JEDDAH: Work on a number of massive leisure and infrastructure projects in Saudi Arabia is nearing completion, while others are in the earlier stages in a country where the vision for the future includes increased diversification of its income sources. From Neom and Qiddiya to The Red Sea project and more, the Kingdom seems determined to change our understanding of innovation, recreation, aviation and invention. Neom, the world’s first independent economic zone, is currently being developed in Tabuk, in the northwest corner of the country. A pillar of the nation’s Vision 2030, it is being precisely designed and constructed to serve nine specialized investment sectors: Energy, biotech, food, mobility, advanced manufacturing, technological and digital sciences, tourism, media, and entertainment — sectors strategically chosen to attract international investment, and all part of a grand push to diversify Saudi Arabia’s oil-centric economy.
Neom is being built on diverse terrain sheltered by mile-high mountains and cooled by breezes from more than 450 kilometers of Red Sea coastline.
Future inhabitants will be able to enjoy previously untouched, naturally formed beaches, islands and vast desert terrains where snowfall can be expected during the winter.
Supported by fully automated services, along with zero-carbon infrastructure, Neom will operate solely on wind and solar power.
Thousands of solar panels and wind turbines will generate enough power to supply the development with low-cost regenerative energy all year round.
With aspirations to become a global hub for innovation, knowledge and trade, it will establish itself as the prime exit from the King Salman Bridge, a $4 billion causeway linking Western Asia and Africa.
Neom will stretch across the Egyptian and Jordanian borders, thus establishing itself as the first private economic zone to span three countries.
It aims to foster innovation through an open-source policy, under which the world’s top scientists will have an open invitation to conduct research in the fields of medical science, artificial intelligence and virtual reality.
By adopting a regulatory framework that fosters technological growth according to the highest international standards, guidelines, and practices, scientists will have the luxury of using Neom as a scientific testing ground for next-generation genomics, gene therapy, nanobiology, bioengineering, and stem-cell research.
Dr. Abdullah Al-Maghlouth, a member of the Saudi Economic Association, said that Neom is a major addition not only to the Saudi economy but the global economy, as international companies will invest in it. “The project will add to the national gross domestic product,” he said.
“Neom is a new name, a great name that represents the future. It has an important location along the Red Sea, in which nearly 10 percent of all the world’s trade flows.”
He added that Neom is at the heart of the world, and can be reached by 70 percent of the global population in less than eight hours.
He also pointed out that the huge project, whose consultative board members come from around the world, would also attract workers from many countries.
Saudi talent, he added, will also be involved in the project. Meanwhile, Jeddah’s King Abdul Aziz International Airport has been redesigned and expanded to handle an ever-increasing number of passengers and flights. Occupying a 105-square-kilometer site, the new airport is an important part of the Saudi Vision 2030.
It features a 136-meter air traffic control tower, a 3,000-person capacity mosque, 220 service counters, 80 self-service counters and parking spaces for 8,200 vehicles.
“KAIA has become an ideal airport, with its creative infrastructure and immense size,” Al-Maghlouth said.
“It will also create job opportunities for young Saudi men and women, and will definitely add to the national GDP.
“The biggest aircraft in the world can now land at the modernized airport, which was made under the latest quality measures. It will also attract many international companies to invest in the city of Jeddah, the gateway to the Holy Mosques.”
He said that the number of passengers at the airport hit a record high in 2017, jumping from 31 million in 2016 to 34 million, a 9.4 percent rise.
He added that the new airport welcomed more than 7 million Hajj and Umrah pilgrims in 2017. When it becomes fully operational in the first three months of 2019, with a total of 46 gates, it will be five times the size of the existing airport. In leisure developments, by 2030 Qiddiya, the “the Saudi answer to Disneyland,” is expected to be attracting 17 million visitors a year in the entertainment sector, 12 million in the shopping sector and 2 million in the hospitality sector.
Qiddiya shares the name of the area in which it is situated, 40 kilometers from the center of Riyadh city, which has spectacular views of mountains, valleys and desert. It is expected to be the world’s largest entertainment city by 2030, covering a total area of 334 square kilometers, far surpassing Walt Disney World in Florida, which is 110 square kilometers. It will include high-end theme parks, entertainment centers, sports amenities capable of hosting international competitions, training academies, desert and asphalt tracks for motor sports, water- and snow-based recreation, outdoor and adventure activities alongside nature and safari-park experiences, and a wide range of historical, cultural and educational activities and events. The project will target local, regional and international tourists and aims to create the nation’s pre-eminent entertainment, sports and cultural destination, while remaining true to the Saudi identity.
Qiddiya chief executive Michael Reininger said he expects the project to attract foreign investors in entertainment and other sectors, but did not specify the cost of construction. The project will help to diversify national-income sources and is forecast to contribute to up to SR17 billion to GDP by 2030. Like many of the other ambitious projects, including Neom, Qiddiya is the brainchild of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, a self-styled liberal agent of change who is the chief architect of the Kingdom’s sweeping Vision 2030 reform program.
The reforms stem partly from economic motives. They aim to boost domestic spending on entertainment, as the Kingdom has been reeling from the oil-price slump since 2014. Saudis have until now spent billions of dollars each year to see films and visit amusement parks in neighboring tourist hubs, such as Dubai and Bahrain, because they were denied many entertainment options at home.
To address this, in February Saudi Arabia’s General Entertainment Authority announced it would stage more than 5,000 festivals and concerts in 2018, double the number of the previous year, and pump $64 billion into the sector in the coming decade.
Another under-construction mega project is The Red Sea, where visitors will be able to explore some of the nation’s hidden treasures, including a nature reserve that boasts a stunning diversity of flora and fauna in the foothills of a dormant volcano.
A host of marine-oriented resort developments will also allow for unparalleled scuba diving among stunning coral reefs. The project will form an archipelago that is home to environmentally protected coral reefs, mangroves and several endangered marine species, including the hawksbill sea turtle.
The project marked a milestone with its incorporation as a standalone closed joint-stock company, The Red Sea Development Company, which is wholly owned by the country’s Public Investment Fund.
The company in October announced Virgin Group founder Richard Branson as one of its board members, and has also recruited John Pagano, former managing director of development for the UK’s Canary Wharf Group, as its chief executive.
The company will now move forward with the creation of its special economic zone, with its own regulatory framework, it said.
This will be separate from the base Saudi economy, with a special emphasis on environmental sustainability, and will offer visas on arrival for overseas visitors, relaxed social norms and improved business regulations.
“The destination will provide a unique sense of place for visitors and offer nature lovers, adventurers, cultural explorers and guests looking to escape and rejuvenate a wide range of exclusive experiences, combining luxury, tranquility, adventure and beautiful landscapes,” said Pagano. The first phase of The Red Sea project — which will occupy an area greater than the size of Belgium, between the cities of Al-Wajh and Umluj — will include hotels and residential units, along with a new coastal town, an airport and a marina. Groundbreaking is expected during the third quarter of 2019 and phase one is due for completion by late 2022, the company said.
Authorities hope the project will create as many as 35,000 jobs and contribute SR15 billion ($3.99 billion) to the local economy.
The Riyadh Metro, meanwhile, is a huge project that is set to change the lives of people in the capital.
The biggest infrastructure project in the history of Riyadh, it includes an urban rail and bus network. Work is underway and the project is on track, said Pietro Bagnati, project director for Italian construction group Salini Impregilo.
“The project is going on satisfactorily. It is a priority project for the government,” he added.
His firm leads the ArRiyadh New Mobility consortium, one of three foreign groups building the six-line Metro project which will cover 179 kilometers of the sprawling city. The underground and elevated rail network will be supported by a bus system. Work on the project started in April 2014 and it is due to be operational by April 2019.
In addition, the first high-speed electric trains between Makkah and Madinah are due to start running this month, as announced by Saudi Transport Minister Nabil Al-Amoudi in May. They are designed to travel at speeds of more than 300 kilometers per hour, considered the fastest in the Middle East.
The system will be able to carry 60 million passengers a year by the time it is fully operational at the beginning of 2019. The SR60 billion project will create more than 2,000 jobs for Saudis. The 450-kilometer main line will travel through King Abdullah Economic City, with a short branch line connection to the new King Abdul Aziz International Airport. It will also serve Jeddah and Rabigh.
The $3 billion “new Taif” project includes plans for more than 10,000 homes, a culture and heritage tourist center, technology and industry parks, a university and an airport.
It will occupy nearly 1,250 square kilometers on a site in the north east of the existing city, with the tourist center an expansion of the popular Souq Okaz destination.
An infrastructure contract has already been signed for the first phase of a three-stage project to build a residential suburb of more than 10,000 homes. The $160 million development, over 12 million square meters, is the biggest in Makkah Region.
The General Authority for Civil Aviation has signed a contract to develop and operate a new Taif International Airport with a group of companies including Asiad, the Contractors Association Co. and Munich Airports Co. The airport will be built on a 48 million-square-meter site 40 kilometers from Taif and 117 kilometers from Makkah.
It will cost $800 million and is expected to be operational by 2020. In addition to its culture and heritage tourist attractions, the new Souk Okaz City will also have 1,250 new hotel rooms and 130 new homes. It is being supervised by the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage, with participation from the private sector, and will cost almost $1 billion. The project will create 4,400 jobs, is expected to attract more than 260,000 visitors a year and will contribute about $80 million a year to the Saudi GDP.
Meanwhile, a consortium of global companies is creating a business park called the Oasis of Technology, a joint venture between King Abdul Aziz City for Science and Technology and the Morganti Group. The 35 million-square-meter site will accommodate projects to assemble and manufacture Antonov aircraft, make solar panels and develop solar energy. In addition, a new Industrial City, the first in Taif Province, will be built on an 11 million-square-meter site 55 kilometers from the city center and 29 kilometers from the airport. The $32 million first phase will include light, medium and heavy industries and a vocational training center.
A new university will also be built at Saysed National Park. The plans include 16 separate projects covering an area of 16 million square meters, at a cost of $530 million.
Al-Maghlouth said that these major projects in Taif will offer be a great opportunity for national contractors to win contracts and contribute to the development of their country.
“It will also be an opportunity for international companies to win contracts worth hundreds of millions,” he said.
“International companies prefer to work in secure and stable countries. For this reason, Saudi Arabia is the best choice for them.”