Saudi futuristic vision dazzles corporate honchos


Riyadh — From a holographic lion to talking robots and flying taxis, Saudi Arabia has dazzled investors with plans for hi-tech “giga projects”.

The Kingdom has revealed plans to build NEOM, a mega project billed as a regional Silicon Valley, in addition to an entertainment city in Riyadh that would rival Walt Disney and the Red Sea project, a reef-fringed resort destination.

The blueprints for the projects were on display to 3,500 corporate honchos at this week’s Future Investment Initiative (FII) — dubbed “Davos in the Desert” — that sought to project the Kingdom as a business destination.

The projects, worth hundreds of billions of dollars, are the brainchild of Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman, deputy premier, minister of defense, chairman of the Public Investment Fund (PIF) and chairman of the Council of Economic and Development Affairs (CEDA), who is the chief architect of the sweeping Vision 2030 reform program.

To demonstrate the change he envisions, he held up an old Nokia in one hand and a stylish iPhone in the other at the FII summit, a comparison that resonates with gadget-obsessed millennials.

The $500-billion NEOM, which means “new future” in a combination of English and Arabic abbreviations, will be a biotech and digital hub spread over 26,500 square kilometers (10,000 sq miles) in an area facing Jordan and Egypt.

In a slick promotional video featuring the project, women were seen jogging and working alongside men in laboratories. Its service economy will be staffed by robots, it said. And in a move to display that ambition, Saudi Arabia this week granted citizenship to a robot named Sophia.

The Crown Prince said the regulatory framework for NEOM will be designed by the private sector to encourage investment.

The Kingdom’s Public Investment Fund (PIF), which aims to double its assets to nearly $400 billion by 2020, will be the primary investor in the projects.

Some private sector beneficiaries of PIF, such as Richard Branson have also pledged to invest.

“For the first time Saudi Arabia is looking not at what’s in the ground but outside,” said Brian Ackerman, an American landscape architect and designer who attended FII.

“It’s not the mountains, oceans, driverless cars and robots that’s inspiring, it’s the vision. The leadership is saying: ‘Come on, jump on this train.’ That’s step one.” — AFP