Hope Turns to Doubt, Then Gunfire, as Saudi Megacity Emerges

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April 24, 2020

When Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman unveiled plans for Neom, a futuristic megacity on the Red Sea coast, residents rejoiced. Jobs and investment would surely accompany the $500 billion development at the center of the young leader’s plan to transform his conservative kingdom.

But as Neom pushed forward with plans to resettle thousands of people to make way for the project, optimism gave way to uncertainty, then resistance. Some members of the Huwaitat tribe that lives in the area refused to leave. Months of tensions culminated in a deadly shootout last week with security forces, sparking worries over the potential for unrest in a remote region where gun ownership is common.

“People here have lost trust,” said a Saudi with close ties to the area, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution. “They had high hopes for business, investment and compensation, but with time, doubt has seeped into their souls.”

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The troubles in Neom aren’t expected to derail Prince Mohammed’s signature project. Yet the rare pushback underlines the domestic challenges he faces at a time of global turmoil and collapsing oil prices, even as he presses on with changes that touch every aspect of life in the kingdom.

Build It and They Will Come? Saudi Prince’s Megacity Takes Shape

The 34-year-old heir to the throne has taken big steps to overhaul Saudi Arabia’s economy and loosen social restrictions, convincing many Saudis that he’s committed to bettering their country. But the prince has also gained a reputation for hubris and rashness: shattering delicate balances, shaking old alliances and burning bridges at home and abroad. Domestic and foreign investors have balked as he’s detained critics and led a war in Yemen that’s helped create the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

The story of Neom began in 2015, shortly after his father became king. The prince, then relatively unknown, was thinking about a new “commercial and economic capital,” he later told Bloomberg. He already had a location in Saudi Arabia’s northwest in mind.

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