Last week, a visit caused much controversy. While some admitted that such a meeting did take place, some others made their denial known. Was this denial categorical? Maybe not. The point of contention in the argument revolves around whether Benjamin Netanyahu was onboard the flight that took off for Neom or not. Regardless of what actually went down and how this might be Trump’s attempt to make his administration’s foreign policy tactics historic, there is no doubt whatsoever about the venue. Neom makes for an interesting subject of attention. Dream project to the Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammad Bin Salman, and a reflection of where the country desires to be in ten years, the autonomous city is still a work-in-progress and will be open to public residence only in 2025. It even has its own logo.
Distinct from the rest of Saudi Arabia, Neom is expected to have its own system of taxation and investment rules that would aid multilateral trade and movement of people. It is designed as a centre for international convergence. Nearly $500 billion is being pooled for the construction of this city. For an onlooker, the entire project appears like a cocoon for the prince to disappear to. But, when this translates into an actuality set against politics, it is bound to be critiqued brutally. A description of Neom may be perceived as borrowed from a fantasy novel or prose that details utopia-like ambiences. The prince’s city is expected to house flying cars and even have an artificial moon look upon it. It would take some time to reassure ourselves of the fact that this isn’t taken straight out of a script for the Truman Show – if that were real. There will be robot dinosaurs as well. If you’re the heir to Saudi Arabia’s throne, it surely wouldn’t be an impossible task to get your own moon or Jurassic Park. The story of money and privilege, intricately bound to one another, gets the attention once again courtesy of Neom getting back into news of late. Like its name, the city represents a future that you might only have seen spun by VFX on screen.
But, the grandeur or sheer show of concentrated power, coupled with a want for autonomy, aren’t the only things of concern in this case. The ambitious project rides on grave problems. The claims that “virgin land” is being used for the construction is contested by the fact that the Huwaitat tribe has been, for years, residing in the region. It is under this light that a wishful statement put up by the city’s website gets a new meaning. “Better humans, better society” – this is the spirit embodied by the city. To make matters worse, a staunch advocate against the project, Abdul Rahim al-Huwaiti was killed in a police shootout. In his videos, he had talked of the forced evictions of tribal people happening to facilitate the development in Neom. Al-Huwaiti’s death has highlighted the scorn that dissent often ends up receiving. The complicated backdrop against which the city’s construction must be read makes the perennial conflict between urbanization and rural livelihood relevant again.
That a futuristic city in-the-making was chosen as a venue for ‘normalisation’ talks (if it happened) is a strong message that leaves no confusions as to what the leaders in
Saudi want. But, amidst all the glory of this constructive path that lies ahead, some murky parts of the story shouldn’t be forgotten. One cannot go on shutting down all questions that point at welfare projects which truly deserved some funds and governmental backing than a dream project of the Crown Prince that would cater to foreign interests.