Saudi Arabia's Vision 2030 is already promising $500 billion cities, winter sports events atop mountains in the desert and a complete transformation of the national economy. Not ambitious enough, says the crown prince, let's work on Vision 2040.
The Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, referred to as “MBS” by the media, won’t slow down his spending to reshape his kingdom and boost tourism. His immense projects have been met with scrutiny overseas, but in the future, he wants to develop nearly 600 islands along the coast, according to his interview on Wednesday with Fox News, his first fully in English.
“We have 22 islands under construction, with more to be announced. Next year, five islands will be open. In total in Red Sea, we have 1,150 islands, we aim to develop 50% of that,” he said.
The 38-year-old de facto ruler shared plans while touring around the Sindalah construction site. One of four “zones” of the $500 billion NEOM city, Sindalah is set to be the first to open next year.
Sindalah will be a luxury hub of the kingdom with cruises and yachting. The 840,000 square mile island will boast 38 restaurants and a selection of expensive hotels, including a Four Seasons resort and three Marriott properties.
Right now, Sindalah is being developed with 21 other NEOM islands in the surrounding area. His other cherished Red Sea island projects include an archipelago development called, simply, “The Red Sea,” which will house 50 hotels by 2030, and Amaala, which will have 29 hotels.
Sindalah has been a hotbed for speculation that the conservative Gulf kingdom will serve alcohol, according to sources cited in a Wall Street Journal report last year. The issue was not addressed in the Fox News interview.
A New 2040 Goal Post
The tourism investments fall under Saudi’s Vision 2030, and MBS said that, in the next few years, they’ll be laying out Vision 2040.
Vision 2030 was announced in 2016 as a far-reaching economic transformation strategy to diversify its economy and move into more modern sectors, such as tourism and finance.
Tourism has been core to Vision 2030, with lofty goals that include: Tourism accounting for 10% of the Saudi economy; 100 million travelers annually; employment in the industry of more than 1.5 million people. Hundreds of billions of dollars are being pumped into “giga-projects” built across deserts, mountains and waterfronts, all of which are expected to open no later than 2030.
“We have to start preparation for Vision 2040. We’ll be announcing Vision 2040 in 2027 or 2028. That’s the main thing we are focusing on,” the crown prince said.
It is not uncommon for rulers to announce numerous “visions” that replace or build on prior ones. For example, Dubai’s latest plan has a 2031 finish line and looks to increase the national GDP to $122 billion a year in eight years’ time. In previous years, the UAE has had visions for 2020, 2021 and 2030.
MBS Addresses Saudi ‘Sports Washing’ Claims
A tourism topic MBS was keen to talk about was sports. Saudi officials have said one of the goals of Vision 2030 is to establish the country as a regional hub for prominent sporting events. A report from accounting firm Ernst & Young found that the value of the sporting events industry in Saudi Arabia is expected to rise from $2.1 billion to roughly $3.3 billion by next year.
The country’s tactics of paying high-profile sports figures to work in the kingdom have been labeled as “sports washing” by many, a term MBS has no problem with.
He said: “When you diversify an economy, you have to work in all sectors: Mining, infrastructure, manufacturing, transportation, logistics, all the list, and you need tourism. If you want to have tourism, you need to develop your culture sector, entertainment and sports. You need to create a calendar.
“If sports washing is going to increase our GDP, then we’ll continue doing sports washing. I don’t care. I have 1% GDP growth from sports, and I want another 1.5%, call it whatever you want, but we’re going to get that percentage.”
Saudi to the Americans: ‘Come See for Yourself’
Fox News’ visit to Saudi Arabia also included a stop at Diriyah Gate, one of the giga-projects. Speaking with the project’s group CEO Jerry Inzerillo, the master developer was asked what he is doing to appeal to global travelers, including Americans.
Inzerillo shared: “What I learned about tourism: ‘Go see.’ For everybody in America, come and make up your own mind. Everybody is welcome. I don’t have to be here, I choose to be here. We see this as a calling, as a mission.
“We’re not naïve. I’m going to match whatever criticism I hear with the positivity of welcoming people and creating festivity. Will there be criticism? That’s human nature.”
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Photo credit: Saudi's crown prince. Photograph: SPA/AFP/Getty Images