This week, the prince unveiled new details about the project, versions of which he has been talking up for years, calling it a “civilizational revolution” that will challenge “traditional … horizontal cities.” Some 100 miles in length and one-eighth of a mile wide, the walled city would form the “infrastructure spine” of a wider megapolis, known as Neom, planned for northwestern Saudi Arabia.
The presentation in Jiddah on Monday — including slick (yet, some would say, dystopian) promo images and talk of an IPO — set off a days-long media and public relations blitz. The Dubai-based Gulf News called it “Saudi Arabia’s megacity of the future,” while others described the ambitions as “eye-popping.”
According to tech news website the Verge, promotional footage for the city seems like “the result of some very excitable marketing execs and a fortnight of all-nighters in Blender.”
“If you have money,” you should “raise the bar,” Mohammed said at the project’s reveal in Jiddah, Reuters reported. “Why should we copy normal cities?” he added.
The new details and material ginned up global interest in the futuristic megaproject just as Mohammed departed Tuesday for his first official trip to Europe since the murder of Saudi journalist and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, which drew international condemnation.
Government critics have been quick to highlight what appears to be shrewd timing.
“MBS is doing it again: reviving a dystopian vanity project to distract from an abysmal human rights record, while indifferent Western leaders are welcoming him after he learned to hide his fingerprints from ongoing atrocities,” said Khalid Aljabri, a Saudi national whose siblings were imprisoned and who now lives in exile in the United States.
The Saudi Embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The prince has been keen to end his pariah status and rehabilitate the oil-rich kingdom’s image as a forward-looking global power with modern amenities and a diverse economy.
In the past, he has used Neom, a $500 billion project owned by the Saudi sovereign wealth fund, as a “key tool for him to consolidate his power” and a “lynchpin in his diplomatic efforts,” Ali Dogan, a research fellow at the Berlin-based Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient, wrote last year.
The prince was on Thursday in France, where he was scheduled to meet with French President Emmanuel Macron at the presidential palace. Earlier this week, Mohammed flew to Athens and signed several bilateral agreements, including an energy deal that would see Saudi Arabia export electricity to Greece.
Greek Development Minister Adonis Georgiadis hailed what he said was the kingdom’s move toward a “new era of humanity in renewable energy and new technology,” according to the Guardian.
“Three years after Khashoggi’s murder, Greece made clear this week that politicians would rather talk about energy than the star journalist dismembered by Saudi agents in Istanbul,” the paper reported.
Mohammed was previously shunned by both the Biden administration and European governments after U.S. intelligence concluded that he approved the operation that led to Khashoggi’s death inside the Saudi Consulate in Turkey’s largest city.
But as Western nations face steep Russian energy cuts and soaring gas prices as a result of the war in Ukraine, some leaders have softened their stances, downplaying concerns over the country’s human rights record while stressing what officials say is Riyadh’s important role as a strategic partner.
Saudi Arabia has the world’s second-largest proven oil reserves, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
“The relationship with Saudi Arabia is bigger than any one individual,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said at a news conference on the same day the U.S. intelligence assessment was released last year.
Earlier this month, President Biden traveled to Jiddah to meet with several Middle Eastern leaders, including Mohammed, greeting the prince with a fist bump that drew criticism even from within his own party. Biden said he confronted the prince directly about the Khashoggi killing, “making clear what I thought of it at the time and what I think of it now.”
Rights groups say the administration should push harder.
“The reality is that for Saudi Arabia, nothing would be as groundbreaking, sustainable or futuristic for the country as basic dignity and human rights for people under its jurisdiction,” said Bethany Alhaidari, the Saudi case manager at the Freedom Initiative, an organization advocating for prisoners wrongfully detained in the Middle East.