Saudi Arabia Plans Winter Sports Destination — and Massive Surveillance State
Temperatures in north-western Saudi Arabia seldom, if ever, drop below eight degrees Celsius. However, that hasn’t prevented Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) from envisioning Saudi Arabia as competing for winter sports tourism.
The kingdom would do so by including winter sports in MBS’ $500 billion Neom fantasia, a futuristic new city and tourism destination along the Red Sea in a mostly unpopulated part of the kingdom.
In the latest mind-boggling Neom-related announcement, Saudi Arabia’s Olympic committee said it was bidding to host the 2029 Asian Winter Games in the city. The games would be held at Trojena, a yet-to-be-built resort on mountain peaks overlooking Neom, slated to be home to 7,000 people by 2026 and annually attract 700,000 visitors. Trojena would be the Gulf’s first outdoor ski resort.
Powered by renewable energy, Trojena expects to create an outdoor ski slope by blasting artificial snow at the mountains.
Plans for the resort also include a ski village, luxurious family and wellness facilities, the region’s largest freshwater lake, and an interactive nature reserve.
Executive director Philip Gullett predicts that Trojena will offer a “seamless travel experience” in which “we are looking into delivering luggage via drones, using biometrics to fulfill security requirements, and allowing interested parties to explore the site first using the latest virtual reality.”
At least 32 Asian nations compete in the Asian games that include alpine skiing, ice hockey, biathlon, cross-country skiing, and figure skating competitions.
To be fair, Saudi Arabia sent its first winter Olympics team to the Beijing games in February, where Fayik Abdi ranked number 44 in the men’s giant slalom.
The winter sports bid is part of a big-splash Saudi effort to establish itself as the Gulf’s foremost player in international sports, a position so far occupied by Qatar with its hosting of this year’s World Cup, and the United Arab Emirates that, like Qatar, owns one of the world’s top European soccer clubs.
Saudi Arabia recently bought English Premier League club Newcastle United, and sparked controversy by using huge amounts of money to attract some of the world’s top golf players to compete in a new tournament that kicked off in one of former US President Donald J. Trump’s resorts.
Tiger Woods reportedly turned down an enormous offer to join the Saudi-backed LIV Golf Invitational Series. However, others, including Greg Norman, Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson, and Bryson DeChambeau, have jumped on the Saudi bandwagon.
Saudi Arabia has also signed a 10-year, $650m deal for a Formula One motor racing event, partnered with World Wrestling Entertainment for annual shows, and hosted the world heavyweight championship rematch between Anthony Joshua and Andy Ruiz. Additionally, soccer superstar Lionel Messi has emerged as the tourism ambassador for the Saudi Red Sea port of Jeddah.
Families of activists and dissidents imprisoned in Saudi Arabia unsuccessfully tried to persuade Messi not to engage with the kingdom. “If you say ‘yes’ to Visit Saudi, you are in effect saying yes to all the human rights abuses that take place today in modern Saudi Arabia,” they said in a letter to the player.
A Saudi national and former Twitter employee is currently on trial in the United States for spying for the kingdom on Saudi users of the social media platform.
Areej Al-Sadhan said the information potentially provided by the former employee may have led to the arrest of her brother, Abdulrahman Al-Sadhan, because of his satiric social media posts. Al-Sadhan was tortured and sentenced to 20 years in prison.
Saudi officials killed journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul in 2018, in what the kingdom has said was an unauthorized rogue operation. However, others, including US intelligence, assert that it was anything but.
Adding to Neom’s futurism, Saudi sources said last month that the city, funded by the kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund, would be home to the world’s largest buildings, twin 500-metre-tall skyscrapers dubbed “The Line” that would stretch horizontally for dozens of miles. By 2030, MBS expects some 1.5 million people to live in the skyscrapers.
“Everything about Neom … seems fantastical. From flying elevators to 100-mile long skyscrapers to a floating, zero-carbon port, it seems to owe more to Coruscant and Wakanda than to any urban forms outside of science fiction,” said Bloomberg columnist David Fickling, referring to Star Wars’ city-covered planet and Marvel’s fictional country in East Africa.
In MBS’ mind, Neom — derived from the Latin word neo for new and the first letter of the Arabic word for future, Mustaqbal — will also likely include the creation of the perfect surveillance state.
Speaking to Bloomberg in 2017, MBS envisioned residents and visitors managing their lives with just one app.
“Today all the clouds available are separate — the car is by itself, the Apple watch is by itself, everything is by itself. There, everything will be connected. So, nobody can live in Neom without the Neom application we’ll have,” he added.
MBS’ vision of Saudi Arabia as the world’s latest top-of-the-line winter sports destination attracts headlines but has yet to be proven as a concept. That is true for much of the futurism embedded in plans for Neom except for the surveillance state — that is already a reality in various parts of the world.
Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar, an Adjunct Senior Fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and the author of the syndicated column and blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.