What is Neom and The Line? Saudi Arabia’s project and those ads explained | SBS News

It looks like something out of a Hollywood sci-fi film, but it’s promised to one day be real, and there’s a reason you might be seeing ads for it everywhere. Saudi Arabia has been promoting its ambitious Neom project specifically to people in Australia, and in particular, its latest project; a narrow desert oasis called The Line. The ads have been popping up on Twitter – where the @NEOM account has one million followers – and LinkedIn. Marketing expert Dr Andrew Hughes of Australian National University said it’s difficult to estimate how much the ads would have cost as Twitter is very secretive about pricing, but estimates the company behind them could be paying roughly $100,000 a day to promote its project in Australia. They may possibly be targeted to appear in people’s feeds when they’ve searched in recent months for terms like “Saudi Arabia”, he said, in connection with major news stories such as the , but it’s unlikely to be specifically connected.What exactly is Neom?The Neom project was founded by Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, also known as MBS, to be a “vision of what a new future might look like”. Its name is a blend of the word neo, which means ‘new’ in Greek, merged with the first letter of the Arabic word for future, mustaqbal, which is also the first letter of the name of the crown prince.MBS claims Neom will have capacity for 450,000 people by 2026 and nine million by 2045.Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman wants to be seen as a moderniser. Source: AAPPhysically, it will be located in an area spanning up to 26,500km in Saudi Arabia, and will be split into three regions, including Oxagon, a hub for industries and technology, and the tourist-focused Trojena, located in a mountainous region where people will be able to go skiing, attend yoga retreats and music festivals. Earlier this year, Neom revealed its outlandish vision for the third region, The Line, a vertical city encased in mirrored walls that promises to redefine urban living. Its designers say the city will run on 100 per cent renewable energy, with no streets and no cars. The vertical design keeps urban sprawl to a minimum, taking up a smaller amount of land than would normally be expected for a mega city.Described as “a civilisational revolution that puts humans first”, the city will extend for 170km and promises residents they’ll be able to travel on public transport from one end of the city to the other in 20 minutes. All amenities would be available within a five-minute walk.Neom released images of its futuristic city The Line in July. Source: Supplied / neom.comFootage shows concept artwork of a lush city with green spaces and rooftop gardens. Advanced ventilation and the use of solar, wind and hydrogen power will also ensure “clean and fresh air for its inhabitants” the marketing materials claim. It’s a shiny, modern vision for the kingdom and that’s exactly the impression of Saudi Arabia that the Crown Prince wants the world to see.Why is Neom being advertised in Australia?Saudi Arabia tried to kickstart interest in Neom in Australia in July. Twitter users clicking on ‘Why am I seeing this ad?’ are given an explanation that Neom “wants to reach people who are located here: Australia”.Asked why the kingdom would want to advertise the project here, Middle East expert Rodger Shanahan of the Lowy Institute said Saudi Arabia probably needed Western foreign investment. This could include attracting funding and partnerships with Australian companies, especially those with niche capabilities, he said. Mr Shanahan said a legal expert from Australia, as well as an Australian distribution company, was already working with Neom. The Export Council of Australia last year also spruiked the “abundance of opportunity for Australian exporters, especially in the infrastructure, mining, agrifood and education sectors” in Saudi Arabia as it rolled out its Vision 2030 plan. “They can’t do it on their own, either technically or even financially,” Mr Shanahan said of the Neom project. Neom’s The Line provides an ‘unprecedented urban living experience’. Source: Supplied / neom.com”You need enormous amounts of foreign investment to realise this, or even a large part of this.”So you need to portray yourself as the kind of society that people are going to want to invest funds in and not a kind of retrograde society where people don’t want to invest.”Foreign investors became difficult to find after the 2018 , as people did not want to be associated with the regime, he said.America’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) concluded MBS ordered the assassination of Mr Khashoggi, contradicting the Saudi government’s claims that he was not involved in the killing.You need to portray yourself as the kind of society that people are going to want to invest funds inRodger Shanahan of the Lowy Institute”That whole Khashoggi thing was part of the reason why some foreign investors are going to be and continue to be, concerned about being associated with investing in Saudi Arabia, as long as there are these human rights concerns,” Mr Shanahan said. Why is Saudi Arabia doing this?After years of being ostracised by the international community following Mr Khashoggi’s death, Saudi Arabia appears to be staging a comeback.The Neom project forms part of the kingdom’s Vision 2030 plan to overhaul the economy, make it less dependent on oil and attract foreign investors and tourists. It was launched in 2017, about a year before Mr Khashoggi’s death but lost much of its momentum amid the controversy.Murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. Source: Press AssociationMr Shanahan said the kingdom needed to rehabilitate its image to keep projects like Neom on track. He said the launch of events like the , appeared to be an attempt at ‘sportswashing’ allegations of human rights abuses in the kingdom.The golf tournament is funded by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, which is chaired by the Crown Prince, and has been criticised for using sport as a vehicle to try and change the kingdom’s reputation. Saudi Arabia also hosted a Formula One event earlier this year.”The sportswashing thing is part of the broader investment required, and image improvement program that Saudi Arabia needs, to make these things [like Neom] even partway achievable.”Saudi Arabia also needs to diversify. The kingdom relies on income from the sale of its oil and gas but that will become more unsustainable as climate change action ramps up and resources dry up.”The whole Saudi social contract had been ‘don’t worry about political rights, because you’re looked after economically’. That’s a completely unsustainable model. So economically, Neom, and a futuristic city is part of that diversification,” Mr Shanahan said. Neom may also play a role in its tourism industry as Saudi Arabia moves towards being a brand for sustainable, ecologically friendly living. The Neom website notes the project is located a six-hour flight away from 40 per cent of the globe. “It’s more than a vanity project, [MBS] wants to be seen as the great moderniser,” Mr Shanahan said.That also helps MBS appeal to his support base among young people in the kingdom who are already benefiting from his social reforms.”At the same time he’s completely ruthless about cutting off at the knees, any critics of his actions, any potential rivals … and also hitting down hard on any public criticism of him,” Mr Shanahan said. Will it work?There is scepticism over whether the Crown Prince’s vision for Neom is achievable.”It’s technically not achievable at the moment. Is it going to be technically achievable in our lifetime? From what I’ve seen of it, it would stretch the boundaries, ” Mr Shanahan said. Mr Shanahan said traditionally people were wary of announcements made in Saudi Arabia because “the announcement was the thing and what actually transpired after the announcement could be entirely different”.But he noted MBS had achieved substantive social reforms that had only been talked about before so it would be interesting to see if he would be able to also force through his vision of Neom.”Everybody’s reserving their view of Neom and The Line … work is certainly being done on Neom but let’s wait a couple of years down the track to see actually what transpires.”Regardless of whether it will ever be built, Dr Hughes says Neom creates an image of Saudi Arabia as it wants to be seen: modern and innovative. The kingdom has been on the front foot with its marketing for a long time, he says, publicising its internet speeds as being among the fastest in the world, as well as its social reform claims including allowing women to work, drive and leave the country without permission from a male guardian. It is also very proud of its tertiary sector. “I think they’re trying to, in a way, not just build their brand but also repair past misdemeanours … and one of the ways you do that, is through these things like these big developments, you prove you’re modern,” Dr Hughes said. A profile by The Atlantic earlier this year said the Crown Prince wants to turn “one of the world’s weirdest countries into a place that could plausibly be called normal”.Dr Hughes said Saudi Arabia may have seen the United Arab Emirates’ success in marketing Dubai to the rest of the world as a destination city or convenient stopover location. Through Neom and The Line, the Crown Prince hopes the world will no longer see Saudi Arabia as a conservative male-dominated nation where homosexuality is still punished and women are repressed.The futuristic cityscape of Neom is an alternative vision of how the kingdom sees itself and its future. “That image, they want that to be the aspiration you see when you visit there, but also that you have in your mind from now on of Saudi Arabia,” Dr Hughes said. “You can change the country’s brand by using images like that.”SBS News contacted the Saudi consulate in Sydney for comment but did not receive a response.Would you like to share your story with SBS News? Email yourstory@sbs.com.au