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Saudi Arabia unveils plans for massive new airport, in tourism push

Airport follows plans to start a new state airline and permit limited alcohol consumption, as part of a push into tourism
Saudi passengers arrive at King Khalid International Airport in the capital Riyadh, on 17 May 2021 (AFP)

Saudi Arabia on Monday announced plans for a new airport in Riyadh capable of eventually receiving 180 million passengers a year, as part of the kingdom’s efforts to diversify its economy away from petrodollars. 

The airport will be named after 86-year-old King Salman and was announced by his son, 37-year-old de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, according to the official Saudi Press Agency (SPA). 

The project is designed to cover 57 square kilometres, with the aim of accommodating up to 120 million travellers by 2030 and 185 million by 2050. The airport will be owned by the Public Investment Fund (PIF), the kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund, chaired by the crown prince.

"The airport project is in line with Saudi Arabia’s vision to transform Riyadh to be among the top ten city economies in the world and to support the growth of Riyadh's population to 15–20 million people by 2030," SPA said. 

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The city's current population is fewer than eight million. 

The PIF has emerged as the main vehicle for Mohammed Bin Salman's attempts to transform the kingdom's oil-dependent economy.

Saudi Arabia has long been a destination for religious pilgrims but is now trying to promote itself to a wider variety of tourists. The kingdom has rolled out some social reforms and is reportedly planning to permit alcohol at resorts. 

Twelve new hotels are set to open next year as part of the Red Sea Development Project, and the $500bn Neom megacity also includes plans for a ski resort.

Aviation has been one of the main beneficiaries of the economic boom the kingdom is experiencing on the back of rising energy prices.

Saudi Arabia hopes to increase the cargo of airfreight passing through the country from 0.5 million tons today to 4.5 million tons by 2030, and has also announced plans for a new state airline, RIA, which will look to compete with state carriers in Qatar and the UAE.

The kingdom's busiest international airport is currently in the Red Sea coastal city of Jeddah, the self-avowed "Gateway to Mecca" for millions of Muslims performing the hajj and umrah pilgrimages. 

But officials have in recent years tried to position Riyadh, in central Saudi Arabia, as a rival to business and tourism hub Dubai in the UAE. 

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