Vision 2030 is poised to be a transformative force not only for Saudi Arabia but also for the entire region and the global economy. As Saudi Arabia continues to work towards these ambitious goals, the impact of Vision 2030 is already being felt, however, most of the projects are still in the early development stages and seek further investment and actual implementations. The extent of implementation can vary across different sectors and initiatives. Some areas may have advanced more than others due to factors such as economic challenges, global events, and changes in leadership priorities.
NEOM is one of the most well-known Vision 2030 projects. According to the plans, the NEOM project is currently in the building phase and is to be opened in 2039. However, the first official footage of the project development was already released earlier last year. Those are the footage of Sindalah – a luxury island that plans to open its doors in 2024. “Construction work on Neom has begun. However, the project is still very, very much at the beginning,” said Sebastian Sons, senior researcher for the German-based Center for Applied Research in Partnership with the Orient (CARPO).
According to the plans, the first part of the project is estimated to be completed by 2025. And even though there was minimal effect of the pandemic on the project, Saudi authorities had to deal with several other challenges in order for the project to come true. The biggest challenge was financial. Saudi Arabia struggled to attract regional and international investors due to its regulatory environment, legal system and geopolitical tensions. As a consequence, such an issue raises concerns suggesting that with the limited investment, Saudi Arabia would not be able to finish the project even by 2050.
Diving into the actual construction progress, it becomes clear that Saudi Arabia managed to sign several crucial contracts for project existence. In September 2020, AECOM secured a contract to provide comprehensive design services for the transport and utility infrastructure of the NEOM Bay mega-project in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. NEOM has joined forces with Volocopter to form a joint venture company in December 2021. This partnership aims to collaborate on designing, implementing, and operating the world’s first specialised public eVTOL (electric Vertical Take-Off and Landing) mobility system within the innovative city. Engineering Consultants Group (ECG) from Egypt has been awarded a design contract for the construction of five NEOM Construction Villages (NCV) in January 2023. PMC contract awarded for NEOM International Airport project in March 2023. Those contracts are crucial in order to make the NEOM Project happen.
It is also important to note that NEOM is not just one giant project. It actually includes several initiatives that all aim at fighting some of the most pressing challenges. Climate change and global warming are among them.
The first one is Line City. The first phase of which is to be completed by 2030. The earthwork started in October 2021, after MBS announced the project on January 11, 2021. The actual construction commenced in September 2022 because it had to start after the completion of the test pile. Two contracts were signed in order to create an advanced transport structure: with American Aecom and Bechtel. Parsons Corporation has been selected as the new delivery partner for the Line City in NEOM in February 2023.
A major environmental apprehension associated with the Line project pertains to its repercussions on indigenous wildlife and ecosystems. This initiative entails building a city sprawling across approximately 2,600 square miles, which currently serves as the habitat for diverse plant and animal species, including some that are vulnerable or at risk. The city’s construction, coupled with the surge in population and development, affects the life of local species and their natural habitats.
The design visuals for The Line feature vibrant communal areas and a verdant rooftop garden brimming with plants, creating aesthetically pleasing spaces aimed at connecting residents with nature. However, these plants could potentially pose a threat to the local environment. The leafy species depicted in the images are not indigenous to Saudi Arabia. Artificial ecosystems not only pose the risk of introducing non-native plant or animal species into the local environment but also make themselves susceptible to invasive species. Insects like ants and mosquitos, which can hitch a ride on imported plants, may bring potential health risks to humans.
Oxagon was launched in November 2021. In December 2021, Thyssenkrupp Uhde Chlorine Engineers and Air Products entered into a contract to build a colossal electrolysis plant with a capacity exceeding 2 gigawatts in the Oxagon complex. This plant is planned to be a vital component of the planned green hydrogen production facility, which is estimated to be worth $5 billion. In March 2022, Enowa established the Hydrogen and Innovation Centre (HIDC), which is being touted as Saudi Arabia’s inaugural centre for hydrogen and innovation. This cutting-edge facility is expected to be one of the early occupants of Oxagon. In May 2023, Oxagon announced the opening of the Port of NEOM, formerly known as Duba Port, marking its readiness to facilitate business operations. Oxagon will reduce the amount of land used for industrial purposes and instead pioneer sustainable manufacturing facilities in climate change-affected coastal regions.
Trojena was presented to the public in 2022 and is scheduled to be completed by 2026. It is planned to be a place where “nature and technologies come together”. Trojena embodies the core values and ambitious vision of NEOM, seamlessly blending nature and cutting-edge technologies to create a truly unparalleled global experience. This groundbreaking project stands as a significant stride towards realising NEOM’s far-reaching aspirations, driven by a steadfast commitment to sustainability and the strategic application of advanced technology and interdisciplinary engineering.
The planned Trojena resort in Saudi Arabia’s northwest will allegedly run on “sustainable infrastructure” and renewable energy, according to Saudi authorities. However, Greenpeace has claimed it is a “dangerous” ski resort being built in Saudi Arabia. The organization insists such a massive construction will significantly change the ecosystem and it can lead to unpredicted consequences. Greenpeace’s concerns may be related to environmental and sustainability issues associated with constructing a ski resort in a region with a hot climate and limited water resources. Ski resorts can have significant environmental impacts, including habitat destruction, water usage, and increased greenhouse gas emissions from energy consumption for snowmaking and infrastructure.
NEOM represents a new era of change in Saudi Arabia. First of all, It leads the Kingdom to economic diversification as it eliminates oil revenue reliance. Additionally, it creates new job opportunities. According to some analysis, it is estimated to create 380 thousand jobs for Saudi nationals. Nevertheless, it also has some downsides. People who live in the area of the NEOM have been forcibly displaced without any compensation. One man from the displaced tribe was killed and 3 others received death sentences.
Despite all the controversy surrounding the NEOM project, MBS positioned himself as a visionary of the project. That is why he personally received a lot of criticism from non-governmental organisations such as Amnesty International due to the displacement of local communities and the environmental impact of such a massive development. Even though it was achieved with a great cost, it gave him excessive attention and attracted foreign investors to the Kingdom. Finally, MBS faced a lot of international scepticism as the project seemed “unrealistic”. There are still questions about its funding and construction transparency.
The design of the NEOM Project would disrupt the pathway of bird migration in the area. Similar to any extended obstruction, such as a railway track, a fence, or a wall, of this magnitude, will disrupt the natural movements of animals in the desert by obstructing their usual routes. This has serious consequences for the ecosystem. There are also concerns about the use of resources in the city. Neom is being touted as a zero-emission city, but questions remain about how this will be achieved, particularly since the city is being built in an area with limited resources.
Up to now, the sole actions undertaken in the desert of the NEOM Project have involved issuing death sentences to those who resist vacating the area for the construction of NEOM. None of the three ambitious smart city projects have been successfully realised thus far. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia currently finds itself in a state of inertia, caught between the planning stage and taking concrete actions. There is likely a temptation to delay its transition away from oil for as long as feasible.
Middle East and Saudi Green Initiative
For decades, rapid urbanisation across the Kingdom and the lack of sustainable development on the ground led to polluted air, soaring temperatures, severe dust storms, and other harmful byproducts. Things started to change with the rapid implementation of the Middle East Green Initiative and Saudi Green Initiative (MEGI and SGI). Since their launch in 2021, more than 77 policies have been introduced in order to promote energy transition and environmental protection.
Saudi Arabia and MBS himself proudly launched the Middle East Green Initiative in October 2021. In November 2022, at COP27, MBS announced to spend $2.5 billion over the coming 10 years to support regional initiatives for the green energy sector. Thus, MBS put himself in the position, where he bears the personal responsibility for the project as it is not just a national, but regional initiative.
Since the launch of the MEGI in 2021, more countries such as Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and Oman decided to join the initiative as they get more and more serious about combating global warming. This project will also help Saudi Arabia, as a part of the Five Arab States – Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, and the UAE, achieve carbon neutrality and reduce carbon emissions by 10% globally and by 60% regionally which was their plan for 2050.
The first target and plan for SGI was to start planting more trees across the country. Since the Initiative was launched in 2021, only 18 million out 10bn trees have been planted (less than 1%). This is a very low dynamic as if it continues with the same speed in the future, Saudi Arabia will need more than 100 years to finish the tree planting project. Secondly, Of the 40 million hectares of degraded land it aims to rehabilitate, 60,000 hectares have been restored, which is also a minimum result.
In October 2021, the world’s largest oil producer Saudi Aramco announced its plans to raise crude production from 12 million barrels a day to 13 million barrels by 2027. This goes against the government’s claims to reduce oil production and interferes with Saudi’s goal to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060. Saudi Arabia has defended its actions of lowering its carbon emissions while simultaneously extracting and globally distributing oil as part of its strategy to establish a “circular carbon economy.” Critics of Saudi Arabia’s environmental initiatives argue that an economy reliant on the extraction and burning of fossil fuels cannot genuinely achieve circularity given the existing technological constraints.
Still, the main goals of the Initiatives are yet to be achieved. As for today, there is a first target for the year 2030 to plant +600 million trees, protect 30 per cent of land and sea and cut CO2 emissions by 278 million tons per annum. The target for the year 2060 is to achieve net-zero carbon emissions.
More specifically, SGI aims to stop and reverse desertification and soil degradation while preserving the kingdom’s biodiversity and protecting the region’s decreasing water reserves.
The project construction is set to be initiated by 2026 at the latest. There are a few visible implementations of the NEOM Green Hydrogen Complex (mega hydrogen plant). First, an equal production joint venture of ACWA Power, Air Products and NEOM was introduced in August 2021. In March 2022, Enowa established the Hydrogen and Innovation Centre (HIDC), which is being touted as Saudi Arabia’s inaugural centre for hydrogen and innovation. In December 2022, the crucial engineering, construction and procurement contract was signed between venture partners and Indian Lasern & Toubro. This contract signing was called an “important milestone” as it heavily contributes to project advancement for it to be completed by 2026. The kingdom has stated that it intends to develop over 58 GW (gigawatts) of primarily solar power by 2030 and about 27 GW by 2023. Probably the most significant step in order to position themselves as global leaders in the production of hydrogen and blue hydrogen was done by the Kingdom in September 2020. That month, Saudi’s state oil company shipped 40 tons of blue ammonia (a form of blue hydrogen) to Japan. That was the first supply chain of blue ammonia in the world at that time.
It is a significant milestone in the development and adoption of blue hydrogen as a potential energy carrier and low-carbon alternative to traditional fossil fuels. By using blue ammonia, Japan can potentially reduce its carbon footprint in sectors like power generation, transportation, and industrial processes thanks to Saudi Arabia. However, despite being a cleaner option compared to traditional fossil fuels, blue ammonia production still involves natural gas extraction and carbon emissions. Some environmentalists argue that the focus should be on promoting renewable energy sources like green hydrogen, which is produced using renewable electricity.
Hydrogen has the potential to play a crucial role in the global energy transition towards cleaner and more sustainable energy sources. Green hydrogen production is possible from renewable energy sources. By investing in hydrogen technologies and infrastructure, Saudi Arabia positioned itself as a key player in the emerging hydrogen economy, attracting investments and stimulating the growth of associated industries. Hydrogen energy opens the door to cooperation between China and Saudi Arabia. What is more, Saudi Arabia is a global energy power and a key fulcrum country of the Belt and Road Initiative and has a good foundation for energy cooperation with China. On December 8, 2022, China and Saudi Arabia entered into a significant agreement in the presence of their respective leaders. This agreement consisted of an intergovernmental agreement and a memorandum of understanding focusing on collaboration in various areas, including hydrogen energy. This memorandum of understanding is a part of the comprehensive strategic partnership” agreement. It is also “an alignment plan” between Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 and China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
The hydrogen initiative is directly connected with carbon reduction. Domestically, the higher the consumption of clean hydrogen in the transportation sector, for example, the lower the country’s carbon footprint. Since the first hydrogen fueling station was built in 2019, Toyota Motor’s Mirai sedan-style FCEVs (fuel cell electric vehicles) have been put through their paces at Air Products Technology Center in the Dhahran Techno Valley Science Park, and Saudi Arabia has determined that they are “suitable for the kingdom.” Eventually, Saudi engagement in hydrogen-related agreements and investment in research and development of hydrogen production could increase its international standing and global importance.
The plan is indeed ambitious, but the objectives are still far from realisation. The hydrogen market is currently in its infancy, and securing the necessary investments for the national hydrocarbon company, Aramco, to commence exports by 2030 is proving to be a formidable challenge.
IExRAIA Summer Research Program:
This article is an excerpt from a report on Mohammed bin Salman produced as part of a research program RAIA on climate leaders. For a full picture of MBS’s climate leadership read the full report. This project was fully financed by IE University’s School of Politics, Economics and Global Affairs.
Authors: Sonia Platonova & Alisa Lazurenko
Editor: Roxane de Bergevin
Project Lead: Joshua Dario Hasenstab
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