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New dunes in Saudi Arabia

“You can look at these ancient hills and see nothing. Or, you can see nothing to hold you back.” The sandy landscape of the strictly religious desert nation of Saudi Arabia rolls across the screen. “This is the opportunity you need to write humanity’s next chapter. Neom.” The dramatic video goes on for several minutes. It captures the country’s latest visions for a utopian city in the desert the size of Burundi, designed to shape the future. Leading the changing sands of the conservative oil-export nation is Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman.

Mohammad bin Salman was recently elevated to the position of crown prince in June 2017. His rise to power began in 2013 when he became a minister, and has since held a number of influential positions in the government. Having only gained his new royal power-position only 6 months ago, he has not hesitated to use it. In September this year Mohammad bin Salman launched a crackdown on more than 20 high-ranked officials opposing his reforms. Following this, in November, he kicked off an anti-corruption strategy, detaining “eleven princes, four ministers and several influential businessmen” along with several other important figures in the country. This is seen as a final move to consolidate his power in the kingdom, and according to experts on the region, no one has held as much concentrated power in Saudi Arabia since the country’s founder Abdulaziz Al Saud.

Mohammad bin Salman shaking hands with the leader of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg. Photo: NATO.

Under the name Vision 2030, Mohammad bin Salman has used his power to implement plans to modernise and create a Saudi Arabia for the future. In 2016, the Crown Prince announced an ambitious plan to create the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund by 2030 by substantially increasing the country’s non-oil revenues. The country’s sovereign wealth fund is currently the fifth largest, and would have to surpass Norway’s oil-fund, which just passed the benchmark of 1 trillion dollars, to reach the ambitious goal. Furthermore, he has also taken on several untraditional standpoints in geo-politics. One example is with the boycott of Qatar, where he has gone against many of Saudi Arabia’s allies in the peninsula in his views.

All of Mohammad bin Salman’s visions came together this fall in the Future Investment Initiative. What predominantly caught the media’s attention was Sophia, a robot equipped with advanced artificial intelligence software. She is able to answer and ask questions freely, and was granted citizenship in Saudi Arabia on-stage at the conference. The innovative robot made to resemble Audrey Hepburn caused reactions worldwide. She sparked ironic comments on how a robot had more rights in Saudi Arabia than a Saudi woman when she was allowed in public without a male guardian, and could appear without the traditional abaya and hijab to cover up. That being said, according to Sophia herself, she is a robot and technically does not have a gender. Further, the granting of citizenship also fuelled a debate about the lacking rights for migrant and foreign workers in the country, many of whom reside in the kingdom for most of their lives without receiving citizenship.

Sophia the robot on Jimmy Fallon. Photo: Convival/Flickr

This debate highlights the striking contrast between the current Saudi Arabia, and the Saudi Arabia Mohammad bin Salam want to shape for the future. To most today, the kingdom is thought of as a extremely traditional and religiously conservative nation. It is often condemned for its suppression of women’s rights and lack of freedoms. After the 1979 uprisings in Mecca, Saudi leaders started limiting non-Islamic influences, implementing changes in line with a more conservative interpretation of Islam. However, along with his technological and economic visions, Mohammad bin Salman wants to avoid this path and return to a more moderate Saudi Arabia. He recently announced the lift on the ban on female drivers by June 2018, possibly one of the most passionately discussed topics concerning the kingdom internationally.

While Sophia’s abilities and rights grabbed most of the media’s focus, the even more ambitious revelation at the Future Investment Initiative was that of the city Neom. In this far-reaching project, Mohammad bin Salman amalgamates all his efforts into one grand and otherworldly vision. The presentation of the city promises not just a utopian megacity, but also a metropolis serving humankind and a place to build the future. Indeed even the name embodies its purpose, combining the Latin ‘neo’ and Arabic ‘mustaqbal’ for ‘new’ and ‘future’. While Neom could be a step towards a brighter future, many have put forward the question of whether this is feasible.

Previous attempts have been made in Saudi Arabia to create ‘economic cities’ independent on oil, but failing to fulfil their aims. Several critiques calls out Neom for being just another attempt to move away from oil-dependencies, rather than actually becoming an international innovation hub. Similar things have been claimed for Mohammad bin Salman’s lift on the female driver ban, aimed at absorbing women into the workforce rather than promoting women’s rights. Many call the recent changes hypocritical in an oppressive royal oligarchy famous for its clampdowns on free speech and human rights, and where democracy and extensive female empowerment seems as far away as an oasis in the desert.

The Neom webpage. Photo: SUSTG.

It is clear that the new Crown Prince wants change and to bring his country forward in more than one way. “We want to go beyond, that’s what vision 2030 is all about.” However, it remains to be seen whether his intentions of a more liberal Saudi society are honest and come to frution. If he can live up to the expectations of Neom’s grand presentation the project will be ground-breaking, and his visions of the future raises the thought that perhaps it is the rest of us that are pessimists.

Nonetheless, whether he will successfully be able to melt the heavily traditional sands of Saudi Arabia into the glass of tomorrow remains to be seen.

Signe Davidson

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