Prince of Saudi Arabia Begins Ambitious Construction Plans – Potential Collaboration with Israel on the Horizon?

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has announced numerous projects for his country, including facilities in the holy city of Mecca (including skyscrapers and luxury hotels), promoting women’s rights equality (such as the right to drive), and bringing cinema and tourism to the conservative kingdom, according to Arab media, with an additional Monday report from Maariv indicating that one of his endeavors may involve Israel.

Arab media has reported on a series of grandiose projects by the crown prince, all under the title “Saudi Vision 2030”. The first was the futuristic technological city project “NEOM” (short for “neo-mustaqbal” – future in Arabic) in the Tabuk region, located entirely not coincidentally in the northwest of the kingdom, near the Red Sea.

The “NEOM” project itself is located as close to Eilat as possible, which suggests that Israel is supposed to participate one day, and on a declarative level, it is intended to create economic cooperation with Egypt and Jordan – two countries that have already signed peace agreements with Israel.

All these projects were planned shortly before and during the normalization of Israel with the UAE and Bahrain.

The normalization requirements of the Saudi kingdom from Israel are known. The day after the war in Gaza, Israel might have to assess how bin Salman’s economic vision integrates with the promotion of local projects: the rehabilitation of Gaza and the promotion of the economy in the Gaza Strip and Judea and Samaria.

Israel and Saudi Arabia have a common interest in promoting the economy of the Middle East and share many common enemies, including the Muslim Brotherhood and their outreaches (including Hamas) and, to the same extent, Iran and its proxies.

In recent years, foundations were laid for constructing a high-speed rail network from the Jordanian border in the north to the Persian Gulf in the east and from there to the Jazan region in the west (Mecca and Medina). In parallel, an electric underground railway is being built in Riyadh, with 85 stations and no driver, whose completion is expected this year.

What other projects were announced by the crown prince?

A year after the announcement of “NEOM,” another project called “The Red Sea” was launched. The latter project is a kind of Saudi Riviera: a strip of exotic luxury beaches spanning over 3,800 square kilometers with sports centers and luxury hotels. There are also completed projects, such as the advanced “Al-Haramain” railway between Jeddah airport and the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, covering a distance of 450 kilometers. This railway travels at a speed of 300 km/h and is expected to transport 60 million passengers per year.

In 2017, bin Salman announced a project estimated to cost $500 billion. The project was supposed to be completed in about a year, but it is still in its early stages. The project includes a futuristic city called “Al-Khat” (The Line), a first-of-its-kind linear smart city with a length of 170 kilometers, and it is expected to be ready in another twenty years.

In 2021, he announced the “Green Middle East” project, a battle against desertification, including planting thousands of trees and installing irrigation systems in the capital and other centers throughout the kingdom.

The Saudi square

On March 12, at the MIPIM conference, the “Global Urban Festival” in Cannes, France, the Saudi project “The Square” in the capital Riyadh was presented. The crown prince announced a giant construction project of a business center covering more than 19 square kilometers, surrounded by full-nature buildings that can accommodate hundreds of thousands of residents, with a university specializing in technology and design, hotels, markets, theaters, and museums among others.

In the central complex, “Al-Mukka’ab” (The Cube) will be built, covering an area of ​​25 million square meters. It will have 80 entertainment and cultural areas and will be able to accommodate 420,000 visitors and workers. The building will serve as the capital’s commercial center and will look on the horizon from a distance, just like the pyramids in Egypt.

The planned giant will be the modern “downtown” of Riyadh, which will serve as a significant economic accelerator within the framework of Saudi Arabia’s 2030 plan. These gargantuan projects face many challenges and obstacles along the way, but it seems that the crown prince is advancing like a bulldozer.

It is impossible not to find a resemblance between “The Square” project and the dense structure to which all Muslims turn during prayer around the world. Many in the Muslim world criticized the fact that the planned building would essentially serve as a “capitalist Mecca,” a secular alternative to the religious structure in Mecca.

Criticizing the projects

People within the kingdom have criticized bin Salman’s projects. For instance, the building of “NEOM” in the Tabuk region was accompanied by the expropriation of lands from the Huwaitat tribe, who unsuccessfully tried to oppose the move. Outside the kingdom, human rights activists have criticized the harsh working conditions of workers in various Saudi projects.

The projects are supposed to convey a message from bin Salman to the Saudi people and the world about his future coronation as king. The crown prince wants to demonstrate the power of a kingdom that aspires to be a leader in the Arab and Muslim world through such massive projects.

In addition, the goal of the crown prince in the 2030 project is to free the kingdom’s residents from their dependence on oil and to bring Saudis, a quarter of whom are under 25, into the labor market. However, the situation in Qatar and the UAE is not encouraging, and it might be that most employees would be from third-world countries.

But despite its wealth, experts argue that Saudi Arabia cannot complete all these projects and some claim that a few will never be completed, especially “NEOM.” Additional criticism in the West has been raised regarding the high levels of air pollution that are normally associated with Saudi projects.

Others criticized the planning of infrastructure surveillance, which will significantly affect privacy in cities and these projects.

Bin Salman is expected to encounter many more obstacles in the future from the conservative-religious people in the kingdom who are trying to preserve the Wahhabi religious tradition. There is no doubt that bin Salman’s rapid steps in all fields threaten him and his rule. But it seems that the crown prince has no intention of stopping. Are the projects he initiated indirectly related to Israel? It can be assumed that without Saudi consent, these agreements would not have been signed at all.