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Saudi prince's vision marred by oil price — and a death

Saudi prince's vision marred by oil price — and a death
© Getty Images

It is supposed to be the future of Saudi Arabia — and it may be. But not in the way that Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, aka MbS, intended if recent events — principally, the low oil price but also, last week, a death — are anything to go by.

The Neom project is a $500 billion dream city in the northwest of the kingdom, bordering on the Red Sea as well as Egypt and Jordan. It is supposed to represent the post-oil future of Saudi Arabia, as high-tech as one could imagine. Saudi scientists and computer whizzes would live in a robotic world, their every need — cleaning their homes, buying food — anticipated electronically and dealt with while they are at work.

Consultants drawing up the details were encouraged to let their imaginations run almost wild. They did: Wanting the local sand to glisten in the moonlight, they contacted NASA seeking any wisdom on how it could be done.

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Unfortunately for MbS’s dreams, the area, although remote, rocky and sandy, is not empty. People live there. There are an estimated 20,000 locals, predominantly members of the al-Huwaitat tribe, who make a living from harvesting date palms and fishing.

In the U.S., “eminent domain” — the forced sale to the government of land needed for development — involves lawyers. In Saudi Arabia, the process can be rougher. One local resident, Abdul Rahim Ahmad al-Hwaiti, vowed online to stay in his home. He tweeted his shouts of defiance to police gathering outside. Tweets from others recorded heavy gunfire. Later, cellphone video showed major damage to the interior of his house. An official statement said he had been killed in an exchange of gunfire.

When his funeral took place, a heavy detachment of police brought his body to the cemetery where local tribes people had sullenly gathered. But the end of the story, or this part of it, was on Tuesday morning, when the official Saudi Press Agency reported that the “people of al-Huwaitat tribe in Tabuk region have expressed loyalty” to King Salman and MbS. “The people of the tribe expressed support for the Neom project launched by His Royal Highness the Crown Prince in the Tabuk region as well as projects in Amaala.” (Amaala is the name of the Red Sea development to encourage foreign visitors to the stunningly beautiful coral waters; British tourism entrepreneur Richard Branson was enthused by the project, until the murder of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi.)

We shall have to see how much the al-Huwaitat tribe, which stretches also into Egypt and Jordan, continues to respond to Neom — which, for the moment, apparently consists of little more than a royal palace complex or two. But Neom appears to remain central to MbS’s Vision 2030 plan for the transformation of the kingdom. Indeed, MbS is reported to be staying in the region now, locked down with his advisers.

While oil prices remain weak — the widely traded Brent crude was around $23 early Wednesday — the math for by how much MbS’s plans will have to be pruned or delayed is being recalculated, both within the kingdom and outside.

It was reported on Monday that the Saudi sovereign wealth fund had invested $500 million in Live Nation Entertainment, the world’s largest concert promoter, which, to many observers, suggests an over-confidence in the post-viral world. Contrast that with the statement, also Monday, by an International Monetary Fund official who suggested that Middle East sovereign wealth funds should be used to boost local economies.

Simon Henderson is the Baker Fellow and director of the Bernstein Program on Gulf and Energy Policy at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Follow him on Twitter @shendersongulf.