RIYADH: Saudi Arabia on Tuesday announced the launch of an independent economic zone on the Red Sea, three times the size of Cyprus and with a half a trillion dollars in projected investments.
The zone, dubbed NEOM, covers an uninterrupted coastline of nearly 470 kilometres (290 miles) in northwestern Saudi Arabia and will extend into territories in neighbouring Jordan and Egypt, a statement released by the kingdom’s Public Investment Fund said.
Authorities in Jordan and Egypt did not immediately comment on the statement.
The announcement came hours after the opening of the Future Investment Initiative, a three-day economic conference that brings together some 2,500 dignitaries, including 2,000 foreign investors.
NEOM, which counted more than 10,000 followers on Twitter hours after the announcement, will be independent of Saudi regulation and will adopt a “separate regulatory framework,” the statement said.
The Saudi government has pledged investments into NEOM worth $500 billion. The project will also be open to local and international investors.
Klaus Kleinfeld, the former chairman of Alcoa and Arconic and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, was appointed NEOM’s first CEO. Kleinfeld has also served as advisor to the Chinese and Russian prime ministers.
NEOM overlooks the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aqaba, also bordered by Jordan and Israel — a location Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said in a statement would be “among the top secure areas in the world”.
The venture comes as Saudi Arabia vies to diversify its oil-dependent economy after revenues dwindled following the 2014 crash of the global oil market.
Saudi Arabia, the world’s top oil exporter, has been facing serious budget deficits since 2014.
Prince Mohammed, who was named heir to the throne in a surprise announcement in June, last year launched a massive economic reform programme in an attempt to pull the economy away from its dependence on oil.
Alcohol, cinemas and theatres are still banned in the kingdom, an absolute monarchy and one of the world’s most conservative countries, but authorities in recent months have announced a string of decrees that appear to signal change in the entertainment and tourism industries.
Prince Mohamed in August announced a massive tourism project to turn 50 islands and a string of sites on the Red Sea into luxury resorts.
Saudi Arabia also plans to sell up to five percent of oil giant Aramco in an IPO next year.