High profile projects and authoritarianism in the Persian Gulf: The Saudi ‘NEOM’ project

Last week the young and ambitious crown prince Muhammad bin Salmen (MbS) introduced the new $500 million cutting-edge project ‘NEOM’. While those ‘mushrooming’ projects are nothing new in this region, which has experienced a radical modernization course with the oil boom that has enabled the (smaller) monarchies to brand itself to the outside world (most famously the so-called ‘Dubai Model’ of the 2000s), the new Saudi project still raises questions concerning the broader political implications. In contrast to the other surrounding countries, the country that host the two holy places Mecca and Medina and in which the conservative Wahhabi interpretation of Islam is deeply rooted, the plans of NEOM are linked also to a social development, which is most visible in the Vision 2030 with the aim to diversify the country’s economy (for a good critical over view the this article by Bloomberg): Beside the recent announcement that women will shortly be allowed to drive, the young crown prince has also called to moderate Islam, crash radicalism and ease the visa regulation in order to attract foreign investors and tourists.

This should be seen in the broader light of succession and efforts of preparing for a future, in which the next ruler will most certainly not a direct son of the Saudi founding father: As a crown prince, who has just recently (June 2017, see post ‘Saudi Arabia prepares for the 21st century’) gained this position in what could be called a ‘palace coup’,  it appears that MbS enjoys considerable freedom in his decisions. Furthermore, he is the personification of the reform project in the country and his appointment as crown prince (number 2nd in line) assures King Salman that his vision will last beyond his death. Noteworthy, the vision 2030 and more concrete the announced project of NEOM should not be confused with a Saudi attempt towards more political liberalization.

Quite the opposite and here is why: First and foremost, the announcement of NEOM helps MbS to restore his image as a bold leader that makes great decisions and indeed, he enjoys much popularity, especially among the young Saudis that constitute the demographic majority. Additionally, it helps to distract attention from the very unpopular war in Yemen, that MbS started in cooperation with the crown prince of the UAE in 2015. Second, projects like NEOM contribute to the narrative of “high modernism” (Kamrava 2015) that strengthens the state-building efforts towards an alleged superiority of monarchism as a success model (especially when looking to the neighboring Middle Eastern republics that falling apart or behind). In brief, it gives citizens the impression that they belong to a country that is admired by the outside world and that perform very well without certain forms of interest articulation and aggregation. Lastly, announced promises of social development (especially the allowance for women to drive and the fight against radical Islam) are clearly related to the outside world as the many the dozens of interviews in English newspapers and TV channels reveal. It shall underline Saudi’s image as a ‘good citizen’ of the world community that clearly commits itself to forms of good governance. Again, this can be seen as another diversion strategy, which conceals the fact that the new leadership has imprisoned dozens of oppositional figures, conducted the highest number of executions in 2016 and introduced harsher restrictions on freedom of expression.

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