RIYADH: Saudi Arabia’s powerful crown prince on Tuesday announced plans to build a futuristic city run entirely on alternative sources of energy and said the ultraconservative kingdom must return to “moderate Islam.”
The $500 billion “Neom” project , envisioned as a hub for technological innovation, will be funded by the kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund, which the prince oversees, as well as the Saudi government and a range of private and international investors.
“This place is not for conventional people or conventional companies,” Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman told an audience of investors from around the world gathered in the capital, Riyadh, on Tuesday. “This will be a place for the dreamers of the world.”
It’s the latest surprise move by Saudi Arabia, a country that for decades was characterized by slow, cautious reforms, bureaucratic red tape and promises that fell short of target. The kingdom was forced to spring into action nearly three years ago after global energy prices fell by more than half, threatening to deplete Saudi foreign reserves and spending power by 2020.
Now, the kingdom is on a mission to build the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund to invest in projects like Neom. The aim is diversify revenue away from oil exports and create more jobs under a plan spearheaded by the crown prince known as Vision 2030 .
No reform, however, was more disruptive to the old order than last month’s decision to lift the ban on women driving next summer. Saudi Arabia is also expected to bring back cinemas soon as it opens the ultraconservative country to more entertainment.
Prince Mohammed defended these reforms at the conference on Tuesday, saying “we were not like this in the past.”
“We want to go back to what we were: Moderate Islam,” the prince said during his rare public appearance. The heir to the throne said the kingdom will work to defeat extremist ideas and ensure that young Saudis live in harmony with the rest of the world.
He was speaking on a panel that included business titans Stephen Schwarzman of U.S. private equity firm Blackstone and Masayoshi Son of Japan’s technology conglomerate SoftBank.
As panelist after panelist lavished praise on the 32-year-old prince for his “passion,” ‘’vision” and “enthusiasm,” he interjected, saying: “I’m one of 20 million people. I am nothing without them.”
For many middle and lower-income Saudi families, the prince’s reform blueprint is long overdue.