The multibillion dollar smart city project is designed while keeping in mind Israel and the future of the Saudi monarchy.
As the United Arab Emirates became the first Gulf country to drop the facade of opposing the Israeli state, and officially forged diplomatic ties with the Zionist state last Friday, many regional observers began to wonder who would be the next Arab state to follow suit.
While it is fairly inevitable that all the side players in the Gulf, like Oman and Bahrain, are likely to be the next ones, the big question is how Saudi Arabia, the custodian of Islam's two holy mosques, Mecca and Madina, would face the persecuted Palestinians and justify their decision of recognising Israel — if the speculations proved to be true?
By recognising Israel, a state that has engaged in macabre bloodletting of Palestinian people ever since it was founded on Palestininan soil in 1948, the UAE aims to have as strong a say over regional matters in Washington, earn economic dividends by doing business with Tel Aviv, as well as gaining from Israel's invasive surveillance technology, since its ruler Mohammad bin Zayed has a strong penchant for snooping over its citizens.
What is in it for Saudi Arabia?
Many regional experts see Saudi crown prince Muhammad bin Salman's ambitious real estate project called Neom, an upcoming crossborder city in the Tabuk province, as a strong link that might bind Saudi Arabia with Israel for the long haul. For Salman, or MBS, Neom, a $500 billion project, is a "step toward future", a hi-tech city that will boost Saudi's economy through tourism and help the kingdom reduce its dependency on shrinking oil resources.
Designed to be built on a dry expanse of desert land, ringed with low lying hills, Neom sits next to Saudi's Gulf of Aqaba, bordering Israeli’s port Eilat in the north, several Egyptian ports along the south, port Suez in the east and the Jordanian border toward the north-west.
Involving Israeli companies in such an assertive urban development project was not just talk in Saudi's power corridors. For several years, the Saudi government and Israel have secretly liaised to ensure an easy facilitation of doing business with Tel Aviv.
According to a Reuters report published in 2017, the Saudi government and Israeli companies worked in complete secrecy and ensured "no Israeli company could go public with details of the contact with the Saudi fund, which has some $230billion in assets under management".
A Jerusalem Post investigation in the same year revealed that the Saudis were reluctant in "cooperating with the Israelis formally" but when it came to venture capital firms coming from the private sector, they were keen on working with them to "create all kinds of cooperation on water, energy, ag-tech, foodtech."
"This is the stuff that the prince of Saudi Arabia wants to promote in the smart city,” the Jerusalem Post reported, quoting a source in an Israeli venture capital firm who is familiar with the project.
The Post also reported on the "correspondence between Arab diplomats and Israeli businessmen confirming that talks are ongoing over economic cooperation, and a number of Israeli companies are already selling cybersecurity tools to the Saudi government."
In June this year, a verified Twitter account from the Saudi kingdom's embassy in Washington said the Saudi council of ministers had agreed to recruit Israeli cyber security firm Check Point Software in NEOM.
Taken aback by the public outrage over the post, the embassy deleted the tweet.
Israel has spread its diplomatic tentacles deep in the governments of Saudi and its Gulf allies. Last February, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu flew to Warsaw to attend a conference where he met the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia, the UAE and two other Gulf states. The US vice president Mike Pence mediated the meeting. Under the garb of discussing Iran, the prospect of normalising ties between the Gulf states and Israel was largely discussed in the meeting.
In a closed conference session, the Gulf participants also advocated for war waging against Iran. Netanyahu's office later leaked a video of the session.
US president Donald Trump has also played a significant role in helping Israel win the support of the wealthiest Gulf states at the expense of the suffering of Palestinians, whose voices have been muzzled and lands seized with impunity. As MBS solidified his grip on power, Saudi-Israel relationship transformed from being cold to warm.
When Israel allowed Egypt to transfer the Red Sea Islands of Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia in 2016, a Saudi lobbyist called Salman Ansari called for a “collaborative alliance” with Israel to help MBS realise his Vision 2030, which is to build Neom and take Saudi Arabia on major economic reform and diversification.
On the other hand, the UAE, under crown prince Mohammed Bin Zayed or MBZ, who is reportedly mentoring young MBS, is in collaboration with Egypt’s Sisi to protect the interest of both his and Mohammed Bin Salman's kingdoms.
Sisi officially inaugurated the new “Berenice” air and naval base, one of three new bases the Egyptians are building on the Red Sea and Mediterranean coast. The bases are reportedly meant to back MBS in difficult times should his power struggle with his cousin MBN (Mohammed bin Nayef, the then minister of the interior) take a violent turn.
If Saudi were to slide into an internecine war, the Egyptian bases will become the launchpad for the Egyptian army to invade and take control of the Holy sites in Mecca and Medina. Israel and the UAE would be part of that coalition right from the time the potential plot unfolds.
For now, with the UAE making its ties with Israel public, Saudi's focus is on attracting under the table investments for Neom.
The project will act as a “bridge” between Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Through the “King Salman Bridge,” all the transport will be facilitated, including freight and passenger trains. The project will also connect northwestern Saudi Arabia to the southern province of Sinai in northeastern Egypt. It will also pass through the Egyptian city of Sharm el-Sheikh.
“The project to build a bridge between Egypt and Saudi Arabia is, in fact, an old project. This project has been proposed since the time of King Abdullah and now it has been proposed again in the framework of the Neom project. The Saudi goal of this plan, on the one hand, is to entice Egypt and, on the other hand, to gain Israel’s consent, because the connecting bridge must cross the Negev Desert [in Israel], and this is not possible without Israel’s consent.” said Abdul Khaliq Farooq, an Egyptian economic affairs expert on the connection between the King Salman Bridge and the Neom project.
Since Egypt has pledged to support Israel’s economic trade through straits and waterways under the Camp David treaty, Egypt has also pledged to provide maritime security to Israel.
Therefore, according to Egyptian expert Hamdi Al-Jamal, it is natural for Israel to fully agree with Saudi Arabia because Neom offers them an opportunity to wield tremendous influence over the Gulf states and silence them on the rights and struggle of Palestinians.