Despite attempts to present Neom as being separate from Saudi Arabia’s wider political system, it was none-the-less the venue for the kingdom’s ruler, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, to increase tensions with regional enemy Iran.
King Salman & Neom
King Salman used his annual address to urge the world to take “a decisive stance” to prevent Iran from developing nuclear and ballistic missile programmes.
He said: “The kingdom stresses the dangers of Iran’s regional project, its interference in other countries, its fostering of terrorism, its fanning the flames of sectarianism and calls for a decisive stance from the international community against Iran that guarantees a drastic handling of its efforts to obtain weapons of mass destruction and develop its ballistic missiles programme.”
He made the speech from his palace in Neom.
Saudi Arabia and Iran are longstanding enemies, and continue to fight a proxy conflict in Yemen, where Saudi forces have led a coalition of states in a brutal war on the Iran-backed Houthi rebels, which has cost tens of thousands of lives and brought about a humanitarian crisis.
Until 2018, a deal was in place whereby Iran would cut back its nuclear programme in return for an easing of sanctions. The agreement was torn up by outgoing US president Donald Trump – to the delight of Saudi Arabia. US president-elect Joe Biden has said he plans to “reassess” the US-Saudi relationship, which could cause concern to Saudi leaders.
Recent reports also indicate that Trump looked into military strikes on Iran’s capabilities after his electoral defeat.
This episode shows that far from being a neutral space for fun, entrepreneurship and clean energy – as the publicity suggests – Neom remains a key part of the Saudi machine. King Salman urging the ramping up of tensions in the region from Neom shows how central the “modern utopia” remains to the regime, and will perhaps act as a wake-up call to potential investors unwilling to be associated with the brutal Saudi government.
Meanwhile, Biden’s ascension to the presidency in the US could spell trouble for the Saudi regime, which has often relied on Trump’s backing after scandals such as the Yemen war and the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.