Will Saudi Arabia’s Rebrand Be Successful?

The Middle Eastern country is seeking to overhaul its image and poor human rights track record with gargantuan giga-projects spanning 105-mile-long horizontal skyscrapers and the world’s tallest buildings.

The unfinished Jeddah Tower. Photography by Amr Nabil/Associated Press

In 2008, billionaire investor Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal of Saudi Arabia revealed ambitious plans for the Jeddah Tower, the first skyscraper intended to reach a height of 3,281 feet. The record-breaking supertall is slated to become the crown jewel of Jeddah Economic City, a sprawling urban oasis envisioned as the country’s very own Dubai. Nearly 15 years later—and six years after its projected opening date—only one-third of the tower is complete, drawing comparisons to North Korea’s hulking “Hotel of Doom.”

The skyscraper is perhaps the most visible symbol of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s high-stakes scheme to overhaul Saudi Arabia’s economy and poor international reputation through dozens of “giga-projects” on a $719 billion budget. As part of the Saudi Vision 2030 plan, the country has conceived a multitude of mammoth developments purported to reshape its oil-based economy into one that attracts international tourism dollars. On the cultural front, Desert X AlUla and the inaugural Jeddah Biennale have attracted major art-world figures, and the new Saudi-backed golf league LIV enticed some of the sport’s marquee names with exorbitant contracts. 

Rendering of “The Line” horizontal skyscrapers planned for Neom

The proposals are mind-bogglingly large in scale. In the country’s remote Tabuk Province, a desolate arid region bordering the Red Sea, a 10,230-square-mile swath of desert land has been earmarked as the site of Neom, a megacity described as a “high-tech semi-autonomous state.” If all goes as planned, the city will build twin 1,640-foot-tall skyscrapers that stretch horizontally for dozens of miles. Inside, denizens will supposedly coexist with “robotic avatars and holograms,” fusing the digital and physical worlds into a new type of metaverse. Other projects include Octagon, a city on water and potentially the world’s largest floating structure; Trojena, a world-class wellness complex with a ski slope and interactive nature reserve; and the King Salman Airport, a so-called “aerotropolis.”

The projects have their fair share of detractors, but precedent may be the most powerful. Scattered across Saudi Arabia are traces of mega-projects intended to galvanize the economy but now sit practically desolate. Among these is King Abdullah Economic City, inaugurated more than a decade ago on the picturesque Red Sea coast 70 miles north of Jeddah. Original plans projected two million people would live there by 2035; its population now sits at 7,000. Like-minded initiatives promising to upend urban life—Masdar City in the United Arab Emirates and Malaysia’s Forest City—have suffered a similar fate. 

An early illustration of Neom. Image courtesy of Neom

There are also questions about who these projects intend to serve. Authorities razed 32 neighborhoods over the past year to make room for similar mega-developments, namely Jeddah Central Project, a 2.2-square-mile swath of luxury high-rises, hotels, and parks planned for the city’s southern reaches. Some estimate one million people—mostly working-class migrants who settled in Jeddah after making the pilgrimage to Mecca—were forcefully evicted, sparking backlash from human rights groups. Rents have soared due to increased demand for apartments, causing many citizens to flee. 

“Our cities are now being built by bankers,” an anonymous Jeddah-based architect told the Los Angeles Times. “They’re capitalist cities of the first order. Before those neighborhoods were destroyed, you’d walk around them and know they’re real. They pulsed with life. It’s not sterile like a mall.”

So far, the results seem to contradict marketing videos that suggest developments like Neom will serve everyone “from laborers to billionaires.” Observers fear the effect will yield Disneyland-like communities that simply act as profit generators for the government but are walled off from the public and lack the pulse of a traditional city. Whether or not the experiment succeeds, however, remains to be seen. Neom’s completion date keeps getting pushed back and the frozen Jeddah Tower lacks a fleshed-out timeline. 

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