Destination focus — resurgent Saudi Arabia: Building a sustainable society
Transforming a kingdom or country takes leadership, vision and wealth. But delivering the most ambitious blueprint on the planet also requires an influx of international expertise.
In this edition of Reloverse, we look at progress in Saudi Arabia as it reaches the halfway point of its National Transformation Program, and how it’s fishing for diverse and dynamic global workers in an already tight talent pool.
Megaprojects for social change
Infrastructure, systems and services costing over €1Bn are defined as megaprojects. Sometimes these are money-no-object landmarks driven by vanity, especially in the Gulf States: the government of Dubai wanted the world’s tallest building as a beacon of progress, to symbolise the city’s influence and prosperity—not because they were short of office space. But Saudi Arabia’s astonishing National Transformation Program (NTP) is about social and societal change as much as it is about diversifying the Kingdom’s oil-dependent economy. Crown Prince and Prime Minister Mohammed bin Salman is aged 37. He’s the de facto leader of 35 million people, half of whom are under 25. Beneath the banner and brand of Vision 2030, the NTP aims to create a vibrant society, a thriving economy, and an ambitious nation—in that order. This includes sports, culture, entertainment and heritage sites for the Kingdom’s next generation. The foundations and facilities for these fall firmly under any definition of a megaproject.
Futuristic, linear living
Topping the list for technological innovation is the €500Bn NEOM project. Part of it is The Line, a linear city that will be just 200 metres wide but over 100 miles long—hidden from view by a mirage-like, mirrored façade. It will be free from roads (and cars), run on 100% renewable energy, and feature layered facilities including schools, parks, pedestrian areas and workplaces—all within a five-minute walk from home. Eventually, it’s thought The Line will house 9 million people. Excavators have recently been seen digging wide trenches in the north-western Tabuk province—but will it become a reality? The top reasons megaprojects fail include overoptimism and overcomplexity. NEOM could well be both of those. But prospects for success look strong, if they can attract the right international talent required to get The Line, over the line.
Follies and failures
Nine out of 10 megaprojects go over budget and are delivered late. There’s nothing new in that. In the 1960s, Sydney’s iconic Opera House was unbuildable to its original design, cost €60 million to construct against a budget of €4 million, and took 14 years to complete instead of four. And at the end of all that, was deemed an opera house acoustically unsuitable for opera. It was optimistic and complex.
There are countless examples where megaprojects run over time, over cost, or fail to materialise at all. So why might Saudi’s visions in the sand be any different? It’s over a century since the Panama Canal opened: using untried and untested techniques it took just 10 years to construct, and some of its engineering breakthroughs remain in use today. Imagine Hong Kong functioning without its mass transit railway system. Like the Panama Canal, people said the MTR couldn’t be built. Today it carries over five million passenger trips daily, with a 99.9% punctuality rate. It’s central to society and its engineering expertise is exported across East Asia and South America as new light rail systems are built to serve growing, wealthier populations.
LEGO in the desert
Experts in megaprojects point to two factors common in their failure: not taking a LEGO-like approach, and hiring experienced, instead of expert teams. In short, success combines the right preparation with the perfect people for the task. Many of those professionals will come from the four corners of the world to deliver on the Crown Prince’s promises.
Building a 100-mile-long, layered city in one of the Kingdom’s most remote provinces will be complex. Consultants and academics talk about LEGO because processes must be well-designed, simple to construct, modular and repeatable if they’re to succeed. That’s what the NEOM team will be doing. Using artificial intelligence and world-leading experts, they’ll design and pre-engineer standardised, modular components and construction pieces in vast volumes on-site like giant assembly kits. Everything about the wider NEOM project is new, but many of the processes and expertise required are not.
Destination in demand
It’s estimated the world will spend over €50Tn on infrastructure by 2030. Two-thirds of that will be in developing markets with rising middle classes. So the focus is on future societies, rather than civil infrastructure. It’s why the Saudi sovereign wealth fund is called the Public Investment Fund.
For many years the Gulf States have imported fly-in and fly-out experts on contract and assignment. The Kingdom is home to nearly 10 million expatriates, which is close to 30% of the population. Saudi Arabian Minister of Investment, Khalid Al-Falih, recently said, “Since the creation of Saudi Arabia, the development of social, economic and other key sectors are underpinned by the integration of expatriates, who are guests of the Kingdom. We are keen to make talent and access to talent easier in our journey toward the economic and social growth. I believe that the robust growth of Saudi Arabia will witness the participation of people from all around the world, and that these foreigners will make Saudi Arabia their second home”.
To succeed, the Kingdom needs to make itself more attractive and aspirational as a destination, against stiff competition across the Middle East and from Asia. The plan to encourage professionals in AI, life science and alternative energy to become long-term residents includes creating infrastructure and facilities for better lifestyles. Over half of the 15 largest megaprojects in the Kingdom’s plan focus on culture, hospitality and sustainable living. They include the world’s largest urban park, a snow-capped ski destination, floating islands, luxury Red Sea resorts and countless museums, theatres and galleries. So as a land of opportunity, it’s not just about building highways, bridges and waterworks, but the transformation to becoming one of the best places in the world to live, work and thrive in the long term.
Christine Sperr: Managing Director, Middle East, said “Interest in Saudi Arabia from HR and Global Mobility teams has skyrocketed. Vision 2030 is all about developing economic partnerships and enabling the private sector, particularly through digital transformation. As new enterprises spring up and grow, they attract huge interest from international workers, and are often inundated by unsolicited resumes and emails. There’s already huge pressure on the most sought-after compounds and school places—even seasoned GM experts will struggle without representation in the region. But as I travel around the Kingdom, particularly as a professional woman, I feel a sense of freedom and optimism unlike anything in my last 10 years of living in the Middle East”.
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