Riyadh unveils mega investment city, vows to restore 'moderate Islam'


Saudi Arabia has unveiled plans to build a new 500-billion-dollar investment city spanning thousands of square kilometres, touted by Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman as part of a reforms package to restore "moderate Islam" in the country. 

Salman on Tuesday unveiled the larger-than-life project: a new city to be called Neom, located on the kingdom's north-western coast by the Red Sea.

"In Neom, we want to create something new ... so we are gathering innovators from around the world to create it," Salman said, addressing the conference organised by the kingdom's sovereign wealth fund, called the Public Investment Fund (PIF).

The city, which is also intended to extend into Egypt and Jordan, will cover 26,500 square kilometres.

The Saudis also plan to build an "awe-inspiring new bridge" between Egypt and Saudi Arabia "that will link Asia with Africa."

Klaus-Christian Kleinfeld, chief executive of Germany-based Siemens AG between 2005 and 2007, was appointed as the chief executive of the Neom project.

"It is 26,500 square kilometres. When we say city, we are not giving it justice, it will be multiple cities and villages," Kleinfeld said at the conference. The project will "make tons of money in a very good way," Kleinfeld added.

The Saudi kingdom will invest 500 billion dollars in the project, the official news agency SPA reported. The first phase is scheduled to be finalised by 2025.

On announcing the ambitious development plans, Salman said Neom was just part of a series of economic and social reforms designed to modernise Saudi Arabia, which is currently dominated by the puritanical Wahhabi school of Islam.

"We were not like this in the past; we are only going back to how we were, to the moderate Islam that is open to the whole world and all religions," he said at the investment conference in Riyadh. "We want to live a normal life, a life that translates our moderate religion, our kind customs," he said. "I think clear steps have been taken recently and I believe we will eradicate the rest of extremism very soon."

The kingdom has been introducing slow-paced change, allowing foreign investments in the country and loosening some laws, including for example a recent decision to allow women to drive.

Salman, 32, is believed to have championed lifting the ban on women driving, a move that will go into effect in June.

A Germany-based expert on Saudi Arabia expressed surprise at Salman's statements, saying that his country had for the first time given "a detailed description of exactly where its reforms should lead."

Guido Steinberg, of the Berlin-based Institute for International and Security Affairs, predicted that the move would "lead to a Saudi Arabia where the conservative scholars are increasingly marginalised and the liberal parts of the country can breathe more freely and look forward to much more freedom." Steinberg, however, argued that it remained unclear "whether this will mean an end to their discrimination against the approximately two million Shia Muslims in the country."

Saudi Shias have long accused the government of discrimination, an accusation denied by Riyadh Reforms introduced by Salman pave the way for Vision 2030, an ambitious plan unveiled last year with the aim of turning Saudi Arabia into an investment hub and diversifying its economy beyond oil revenues.

"We are under pressure to deliver something new in a short time and under pressure to give innovative ideas," said Salman, who was appointed as crown prince in June. He has close links to the United States and is seen as a powerful figure in the kingdom. He has also been leading Saudi Arabia's war in Yemen.

A map published on the project's website shows Neom stretching to the Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir, which had been under the control of Egypt until Cairo signed an agreement to hand them over to Riyadh last year. The deal sparked rare protests and lengthy legal battles in Egypt, until parliament approved it in June.    (dpa)

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