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The Saudi heir to the vision of Neom, a desert city-state, tests its builders



RIYADH – If Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman realizes his dream, a $ 500 billion city-state called Neom will one day rise from the desert, turning Saudi Arabia into a new investment by attracting billions of dollars as the kingdom seeks to reduce dependence. your oil before crude stocks dry up.

So far, however, Neom has been stuck in delays and has been hit by the eviction of officials who are straining under the weight of the prince’s ambitious vision.

Engineers are struggling with demands to blow a half-mile-long, 30-foot-high hole in the mountains to shelter honeycombs from hotels and residences. Another directive to build 10 palaces, each larger than a football field, attracted more than 50 different designs, but left staff wondering if anyone would buy homes that could count up to $ 400 million each, according to a review of plans and interviews. of the project with those who participated in the development of Neom.

Projects for the new city-state include Mount Neom above and palaces that can count up to $ 400 million each below.

At a board meeting last December, Prince Mohammed rejected city planners who proposed other, simpler plans for a pollution-free city, telling them to think bolder.

“I want to build my pyramids,” he said, according to people familiar with his instructions.

The Saudi government declined to comment, asking Neom.

A spokesman for Neom, owned by the Saudi Arabian Sovereign Wealth Fund, described the scale of the project as unprecedented, but said its ultimate direction was flexible and would be shaped “by changing priorities, opportunities and challenges”.

Prince Mohammed is trying to use big ideas to attract investors, sometimes telling foreign officials that he will be happy if he achieves half of what he set out to do.

Neom, a combination of the Greek word Neo and the Arabic word for “future,” is the boldest example of the 35-year-old prince’s plans to attract large-scale foreign investment to the kingdom.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who spoke at a conference in January, tried to use big ideas to attract investors.


Photo:

Fayez Nureldine / AFP / Getty Images

So far, he has had limited success. The total inflow of investment in Saudi Arabia was about 5.4 billion dollars last year, which is almost a billion dollars more in 2019, despite the pandemic, but lower than 16 billion dollars a year a decade ago. The sale of shares of oil giant Saudi Aramco failed to attract a significant number of international investors after it set a high valuation of $ 2 trillion and did not want to take it home enough to attract foreign institutions.

Other initiatives to reset the direction of the economy are also being fought. Former King Abdullah’s attempt to build a financial center in Riyadh has lagged behind for a decade. The Red Sea city, which the king started in 2005 in the hope of attracting millions of inhabitants, has a population of thousands.

Plans for Neom are far bigger. The latest vision focuses on a 106-mile-long carbon-neutral project called Line, a linear city connected by a high-speed, car-free train.

Four other developments – called Neom Bay, Aqaba Region, Neom Mountain and Neom Industrial City – are designed to bypass it and include the project to build a resort on a mountain slope known as Vault. It is hoped that Neom will have 14 industrial sectors, including energy, food production and media.

Plans for Neom focus on a 106-mile-long carbon-neutral project called Line, above, and include a resort built into a mountain slope known as Vault, below.


Photo:

Cover images / Zuma Press (TOP)

Some Neom and Saudi officials say they are skeptical that the plans are feasible. The Kingdom’s Treasury Fund and the Treasury have already invested more than $ 1 billion in initial infrastructure, master plans, consultants and staff salaries – money that some Saudi officials say could be better used elsewhere.

Other employees, past and present, say they are not convinced that outside investors will benefit from some of Neom’s offerings. They also doubt that the kingdom can carry out plans for a new set of laws for the city to attract foreigners accustomed to Western norms, such as alcohol consumption or for men and women to mix freely.

The project has achieved some success in attracting companies with blue chips. In partnership with the American chemical company Air Products & Chemicals Inc.

and a Saudi firm, Neom plans to invest $ 5 billion to build what would be the world’s largest green hydrogen plant. The rationale for this project makes sense with or without a sprawling city-state around it: Neom’s location is blessed with world-class solar and wind energy, making the plant attractive to Air Products for global exports.

A Neom spokesman said he was working on a “competitive legal framework” and was discussing with global investors “who want … to perceive the uniqueness of what we are trying to achieve.”

Current and former officials say Neom CEO Nadhmi al-Nasr is struggling to realize the prince’s ideas, despite his reputation for implementing projects over a 30-year career at oil company Aramco. During his tenure, Neom has gone through dozens of high-ranking officials, many bristling with Mr Nasr’s management style, these people say.

Neom CEO Nadhmi Al-Nasr, who spoke at a conference in Las Vegas in 2019, had a 30-year career with oil giant Saudi Aramco.


Photo:

Joe Buglevich / Bloomberg News

Some are giving up contracts worth up to $ 1 million a year. Others were unable to return to Saudi Arabia last year because the blockades restricted travel and at least one was subsequently fired, the people added.

Andrew Wirth, the former chief executive of one of the largest ski resorts in the United States, who headed the planned mountain resort in Neom, left in August after defining Mr Nasr’s leadership style, “consistently involving humiliation and inadequately disparaging and humiliating outbursts, ”according to a resignation letter reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.

Other departures include the executive director leading the development of Neom Bay; the investment fund of the project; his legal team; and its tourism division. They are also missing: two IT managers, two marketing managers and two communications directors.

Mr. Nasr asked Neom questions. The spokesman declined to answer questions about individual employees, but said Neom had a natural turnover compared to a new organization of a similar size.

Many Neom employees are working in a temporary camp where the project is being built in northwestern Saudi Arabia.

Mr. Nasr often tells recruits that in order to survive in Neom, they must believe in vision and make sacrifices. “There are days when you will feel that you have worked harder than you can imagine. Still, nothing has been achieved, “he told new hires in June 2019, according to notes from one person at the meeting.

Former employee Amy Botwell, who worked in the department focused on creating the food industry, said employees were trained to believe in Neom, but few risked questioning the culture or feasibility of the project. “When I left, I felt almost like I was coming out of a cult,” she said.

Current and former officials say Prince Mohammed is deeply involved in the details. When the architects set master plans for Mount Neom in 2019, the prince took elements from three terrains and merged them together, including 7,500-foot arch and lake projects on top, according to documents reviewed by the Journal and a person familiar with what happened .

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The prince’s ambitions for Neom became clear with the release of public relations in January on Line: Neom’s team blurred, putting powerful lights that could be seen from space. The prince hoped to receive a call from the International Space Station to congratulate him on the ignition of the Line, according to people familiar with the plans. He later canceled plans for the lights and reduced the start.

To break the Line skyscraper, the project developers are now exploring the possibility of building a massive skyscraper. According to plans observed by the magazine, the structure could rise 1,600 feet in the air, higher than the Empire State Building, and be 55 miles wide, four times the length of Manhattan.

Saudi Arabia plans to build Neom, a futuristic metropolis in the middle of the desert. But residents who oppose the evictions and the historic collapse in oil prices have raised new questions about the project. Photo Composite: Michelle Ines Simon (YouTube / Getty Images / Associated Press)

Write to Rory Jones at rory.jones@wsj.com, Summer Said at summer.said@wsj.com and Stephen Kalin at stephen.kalin@wsj.com

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