The Saudi “city of the future” is slow

The Saudi “city of the future” is slow
The Saudi “city of the future” is slow

In recent months, the construction of Neom, the “city of the future” of Saudi Arabia, has been very slow, both for economic reasons and due to strong doubts about its construction. In the idea of ​​the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who in 2017 announced that he wanted to build the largest “smart city”Of the world, the project was supposed to attract large numbers of investors, as well as millions of inhabitants and foreign visitors, helping to reduce the Saudi economy’s dependence on oil. The Wall Street Journal he said, however, that for now things are going differently, and many experts and consultants hired by the Saudi regime have resigned or were fired for having expressed doubts about the viability of the project.

The futuristic “city” of Neom (a fusion of the prefix neo, which in Greek means “new”, with the Arabic word mustaqbal, “Future”) should arise in the province of Tabuk, in the north-west of Saudi Arabia, near the border with Jordan and on the other side of the Gulf of Aqaba from Egypt.

According to the plans, it would occupy an area of ​​about 26,500 square kilometers – more or less like Sicily – and would host, among other things, luxury residences, beaches with sand that light up at night and an artificial moon, as well as, of course, exclusive buildings. for the royal family. To achieve it, investments of around 500 billion dollars (more or less 415 billion euros) and the massive use of technology in every sector, from mobility to energy production, would be required.

The latest Neom project was announced in January and is called “the Line“, A series of communities developed along an imaginary line 170 kilometers long around which four larger urban and industrial centers would arise, one for each type of territory it crosses: the maritime area of ​​the gulf, the desert area, the mountain area and that of the valleys.

In the presentation of the project it is said that these centers will be developed “around people” and not around cars: in the words of bin Salman, ideally the Line it will be a city “with zero cars, zero roads and zero carbon dioxide emissions”, to eliminate traffic and smog. According to what the Wall Street Journal, the prince had thought of inaugurating the launch of the project by installing very powerful lights along the entire route of the “line” with the aim of getting noticed by the International Space Station, but then he had changed his mind.

In 2019, the project leaders said that the great new city would become “the best environment to live on the planet”. Bin Salman had rejected plans to reduce pollution and harmful emissions that he thought were too simple, telling engineers and architects to dare and think bigger.

Despite the prince’s great ambitions, however, the construction of the city is more or less firm: due to the difficulty of both attracting foreign investors and concluding projects.

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As for the first point, the Wall Street Journal he explained that in 2020 foreign investments in Saudi Arabia amounted to about 5.4 billion dollars, more or less 4.5 billion euros, two thirds less than those of ten years ago. More than $ 1 billion (about € 850 million) from the Saudi sovereign wealth fund and the Ministry of Finance have been invested so far in the design of Neom’s first infrastructure and initial plans, but due to low foreign investment they have been delayed. also other ambitious plans, such as the construction of the new financial district in the Saudi capital Riyadh, which was wanted by King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, who died in 2015.

As for the second point, however, the engineers were asked to design extremely complicated things: for example a 30-storey building to be transformed into a hotel and apartments by obtaining it from an excavation in the side of a mountain hundreds of meters long. Another project seen from the Wall Street Journal would involve the construction of a gigantic skyscraper that could be almost 490 meters high and extend for about 88 kilometers: it would measure one hundred meters more than the Empire State Building in New York and would be four times longer than the extension of the Manhattan peninsula, which it is 21.6 kilometers long.

Some experts who work or have worked on making Neom said they doubted whether foreign investors would really be interested in any of these projects; others explained that in order to attract Western inhabitants, provided that the works can be carried out, many bans that are in force in the rest of Saudi Arabia should be eliminated, for example that on the consumption of alcohol. Still others have abandoned the projects also because of the way they are carried out.

Aimee Bothwell, a consultant tasked with developing the food industry within Neom, told al Wall Street Journal that the experts involved were encouraged to believe in the project, as if it were “a kind of cult”, but very few were in danger of exposing themselves and questioning its feasibility or the way of working of its leaders. US manager Andrew Wirth, who was supposed to run a tourist facility in the mountains, particularly criticized the management of the project manager, Nadhmi al Nasr, who for 30 years had been a successful official of Saudi oil company Saudi Aramco. In his letter of resignation, seen by the Wall Street JournalWirth said that Nasr often indulged in “utterly inappropriate haughty denigrations and outbursts.”

Several consultants and experts hired by the government had already left the project previously, due to the accusations of systematic repression of dissidents and opponents aimed at the Saudi regime.

In 2018, the famous architect Norman Foster, who should have been part of a committee of consultants for the realization of Neom, left the project following the murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which investigations and journalistic reconstructions have shown had been ordered precisely by bin Salman. In addition to Bothwell, Wirth and Foster, the official in charge of following the development of the project in the Gulf of Aqaba area, some consultants from the legal and marketing and communication teams, two officers from the IT department and some members have also resigned. of the tourism sector.

A spokesperson for Neom said that in an attempt to encourage foreign investors, the organization is working on a series of “competitive legal agreements” aimed at companies that “want to […] grasp the uniqueness of what we are trying to achieve ». One of the companies that have so far invested in the project is US chemical company Air Product & Chemicals, which plans to spend $ 5 billion to build what would become the world’s largest renewable hydrogen production facility.

On a few occasions, bin Salman has told foreign investors that he will be pleased to be able to get even half of what he has in mind. Neom’s spokesperson argued that the many layoffs of officials and consultants would be part of the natural turnover of staff involved in even smaller projects than this, and declined to comment on the layoffs and any organizational shortcomings.

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