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Why Saudi Arabia’s Mega-City Project “Neom” Will Likely Fail

Saudi Arabia, November 16, 2017

Saudi Arabia has been making headlines for various reasons over the past couple of weeks, not least because former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri is reportedly being held against his will in Riyadh.

Another piece of news making current events in Saudi Arabia sound like something out of an episode of Game of Thrones is the announcement of a new, mega-city project. The project, which is called Neom, claims to be the only independent economic zone of its kind, and will cost about $500 billion to develop.

Salem Saif, a writer on politics from the Arabian Peninsula, succinctly explains in Jacobin why the mega-city project is likely to fail, based on how similar urban development projects have played out in the region. He also highlights the things the planned city reveals about Saudi Arabia’s political economy:

Much has been said about the commodification of the city, a process by which urban space becomes a commodity and is thus systematically exploited for the primary purpose of profitmaking. Residents and tourists alike are reduced to “mere ‘extras’ in the great urban spectacle,” which is geared toward maximizing income.

Projects like NEOM take this logic one step further. Here, financial institutions conceive, design, and execute a completely new city as a private venture, then list it on the stock exchange. This represents the ultimate vision of the financialization of the city, a process by which the city itself is specifically and systematically engineered and designed by finance with the sole and explicit aim of generating profits.

The idea of such “fully privatized” cities engineered by finance have become a feature of the Gulf ever since the advent of these “international megacities” in the new millennia. Such projects usually follow what some have called the “GFH model” named after the bank that pioneered this process.

Under this model, a financial outlet leverages its ties to influential political figures — usually members of the ruling family — to get land at incredibly cheap rates. In exchange, the financier raises the funds necessary for the project’s execution, usually creating a spinoff “developer” corporation tasked with overseeing the city from its conception through its completion and subsequent management.

But in the wake of the latest financial crisis, many of these megaprojects have become ghost towns. The Gulf’s skyline is now littered with half-completed buildings gathering dust. The King Abdullah Financial District in Riyadh joins a long list of unfinished or abandoned projectsmega-cities dotted across the gulf, including the now-suspended Waterfront project in Dubai — a development three times the size of Washington, D.C., intended to house up to 1.3 million residents.

Other notable failures include the Blue City in Oman, designed for two hundred thousand residents, and, most infamously, Dubai’s “the World,” a collection of manmade islands designed to look like every country in the world. It is now sinking back into the sea.

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