Space pods and flying dragons. How Saudi Arabia wants to transform its capital

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Editor’s Note: A version of this story first appeared in CNN’s Meanwhile in the Middle East newsletter, a three-times-a-week look inside the region’s biggest stories. Sign up here.

Abu Dhabi, UAE

It looks like a city out of a science fiction movie: Space pods, flying dragons and floating rocks. But this is the birthplace of Islam, Saudi Arabia, which wants to transform its capital into one of “the most livable cities on Earth.”

The kingdom is building a new downtown in the capital Riyadh, its sovereign wealth fund announced on Friday. Spearheaded by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), the “New Murabba” (new square) project is meant to expand the capital by some 19 square kilometers (4,695 acres) to accommodate hundreds of thousands of residents.

At the heart of the project is the “Mukaab,” a 400-meter (1,312-foot) high, 400-meter wide and 400-meter-long cube that is big enough to fit 20 Empire State buildings. It offers “an immersive experience” with landscapes changing from outer space to green vistas, according to Public Investment Fund (PIF), the MBS-led $620-billion sovereign wealth fund. The project is due to be completed in 2030.

Holographic technology is meant to offer “a new reality” to consumers as they shop and dine. The building also includes recreational facilities as well as hotels and residential units.

Saudi Arabia, which has been the subject of bad press for decades due to human rights violations, has embarked on an ambitious project to diversify the economy away from oil and shed its image as a conservative, closed-off state.

“Back in the day, you would have negative discussions about Saudi Arabia affiliated to human rights abuses,” said Andreas Krieg, research fellow at the King’s College London Institute of Middle Eastern Studies. “But now they’re trying to push new narratives of being a country of development and one that can build futuristic cities.”

But some analysts say Saudi Arabia has serious regional competition from neighboring Dubai and the Qatari capital Doha, both of which have for decades tried to position themselves as regional tourism and investment hubs.

“Being second in the race is always a tough place to start when you want to become the leader,” said Simon Henderson, director of the Gulf and Energy Policy program at The Washington Institute. He added that it is particularly difficult for Saudi Arabia because “they’ve spent decades not attracting foreign, non-Muslim visitors.”

But some have questioned whether the project will even come to fruition. Saudi Arabia has announced similar mega projects in the past, work on which has been slow.

In 2021, MBS announced his $500 billion futuristic Neom city in the northwest of the country, with promises of robot maids, flying taxis, and a giant artificial moon. And last year, he unveiled a giant linear city, the Line, which aimed to stretch over 106 miles and house 9 million people.

The kingdom already has an $800 billion plan to double the size of the capital in the next decade, as well as transform it into a cultural and economic hub for the region, according to Saudi media.

“The more absurd and futuristic these projects get, the more I can’t help but imagine how much more dystopian everything surrounding them will be,” wrote Dana Ahmed, a Gulf researcher at Amnesty International, on Twitter.

Saudi officials have insisted that work on the projects is going ahead as planned.

It’s unclear how much New Murabba will cost, or how PIF plans to finance it.

Asked about the cost and financing plans, PIF told CNN that details have not yet been disclosed and that it will announce further information in due course.

Some analysts are skeptical, saying that the kingdom may not be able to gather enough funding to fulfill its ambitions.

“The finances of all of this are not entirely secured. They have tried to get a lot of foreign direct investments (FDI) to realize this project,” said Krieg, adding that investment hasn’t come in the way Riyadh may have hoped.

Saudi Arabia is hoping to raise its FDI to 388 billion riyals ($103 billion) annually by the year 2030. The kingdom’s current FDI stands at $19 billion as of 2021, according to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development’s (UNCTAD) 2022 World Investment report.

Whether the kingdom will be able finance the project also depends on the price of oil, said Henderson.

The price per barrel is currently in the low $80s, he said, noting that the kingdom may need oil prices to pass the $100-mark in order to finance national megaprojects.

While some mocked the new city and cast doubts about its viability, others pointed to the uncanny resemblance its cubic skyscraper has with Islam’s holiest site in Mecca.

The Kaaba, the name of which comes from the same root as the name of the new Mukaab building, is the structure that billions of Muslims turn to for prayer five times a day, and to which millions make pilgrimage every year.

“Building a new Kaaba exclusively devoted to capitalism is a little too on the nose,” tweeted Murtaza Hussain, a journalist.

The death toll from the Turkey-Syria earthquake continued to rise two weeks after it struck as Turkey ended its search and rescue operations in all but two affected provinces.

The number of those killed in Turkey rose to 41,156 by Monday, the country’s Disaster and Emergency Management Authority (AFAD) said.

Turkey ended search operations in all but the provinces of Kahramanmaraş and Hatay, it announced on Sunday.

The combined death toll in Turkey and Syria is now 47,088.

Here’s the latest:

  • The body of Ghana soccer star Christian Atsu arrived in Accra, Ghana, on Sunday evening after it was flown from Turkey, Ghana’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Regional Integration (MFA) said. Ghana’s Vice President Mahamudu Bawumia and a large military procession met the coffin on arrival in Accra.
  • At least 80% of the buildings in Turkey’s Hatay province have to be rebuilt, the province’s mayor said on Sunday.
  • More than 105,000 buildings have been identified as collapsed or heavily damaged or about to collapse, according to Turkey’s Vice President Fuat Oktay.
  • The United States will bring in another $100 million to assist victims of the quake, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said.

Israel’s Netanyahu accuses Iran of attacking tanker in Persian Gulf region

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused Iran on Sunday of attacking a tanker ship in the Persian Gulf region, apparently referring to the Israeli-affiliated Campo Square, which was lightly damaged on February 10, its management company said.

  • Background: The Campo Square “was hit by an airborne object while in the Arabian Sea approximately 300 nautical miles off the coasts of India and Oman” on the night of February 10, ship management company Eletson said in a statement, adding that there was minor damage to the vessel. The ship “is owned by a Liberian company which is linked to the British company Zodiac Maritime Ltd.,” Zodiac Maritime told CNN Sunday. The company’s chairman, Eyal Ofer, is Israeli.
  • Why it matters: It’s the second time in less than three months that a tanker linked to Israel has been attacked off the coast of Oman. On November 15, the Pacific Zircon was struck by what the United States said was an Iranian-made drone.

Iran International TV moves studio out of UK after alleged threats from Tehran government

An independent Iranian TV station, Iran International, has moved its broadcasting studio from London to Washington DC at the advice of the London police after “a significant escalation in state-backed threats from Iran,” the station announced on Saturday. The UK’s Head of Counter Terrorism Policing said on Saturday that police continue to respond to threats from Iran against UK-based individuals and a Persian-language media company it didn’t name.

  • Background: Iran International TV gained significance since anti-government protests broke out across Iran in September, which was followed by Tehran restricting the internet and strictly controlling information in the country. Iran has accused Saudi Arabia of funding the channel, which its owners have denied.
  • Why it matters: Iran has sanctioned Iran International’s parent company Volant Media for “supporting terrorism.” The channel was previously warned by UK authorities in November that their reporters were under increasing threats. A man was arrested near the station’s London location on February 11 and charged with a terrorism offense, according to the statement.

Saudi Arabia says Arab states need new approach toward Syria

Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan said at a Munich security forum on Saturday that consensus was building in the Arab world that isolating Syria was not working and that dialogue with Damascus was needed “at some point” to at least address humanitarian issues, including a return of refugees, Reuters reported.

  • Background: Riyadh, which had cut off ties with the Syrian regime due to its brutal suppression of protests there, has sent aid planes to government-held territory in Syria as part of earthquake relief efforts. It was the first Saudi flight to a regime airport in more than a decade.
  • Why it matters: The minister’s remarks mark a shift from the early years of Syria’s 12-year civil war when several Arab states, including Saudi Arabia, backed rebels that fought Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Shunned by the West, Assad has been basking in an outpouring of support from Arab states that normalized ties with him in recent years.
Tunisia hijab MIME

A popular Tunisian actor has invited controversy after declaring on television that he hates the hijab, the head covering worn by many Muslim women.

Mohamed Kouka made a hand gesture showing himself ripping off an imaginary hijab on Attessia TV, saying it denies women their humanity. “It takes the value of women to the lowest, and I therefore have a hatred for the hijab,” he said.

Other guests on the television show countered that the head covering is a personal choice. Many more took to social media to condemn the actor, accusing him of inciting against hijab-wearing women. A clip of his comments posted on Facebook by the channel garnered more than 13,000 comments, many of which opposed his position.

Former Tunisian health minister Abdellatif El Mekki wrote on his Facebook page, addressing the actor: “You have a right not to be convinced by the hijab or anything else, but you don’t have the right to say what you said, because at the least it is a lack of acceptance of differences, and it can be construed as incitement.”

Kouka later went on Mosaique FM to say he respects a woman’s right to choose and that he doesn’t hate women who wear the hijab. Asked why he said he would rip the hijab off, Kouka said it was “a joke.” He refused to apologize.

The hijab is a sensitive topic in Tunisia. The wearing of the covering was severely restricted by the regime in the Muslim-majority country prior to the 2011 revolution that sparked the Arab Spring. The new government, led by the moderate Islamist Ennahda party, lifted the restrictions.

The North African nation however continues to be one of the most secular Arab countries.

Young runners take part in the Saqqara Pyramid Race at Egypt's Saqqara necropolis, some 30km (19 miles) south of Cairo, on February 17, 2023.

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