Ambitious plans to diversify the Saudi Arabian economy and govern under “moderate, open” Islam are shaking up the Gulf and pointing to a future built on solar energy and artificial intelligence. Can Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud’s dream come to fruition?

  • Saudi Arabia announce new futuristic, fully automated city to be built and grant citizenship to a robot.
  • Crown Prince Mohammed  Vision  furthers goals of radical Vision 2030 program of social and economic reform.
  • Artificial intelligence will run $500 billion sustainable city of the future, powered by solar energy and run by robots.
  • Why is Saudi Arabia looking to suddenly diversify its government and oil focused economy?

Robots may outnumber humans in a new pioneering city billed by Saudi Arabia as “a new blueprint for sustainable life”, which would be entirely powered by renewable energy, and served by driverless vehicles and vertical farms.

Transforming Saudi Arabia’s Economy and Society

Striking in their boldness have been Crown Prince Prince Mohammed’s efforts to liberalize Saudi Arabia’s conservative society and diversify its economy in a sweeping overhaul of the inward nature with which the wealthy Arab kingdom has long operated.

Headline-grabbing relaxations of restrictions on the Gulf state’s beleaguered female population, only this year permitted to hold a driver’s license, have come as part of a wider effort to open up Saudi Arabia and bring the Kingdom’s laws and practices more in line with its trading partners.

Setting his stall under “moderate, open” Islamic rule, Crown Prince Mohammed has been instrumental, backing up his words with real actions such as suspending powers of the religious police.

“Today we have a people who are convinced that by working very strongly together, Saudi Arabia and all of its projects and programs can reach new horizons in the world,” Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman told a press conference on Tuesday, speaking to his vision of the future of the oil-rich state.

Unthinkable just a generation ago, Saudi Vision 2030 promises to increasing the number of Saudis in private employment, including women as well as looking outwardly in courting foreign investment and selling shares of Saudi Aramco, the state oil monopoly.

“The crown prince is a change agent on a very big scale, and this conference is a very big signal about how rapid is the pace of change, and that it is really happening,” according to prominent energy strategis Daniel Yergin in an email to the New York Times.

“This is driven by the recognition that an economic model based largely on oil, which worked for four decades, is no longer sufficient when 70 percent of the population is 30 years or younger, oil prices are volatile and the world is going digital.”

 

Diversification for Growth

Saudi plans for Neom encapsulate this vision for the Kingdom’s future. It’s understood that Saudi Arabia will invest $500 billion from its sovereign Public Investment Fund into 9 specific sectors in the city: energy and water, mobility, biotech, food, technological and digital sciences, advanced manufacturing, media, and entertainment.

Dependence on the country’s vast oil reserves, one-fifth of the world’s entire supply, has left Saudi Arabia vulnerable to drops in oil prices which have dramatically slowed the growth of the economy and left large construction projects incomplete and abandoned following the downturn in the price per barrel.

With the private sector so heavily dependant on government spending, its clear that Crown Prince Mohammed is searching for a new economic model in which the Gulf state can thrive.

By encouraging young Saudis to work for private companies in new industries, the Prince hopes to create a generation of entrepreneurs in new industries, renewable energy and artificial intelligence.

The future city of Neom reflects these aspirations.

Fully Automated City of Neom

A website dedicated to the Neom concept states the fields will attract “high-caliber human resources” and that mundane or repetitive tasks will be carried out by robots.

“Repetitive and arduous tasks will be fully automated and handled by robots, which may exceed the population, likely making the Neom’s GDP per capita the highest in the world,” it reads. “All these elements will put Neom at the world’s forefront in terms of efficiency, which will make it the best destination in the world to live in.”

The Robot with More Rights Than Women or Migrants

With typical flamboyant taste and a penchant for the futuristic, Saudi Arabia set a precedent this week as the first nation to grant citizenship upon a robot.

“Thank you to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. I am very honored and proud for this unique distinction,” Sophia told the panel. “It is historic to be the first robot in the world to be recognized with citizenship.”

Indeed the Saudi love affair with robots represents much about the nations need to appear modern and sleek but has exposed the hypocrisy when commentators began to point out that Sophia enjoys more rights than either women or migrant workers.

A Twitter hashtag about Sophia asking to drop the system under which every female citizen must have a male guardian was tweeted three times more often than the news itself.

Twitter users mocked “Sophia has no guardian, doesn’t wear an abaya or cover up – how come?” while someone noted that “This robot has gotten Saudi citizenship before kafala workers who have been living in the country their entire lives,” he noted.

A Realistic Future for Saudi Arabia Society?

In a society characterized by deep religious conservatism and heavy dependence on the state impetus to change must come from the top, with extraordinary efforts by a man with near-total power and the will to drag Saudi Arabia into the 21st century, both socially and economically.

However, obstacles to reform are many, starting with a culture that often discourages risk-taking and innovation with vested interests aplenty.

In the past the Saudi royal family has failed to produce promised megaprojects like the King Abdullah Economic City, raising suspicions that Neom may remain a twinkle in Crown Prince’s eye.

Credit: Hamza82/Flickr