Saudi Arabia's futuristic NEOM mega-city mired by employee doubts, resignations

Saudi Arabia's futuristic NEOM mega-city mired by employee doubts, resignations
Engineers working on NEOM doubt the Saudi crown prince's multi-billion dollar vision is possible, according to a new report.
3 min read
02 May, 2021
Part of the NEOM vision is a linear, carbon-neutral city [Screenshot/YouTube]
A multi-billion dollar mega-city project in Saudi Arabia has been hit by a wave of resignations as employees struggle to realise the futuristic vision outlined by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, according to a new report.

Dozens of employees have left the NEOM city-state project, people involved in its development told The Wall Street Journal.

Some senior employees have walked out on salaries of up to $1 million a year.

The vast and ambitious nature of the crown prince's plans for the mega-city is a key factor in the resignations, sources told the WSJ.

NEOM is part of Saudi Arabia's Vision 2030, an ambitious initiative that hopes to lift the kingdom out of its dependency on oil by diversifying its economy and attracting foreign investment.

Plans include The Line, a 106-mile-long linear city without cars that would be connected by a high-speed train, and The Vault, for which plans require engineers to blow a 30-story-high holes in the side of a mountain. 

Employees have also questioned the crown prince's plans to construct ten palaces larger than football fields. The palaces would cost more than $400 million each.

The latest plan is for a 1,600-foot skyscraper with a width of 55 miles, according to the WSJ.

Bin Salman brushed aside concerns that his plans for the carbon-neutral mega-city were too ambitious at a board meeting in December, sources told the WSJ.

Read more: Saudi Arabia unveils plans for Red Sea 'giga-resort'

"I want to build my pyramids," the prince, widely considered to be Saudi Arabia's de-facto leader, was quoted as saying.

People with knowledge of the project said that, while bin Salman has sought to use lofty ideas like The Line to attract foreign investment, he has had limited success in attracting international interest in NEOM.

The project has attracted at least one major investor, however.

The US-based chemical company Air Products & Chemicals Inc. has partnered with a Saudi firm in a $5 billion project to build the world's biggest green hydrogen-production facility, according to the WSJ.

Former and current employees are also doubtful that Riyadh will live up to promises that the mega-city will not be bound by the kingdom's conservative interpretation of Islam.

Saudi officials have previously stated foreign visitors to NEOM would be able to drink alcohol and mix freely with people of other genders.

The wave of resignations has also been linked to the management style of the project's chief executive, Nadhmi al-Nasr.

Andrew Wirth, who formerly headed one of the US' largest ski resorts and was in charge of the development of a mountain resort at NEOM, deemed Nasr's management style "dismissive" and "demeaning".

Wirth resigned from the project in August.

Another former employee compared the work environment at NEOM to a "cult".

Read more: MbS wants robot dinosaurs, fake moon for planned Saudi futuristic city

"When I left, I felt almost as though I was emerging from some sort of cult," said Aimee Boswell, who worked in a division developing the mega-city's food industry.

Other major resignations include the executive heading the NEOM Bay resort, two information-technology chiefs, two heads of marketing, two heads of communications and senior members of the project's investment, legal and tourism teams.

The project has previously faced condemnation for its forcible displacement of thousands of people in north-west Saudi Arabia.

Tribal activist Abdul-Rahman al-Huweiti was killed by security forces in April last year while attempting to resist eviction from his home.

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