RIYADH (REUTERS) - The US$500 billion mega-city planned by Saudi Arabia will be floated on financial markets alongside oil giant Saudi Aramco as part of the kingdom's drive to diversify away from oil, the crown prince told Reuters in an interview late on Wednesday (Oct 25).
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman also said Aramco's initial public offering is on track for next year and the national oil giant could be valued at more than US$2 trillion - a sum some investors have said appears unrealistically high.
His surprise announcement about the listing of NEOM, a 26,500-square km zone that will extend into Jordan and Egypt, is the latest and most extraordinary in a slate of privatisation programmes led by the floating of Aramco.
The futuristic high tech hub looks set to become a flagship of reforms to create jobs, encourage entrepreneurs and permit new freedoms among Saudis steeped in religious puritanism and dependence on the state.
"The first capitalist city in the world ... this is the unique thing that will be revolutionary," said Prince Mohammed, heir to the throne of the largest Arab economy, an absolute monarchy.
"Without a doubt, at the end of the day NEOM will be floated in the markets. The first zone floated in the public markets. It's as if you float the city of New York."
The 32-year-old spoke on the sidelines of the Future Investment Initiative conference, which has attracted nearly 4,000 delegates from around the world to Riyadh this week.
Switching between English and Arabic, sometimes in the same sentence, the prince seemed most excited discussing his plans for the new city.
Adjacent to the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aqaba and near maritime trade routes that use the Suez Canal, NEOM will serve as a gateway to the proposed King Salman Bridge, which will link Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
The zone will be fully owned by Saudi Arabia's sovereign Public Investment Fund (PIF) until its listing, and will attract investments from companies in renewable energy, biotechnology, advanced manufacturing and entertainment, the PIF said.
"It won't be listed in the markets until the idea is mature enough," Prince Mohammed said. "It might be after 2030, it might be before, but the idea and the strategy is to float it eventually."
The new city will not follow the rules and regulations enforced in the rest of Saudi Arabia, which imposes sharia law based on a strict Wahhabi interpretation of Islam.
It will offer residents a more liberal lifestyle, allowing musical concerts and entertainment in a remote corner of the desert kingdom. Saudi Arabia has already started to relax some long-standing rules, including what was an effective ban on women driving.
Prince Mohammed said the city could appoint a board of directors and governor (chief executive) whose only responsibility will be to stimulate economic activity.
"In New York, the governor is appointed to meet certain needs, including growth, but in NEOM the governor (CEO) doesn't have to deal with any of those problems. He only has growth in mind," he said.
The name mixed "neo", meaning new, with M, the first letter of the Arabic word for future, he added.
The new city is part of the crown prince's ambitious Vision 2030 plan to overhaul the economy of Saudi Arabia, OPEC's largest producer, and provide jobs for an overwhelmingly young population in the face of a global oil price decline since 2014.
But many executives at this week's conference - dubbed "Davos in the Desert" - said they remained concerned about Riyadh's ability to execute its plans. But the crown prince has pledged new rules and regulations to overcome past pitfalls.
An undeveloped legal system, sluggish bureaucracy and poor labour productivity have deterred foreign investment and frustrated many Saudi economic plans in the past. A recession triggered by low oil prices and austerity policies has brought private sector growth down near zero.
Prince Mohammed has portrayed the reforms as a matter of economic survival, but one challenge for the ruling Al Saud family has been to secure the acquiescence of traditionalist clerics upon whose support the family relies for legitimacy.
Some clergy suspect the bold initiatives conceived by the prince in leisure and tourism presage sweeping reforms in education, a bastion of conservatism where clerical control is believed by Western critics to have encouraged Islamist radicals not just in Saudi Arabia but across the Muslim and Arab worlds.
The announcement that the government is in talks to introduce Cirque du Soleil, the global circus and entertainment troupe featuring brazen athletic performances by young men and women, to the kingdom is likely to further rankle conservatives.
But the prince has pushed ahead, confident he has the backing of most young Saudis, who make up the bulk of the population of some 30 million.
The crown prince underscored the social side of his reforms on Tuesday when he said he wanted a moderate Islam in Saudi Arabia and would eradicate extremism.
"We want to live a normal life, a life which translates our tolerant religion, our good traditions to co-exist with the world and allows us to develop our homeland and the world," he said onstage.
Steffen Hertog of the London School of Economics said significant parts of Saudi society want to move away from the rigid, old-school Wahhabi control of social behaviour and the public sphere.
"I don't think the Crown Prince's statements are just for show. He genuinely wants to harness these sentiments and has undertaken very significant steps, including allowing women to drive and severely curtailing the powers of the religious police," he said.
Economic growth has slowed and the economy may shrink this year as the government introduces austerity measures.
"The idea is not to restructure the economy as much as to seize the opportunities available that we didn't address before. We have high capacity and we use only a little," he said in the Reuters interview.