Flying cars. Robotic dinosaurs. Holographic educators. An artificial moon. These are just a few of the things that are being touted as elements of Neom, Saudi Arabia’s planned futuristic mega resort on the Red Sea. But is all of this Neom talk just well-financed hype designed to draw headlines, peak investors’ curiosity, and induce FOMO? Or are we seeing in Neom a glimpse into the future of harmonious living, commerce, and tourism led by Saudi Arabia, a previously unforeseen but potential global leader in each of these areas?
According to it’s flashy website (which tries so hard to be futuristically design-forward that it’s actually somewhat hard to navigate smoothly) Neom is:
A bold vision. A living laboratory and hub for innovation. A sustainable ecosystem for living and working. A model for the New Future.
The site goes on with more lofty aims:
A pioneering community of doers to build the New Future. Neom will be the home and workplace for more than a million citizens from around the world. But NEOM is not just a place – it’s a mindset. Residents of NEOM will embody an international ethos and embrace a culture of exploration, risk-taking and diversity. Its diverse population – from a mix of homelands, religions and backgrounds – will live and collaborate toward a common goal. It will be home for people who dream big and want to be part of building a new model for sustainable living, working and prospering.
So what exactly is Neom, and what are its chances of truly revolutionising tourism and enabling futuristic lifestyle design?
For starters, Neom is the name given to a desolate area of land in Saudi Arabia’s northwestern Tabuk Province, which borders Jordan and the Red Sea and is only a short distance across the Gulf of Aqaba from Egypt’s eastern Sinai coast.
In my mind, there is no doubt that this natural and unspoiled area of Saudi Arabia is ideally situated for both tourism and development, given its proximity to Jordan by land and Egypt by ferry – or perhaps in the future, by bridge.
Millions of tourists currently visit southern Jordan; the southern tip of Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, where the popular resort destination of Sharm el Sheikh is located; and even the smaller beach getaways of Dahab, Nuweiba, and, to a lesser extent, Taba on the Sinai’s eastern shores.
All of these already-popular destinations could be within only an hour or few of Neom with the right regional transportation infrastructure investments. A high-speed train, for example, could easily shuttle the nearly one million tourists who visit Jordan’s Petra across the border and down the coast to Neom within an hour or two.
Similarly, the distance from the end of Saudi Arabia’s Highway 392, its western-most point on the Arabian Peninsula (also conveniently serviced by this existing road) to the Egyptian coast (and conveniently just north of Sharm’s international airport) is less than 20 kilometers. Given that Saudi Arabia has already built a 25-kilometer bridge on the other side of the country linking the mainland to Bahrain, it is quite easy to believe that a Saudi-Sinai bridge link could be achieved in the very near future too.
What may be a harder sell in the short and even intermediate terms, however, is significant international private investment. The government has announced plans to spend up to $500 billion developing the area into a world-class tourism, residential, and business destination, which will be needed if it is to turn this well-positioned but desolate area (also located within a country that is currently not that attractive to tourists and expats) into the futuristic, self-sustaining hub that is envisioned.
So other than location, what exactly will Neom have to offer when it finally gets off the ground? First, the project promises a beautiful natural paradise. Admittedly, this region of Saudi Arabia can already check off that box. The country’s Red Sea coast has the same pristine turquoise waters that Egypt has just on the other side. However, the Saudi side has been nearly untouched by development due to the country being closed off to tourists up until just late last year. The area also has beautiful untouched deserts that come right up to the water, and golden beaches that are straight out of a screensaver.
Second, Neom promises significant development of the area’s tourism sector, but in an environmentally friendly and sustainable way. Normally, any mega development promising to be “sustainable” rings of eye-roll-inducing PR hype, given that a few solar panels and green spaces are all too often the extent of such an effort because that’s usually enough to satisfy the public conscience. However, it is conceivable that the Saudis will make a serious effort to live up to the sustainability ethos with Neom, given that they have the up-front capital necessary to invest in sustainability infrastructure and a longer-term vision for achieving economic sustainability.
If these tourism development goals are realized, Neom will have dozens if not scores of luxurious, modern, eco-friendly resorts and an even greater number of local companies that facilitate experiences that leverage the pristine surroundings, including water sports, hiking, camping, etc.
Neom is also a few hours away from the kingdom’s first UNESCO world heritage archaeological site at Al-Hijr. The remarkably well-preserved Nabataen tomb ruins, known locally as Mada’in Saleh, are very similar to the more famous Nabataen ruins at Petra in Jordan. However, while the Petra ruins get thousands of visitors each day, Mada’in Saleh get only one or two – and often zero – visitors per day.
Third, Neom aims to be a hub for a diverse array of value-added economic activity. The Neom Project’s website seems to just throw every sector at the wall in hopes of attracting investment – or, for now at least, interest – from literally every industry possible. Energy, biotech, food, manufacturing, media, entertainment, fashion, sports, construction, health, education… its seems that the project aims to be a Jack of All Trades, but will it be a master of any? That remains to be seen.
On biotech: “NEOM will stand at the forefront of a revolution in the health space, with focus areas like genetics, biodigital interfaces and artificial intelligence…”
On media: “NEOM will attract the best of emerging and established talent from the region and beyond…”
On sports: “With world-leading, hyper-flexible facilities, NEOM will attract the world’s best athletes…”
On education: “NEOM will drive the global future of education…”
For now, everything on these fronts seem to be smoke and mirrors, with few concrete details of how the project plans to actually attract leaders and key players in any of these industries. In other words, it’s currently heavy on claims and assertions, and light on substantive deals, announcements, and endorsements.
Fourth, Neom aims to be a residential destination for both Saudis and expats alike. Perhaps aspiring to create its own version of the financial, tourism, and expat residential utopias that have been created within its regional neighbours in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and Doha, Neom advertises that it wants to become a second – or even first – home for people from all over the world where they can curate futuristic lifestyles, create value locally, and contribute to building the region into the vision that has been laid out for it.
Neom and everything it entails is not only a part of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s Saudi Vision 2030 initiative, but it is a key pillar of it. And while the plan, including the tourism development aspects, is astonishingly ambitious, there is no reason to believe that it is not possible.
As far as Neom goes, the project is going to have to quickly start bearing some initial fruit and, perhaps more importantly, get key opinion leaders in travel and tourism to buy in to the vision before investors, expats, and tourists are going to flock there.
The good news is that with the right strategy, investment, leadership, and maybe a little toning-down of the sky-high rhetoric in favour of the mantra of ‘under-promising and over-delivering,’ it certainly is possible to turn this current desert mirage into a booming new hotspot within this new decade.