Space capsules and flying dragons… How does Saudi Arabia want to transform its capital?
Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates — It looks like a city out of a science fiction movie: space capsules, flying dragons, and floating rocks. But this is the cradle of Islam, Saudi Arabia, which wants to turn its capital into one of the “most livable cities on Earth”.
The Kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund announced, on Friday, that the Kingdom is building a new city center in the capital, Riyadh.
The New Square project, led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, aims to expand the capital by about 19 square kilometers (4,695 acres), to accommodate hundreds of thousands of residents.
At the heart of the development is the “cube”, 400 meters (1,312 ft) high, 400 meters wide and 400 meters long and large enough to hold 20 Empire State Buildings.
It offers an “immersive experience” with the changing landscapes of outer space to green vistas, according to the Public Investment Fund, the $620 billion sovereign wealth fund led by Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
The project is scheduled for completion in 2030.
Holographic technology aims to offer consumers a “new reality” while shopping and dining. The building also includes recreational facilities, hotels and residential units.
Saudi Arabia, which has been the subject of negative press reports for decades due to human rights abuses, has embarked on an ambitious project to diversify the economy away from oil and shed its image as a conservative and closed country.
“In the past, you would have negative discussions about Saudi Arabia being associated with human rights abuses,” said Andreas Krieg, research fellow at King’s College London’s Institute of Middle Eastern Studies. “But now they are trying to push new narratives about being a country of development and that can build future cities.”
But some analysts say Saudi Arabia has serious regional competition from neighboring Dubai and the Qatari capital, Doha, both of which have tried for decades to position themselves as regional tourism and investment hubs.
“Being second in the race is always a tough place to start when you want to be a leader,” said Simon Henderson, director of the Gulf and Energy Policy Program at The Washington Institute. He added that it is particularly difficult for Saudi Arabia because they “have spent decades not attracting foreign visitors and non-Muslims.”
But some questioned whether the project would come to fruition. Saudi Arabia has announced similar mega projects in the past, and work on them has been slow.
In 2021, Prince Mohammed bin Salman announces the futuristic $500 billion city of NEOM in the northwest of the country, with promises of robotic assistants, flying taxis and a giant satellite. And last year, he unveiled a giant linear city, The Line, which will stretch more than 106 miles and be home to 9 million people.
The kingdom already has an $800 billion plan to double the size of the capital in the next decade, as well as turn it into a cultural and economic hub for the region, according to Saudi media.
“The more absurd and futuristic these projects get, I can’t imagine how miserable everything around them will be,” Dana Ahmed, Gulf researcher at Amnesty International, wrote on Twitter.
Saudi officials have insisted that work on the projects is progressing as planned.
It is not clear how much the “new square” will cost, or how the Public Investment Fund plans to finance it.
In response to a question about the cost and financing plans, the PIF told CNN that details had not yet been revealed, and that it would announce more information in due course.
Some analysts suspect that the kingdom may not be able to raise enough funding to realize its ambitions.
The finances for all this have not been fully secured. “They tried to get a lot of foreign direct investment to make this project happen,” Craig said, adding that the investment did not come out the way Riyadh had hoped.
Saudi Arabia hopes to increase foreign direct investment to 388 billion riyals ($103 billion) annually by 2030.
The kingdom’s current foreign direct investment stands at $19 billion as of 2021, according to the World Investment Report 2022 of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD).
Henderson said the kingdom’s ability to finance the project also depends on the price of oil.
He pointed out that the price of a barrel is low at the current $80 ceiling, indicating that the Kingdom may need oil prices to exceed the $100 barrier in order to finance giant national projects.
While some mocked the new city and questioned its feasibility, others pointed out the uncanny resemblance between the cubic skyscraper and Islam’s holiest site in Mecca.
The Kaaba, whose name derives from the same root as the name of the new cube building, is the building towards which about two billion Muslims turn five times a day for prayer, and millions make pilgrimages to it every year.