Published: 00:23, May 14, 2024 | Updated: 09:55, May 14, 2024
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Neom project could benefit from HK presence
By Francis Neoton Cheung

Saudi Arabia has an ambitious plan to reduce its dependence on oil revenues by diversifying its economy for the sake of a more-sustainable future for future generations. Consequently, Neom, the gem of the Saudi Vision 2030 plan, was launched in 2017.

Neom means “the new future”, as M stands for mustaqbal (future), and M is also the first letter of Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince and prime minister of Saudi Arabia — the de facto ruler and a visionary leader with a conviction to build a caring and sustainable society for its people.

Last month I joined the Discover Neom exhibition guided by Tarek Qaddumi, Neom’s executive director for urban planning. As a matter of fact, I learned about the Neom project as early as mid-2020, when a surveyor friend kept sending me information about this mega-project, after he got stuck in Saudi Arabia for almost three years because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Neom is situated in the Tabuk region at the northwestern tip of Saudi Arabia. It has a total planned area of 26,500 square kilometers (24 times that of the Hong Kong’s land area) to accommodate 9 million people. The original project cost was estimated to exceed $500 billion. The flagship project of Neom is The Line — a linear city spanning 170 kilometers long and 200 meters wide.

It is not uncommon to find over-budget, unsuccessful and embarrassing architecture projects from around the world, especially in those rich oil-exporting countries. These white-elephant buildings often require expensive ongoing maintenance and operating costs. Some of these decision-makers in this part of the world might not be very mindful and calculative in working out the financial viability of these fancy projects.

Meanwhile, Saudi leaders might be flanked by flamboyant designers who can produce fancy ideas to their likings; there are worries that some of the Neom projects might run into the danger of being white elephants.

This new enclave foothold in Hong Kong could be coined as Neok, and the Neom-Neok cousins can go hand-in-hand working for a better new future of Neom and fostering the Saudi-China collaboration

Neom, as a mega-scale urban development project, cannot afford to turn itself into a gigantic white elephant that will be disastrous if huge investments cannot generate the expected economic and social returns, and thus affect the livelihoods and well-being of the people.

China is the largest buyer of Saudi oil, and the Riyadh-Beijing relationship has been well-established. China is known as the “infrastructure monster” that has tremendous experience in building rails, roads, ports and cities, having elevated its urbanization rate to over 66 percent within a few decades. China and Saudi Arabia are obviously the perfect match in making good dollar sense in the Neom plans. Hong Kong, on the other hand, has a huge reservoir of professionals experienced in infrastructure and city development projects that have a proven track record of financial prudence.

Recently, the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region government announced its plan to delay by “a little” the reclamation of the Kau Yi Chau Artificial Islands (KYCAI) project, amid doubts of the financial viability of its current plan. This opens up a golden opportunity for Saudi Arabia to consider taking the 380-hectare Island B (of the KYCAI) to build an Islamic enclave as its offshore trade, finance and cultural center, and hence establishing a firm foothold in the most-open and freest city in China.

With that, the Saudi government could send its officials and professionals to Hong Kong to work on these two projects in tandem with their Chinese counterparts and experts here in Hong Kong, probably at their third Neom international office, after the ones in London and New York. This could help train their troops for preparing a more-robust and productive Neom.

The HKSAR government could then use the down payments from Saudi Arabia to fund the reclamation of Island C of the KYCAI, and the construction of those strategic rail and road links connecting the Central Business District, Hong Kong International Airport and the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area as per the original KYCAI plan, thus speeding up these essential planned developments in the central waters.

This new enclave foothold in Hong Kong could be coined as Neok, and the Neom-Neok cousins can go hand-in-hand working for a better new future of Neom and fostering the Saudi-China collaboration.

The author is chairman of Doctoral Exchange, a Hong Kong-based think tank.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.