Lucy Lönnqvist | Climate Fellow
The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammad Bin Salman’s lid on free speech, restrictions of political opposition, and crackdown on dissent have been overshadowed by plans for Saudi Arabia’s flagship carbon-free eco-city.
What is emerging from the 2030 Vision plan is a kingdom straddling the boundary between coercive strategies of the past, such as surveillance and patronage, and innovations that respond aggressively to the triple threat of globalisation, renewable-driven economies, and democratisation.
Are the recent developments to Saudi’s Vision 2030 plan merely a glossy nation-branding scheme to exert greater soft power across the world, or a genuine attempt to crawl up from the constraints of Salafism?
In recent years, Saudi Arabia has begun to shift attention to the promotion of carbon-free megacities to espouse a rebranded national identity–one of wealth, futurism, and ecological protection. The government launched a series of ambitious social and economic reforms as part of its Vision 2030 plan.
These reforms represent a pattern among several Gulf states towards creating ‘knowledge economies'. Sitting front and centre is the Neom plan, 26,500 square kilometres in Saudi Arabia’s North West, projected to transform the country’s desert dunes to world-leading smart cities, ports and resorts, entirely powered by clean energy.
The Neom project is an initiative of Saudi Arabia's de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, who has so far proposed four key features: Oxagon, a floating port-city positioned at world trade crossroads accounting for 13% of world trade; Trojena, a year-round mountain destination for skiing and hiking; Sindahlah, an island resort positioned in the Red Sea, and finally, the most architecturally controversial; The Line, a 170 kilometre long city with no roads, cars or emissions, housing nine million residents. Neom is an attempt to economically diversify the Kingdom away from oil, towards cutting-edge innovation in digital technology and environmental futurism.
Such cultural shifts act as a forged nation-branding visage to strengthen the absolute monarchy’s image abroad.
Saudi selectively portrays the country’s progressive plans for environmental action, while neglecting to provide full disclosure of the regime’s pervasive surveillance, criminalisation of dissent, and centralisation of power fuelled by oil revenues. What becomes clear here is Saudi’s effort to employ greenwashing is a macro-diplomatic strategy. After all, what good are glamorous resorts, ports or strings of housing when people within these spaces are stripped of basic human rights?
Ahead of the development stages of Neom, it is projected that 20,000 forced evictions will take place in the historic homeland of the Huwaitat tribe, blatantly transgressing Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the right to adequate housing and social protection covering situations beyond one's control. Members of the Huwaitat tribe Abdul Rahim Al Huwaiti publicly criticised attempts by the authorities to evict residents of Al Khuraiba village by publishing videos online claiming it to be ‘state terrorism,’ as well as refusing to allow the land registry committee into his home.
Merely a few hours after his stage of public advocacy, the BBC reported Al Huwaiti was executed by Saudi Special Forces. Saudi human rights organisation ALQST later found that three people connected to Al Huwaiti, who were forcibly evicted from the Neom site in 2020, had been sentenced to death.
Forcibly displacing citizens isn’t the only things Saudi is brushing under their greenwashing blanket, with the Neom project being scrutinised for the expected embodied carbon associated with building the project. Associate Professor Philip Oldfield calculated that over 1.8 billion tonnes of embodied carbon dioxide will be produced, which “will overwhelm any environmental benefits”.
It is very easy to see a seemingly flawless Vision plan 2030 as an upward trajectory for the Saudi dynasty. However, reading between the lines, it becomes clear that appeals to renewables and tech innovation are only riding on the support of oil revenues to maintain status and power.
The country’s nation-branding scheme has succeeded in its strategy, but we must not be fooled by a façade of zero-carbon cities in order to look past the state’s weak regulatory power, exploitative workforce practises, and the absolute monarchy’s suppression of almost all political rights and civil liberties.
Lucy Lönnqvist is the Climate Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs. She studies Economics and Political Science at Sciences Po Paris.
Having worked for over a month at a refugee camp located in the former Calais jungle in France’s North, as well as regularly conducting migrant permanences at the Franco-Italian border, Lucy is well-versed in the study of refugee rights protection, and is particularly excited to publish her firsthand knowledge on migration as a climate-adaptation strategy, delving into global affairs sitting at the intersection of international law, migration and climate change.