A dozen high-profile American tech executives, including Marc Andreessen, Sam Altman, and Travis Kalanick, joined the advisory board for a $500B Saudi Arabian project called “NEOM.”
But as America’s biggest tech executives throw their support behind the project, concerns about Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s human rights record have emerged.
Saudi has some BIG plans
In 2017, bin Salman (his friends call him ‘MBS’) announced plans to build a city called NEOM that is 33x the geographic size of New York City and runs entirely on renewable energy.
Described on its website as “the world’s most ambitious project,” NEOM was designed to attract foreign investment and reduce Saudi Arabia’s reliance on its primary export, oil.
To finance the project, MBS is selling off a 5% stake in state-owned Saudi Aramco (which is worth as much as $2T).
It’s a small world after oil
Since so many investors are looking to find new, sustainable streams of revenue in the post-oil age, the project attracted “overwhelming interest.”
Last year, NYT journalist Thomas Friedman wrote an emphatic piece of fan mail in praise of MBS and his progressive policies (emphasizing renewables, allowing women to drive, etc).
Now NEOM has recruited founders and investors from Facebook, Google, Y-Combinator, Uber, and Softbank to its 19-person board to help turn the city’s utopian dream into a (profitable) reality.
It sounds nice, but…
Questions remain about Saudi Arabia’s human rights record. Last week, the Saudi government was accused of murdering journalist Jamal Khashoggi, prompting even fanboy Friedman to roll back his support.
“What Western leader, and how many Western investors, will want to stand alongside MBS if it is proved that his government abducted or murdered Jamal?” Friedman asked.
It seems like Saudi’s American advisors are committed to creating the desert utopia… for now. But MBS has some hard questions to answer: If investigators prove his administration murdered a journalist, it may turn out that NEOM is being built on pillars of sand.