals the paradox of Saudi Arabia’s development model, where economic liberalization that is expected to open up the country ends up hindering its political liberalization. This begs the difficult question of how to weigh potential economic benefits against the infringement of human rights: do the benefits of this futuristic city supersede the exorbitantly high costs, the seemingly indefinite construction times, and the cultural uprooting of the people who for millennia have walked this land?

One need not look far to see that the answer is a resounding no. Consider the backlash against NEOM’s primary backer, the Public Investment Fund (PIF). Saudi Arabia’s PIF has emerged as a prominent player as the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund, but it has gained a more notorious reputation for covering up the Kingdom’s human rights abuses with economic largesse. Using the PIF as a proxy, Saudi Arabia has exerted soft power by buying ownership stakes in European sports clubs such as Newcastle United and even bidding to host the 2030 FIFA World Cup. The PIF also ventured into the banking sector last year, helping the Saudi National Bank secure stakes in Credit Suisse, a Swiss investment bank.

While the PIF’s buying spree is partially motivated by economic diversification, the byproduct of a positive profile boost for the Kingdom might as well be equally important. The public relations nature of Saudi investments have not gone unnoticed among Western companies, some of which grew skeptical about taking Saudi money after the killing of Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018. The Saudi government has even contracted public relation firms for millions of dollars to flood the American media with images of more reformed Saudi Arabia. Notably, this campaign involves highlighting the pretense of NEOM’s community engagement while obscuring human rights violations committed in the name of development.

Empty talks of social responsibility are mere symbolic gestures if NEOM does not address the root issues. Genuine efforts to combat human rights violations should focus on the effective implementation and continuation of tangible improvements in labor conditions, fair treatment of workers, and accountability for any past abuses. Activists have urged companies involved in building NEOM to divest and withdraw from the project until these baseline conditions are met. For a government keen to attract foreign investments, trampling on indigenous rights is only counterproductive as it will shift public opinion against the country and ruin investors’ confidence in its rule of law. Until Saudi Arabia makes meaningful changes, the inclusive and sustainable development model that NEOM purports to represent will remain elusive.