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Saudi Arabia’s Neom megacity dreams get wilder, enriching foreign consultants

Overseas employees of Saudi projects paid tax free incomes close to $1m, while local displaced tribespeople receive scant compensation
Competitors in the Dakar Rally drive around the Red Sea in the Saudi megacity of Neom on 12 January 2021 (AFP)

Saudi Arabia’s ambitious, boundary-pushing Neom megacity is making foreign consultants richer to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars, according to a new report, while local displaced tribespeople receive scant compensation or languish in jail.

A new report published by Bloomberg on Thursday interviewed 25 current and former employees of Neom and reviewed 2,700 pages of internal documents, revealing the weird and wild futuristic dreams of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman - and just how handsomely foreign consultants are paid to help achieve it. 

'MBS will pay any money for PR and to clean his reputation. He will do anything to pretend he’s turning Saudi Arabia into a civilised country'

- Alya al-Huwaiti, Saudi activist

Neom - the new Saudi megacity touted to be 33 times the size of New York City - will include a 170km straight line city, an eight-sided city that floats on water, and a ski resort with a folded vertical village, among other grandiose and architecturally challenging projects.

According to Bloomberg, Neom’s senior foreign consultants are being offered tax free salaries of up to $900,000, for ideas that will most likely never see the light of day. 

“If I had to put a bottom line for all the work that I did in this era, it was presentations and PowerPoints that went into the garbage the next week,” one former manager said. 

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“It was the least productive part of my whole life in terms of doing real things and the most productive in terms of the money I got.”

Locals displaced and imprisoned

The project is being built in the Tabuk province of northwestern Saudi Arabia, where the Al-Howeitat tribe have lived for centuries, but have since been displaced. 

In April 2020, tribal activist Abdul-Rahim al-Howeiti was shot dead shortly after making videos protesting against his eviction to make way for the megacity.

Saudi activist's killing exposes local tensions over Neom construction
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“MBS will pay any money for PR and to clean his reputation,” Alya al-Huwaiti, a UK-based activist and dissident member of the Al-Howeitat tribe told Middle East Eye, upon reading how much consultants are being paid for projects on her ancestral land.

“He will do anything to pretend he’s turning Saudi Arabia into a civilised country. But it’s not true, because [a civilised country] wouldn’t have all these prisoners, and kill people or force them to be displaced.”

The Bloomberg report claims that compensation packages for displaced tribespeople can reach up to 1 million riyals ($266,000) for owners of large properties and 100,000 riyals ($27,00) for those with smaller homes. 

Huwaiti rubbishes the figures cited in the report: “This is bullshit, not true at all.”     

She is in regular contact with her tribespeople back home, who she says are receiving figures closer to $3,000. 

“One hundred and fifty people there have disappeared from the face of the earth. They are in jail,” she claims. 

“Abdul-Rahim’s brother and nine of his cousins, who refused to move, are in prison and have been on hunger strike for one month,” adds Huwaiti. “The government didn’t let us contact them or reach them. There is a big mystery about their destiny.” 

Flying elevators and marble beaches

Bloomberg’s report sheds new light on how fantastical some of the ideas for the new megacity are. 

An internal "style catalogue" for Neom includes “elevators that somehow fly through the sky, an urban spaceport, and buildings shaped like a double helix, a falcon’s outstretched wings, and a flower in bloom”. 

Some of the questionable ideas have since been shelved. 

One of them, called "Silver Beach", was a seaside lined with “crushed marble… which would shimmer in the sun like silver”. 

The plan was ditched in 2019 because, according to former employees, it wasn’t imaginative enough for Neom’s leadership. 

Saudi Arabia's MBS allegedly invokes the pharaohs as his Neom dreams grow wilder
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Another plan for a $200bn solar field was also cancelled not long after being announced. 

“Neom is a fantasy project. Nothing has happened on the land except a couple of buildings that belong to MBS by himself,” Huwaiti tells MEE. 

Trojena, the ski resort announced earlier this year, would require “blowing up large portions of the landscape” to build an artificial lake, according to Bloomberg. 

Andy Wirth, an American hospitality executive, left the project in 2020 after raising concerns about the environmental and logistical implications. 

“We couldn’t even estimate the build cost,” Wirth said. “We were hanging buildings on the side of cliffs, and we didn’t even know the geology.”

Fantasy ideas influenced by Hollywood

Former employees said that Neom CEO Nadhmi al-Nasr had a short temper and often issued threats to workers. 

He once said he would “pull out a gun and start shooting if he wasn’t told who was to blame” for two e-sports companies cancelling a partnership with Neom over human rights concerns, according to two witnesses. Al-Nasr disputed the claims.

Elsewhere, Neom hired consultants and designers who had worked on fantasy and dystopian Hollywood films, including Guardians of the Galaxy, the Dark Knight trilogy, World War Z and I Am Legend

One high-end tourist destination called the “Gulf of Aqaba” will feature marinas, nightclubs and a destination boarding school, according to internal documents. 

Mohammed bin Salman reportedly told designers of the project that he favoured the “cyberpunk” aesthetic - a science fiction subculture in which computer technology is juxtaposed with an oppressive and dystopian society.

An internal document for the Gulf of Aqaba outlined “post-cyberpunk” as one its guiding philosophies, which it described as a futuristic world with slim skyscrapers and sleek flying cars.

It identified the best example of this style as the Marvel movie Black Panther

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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