One central promise of Neom is that it will be environmentally-friendly. Its stated objective is to harness renewable energy sources such as wind and solar to operate at carbon neutral levels. Vision 2030, the Saudi regime’s “modernisation” plan, is in part based on the premise of moving the kingdom away from its reliance on oil.

As the Neom website boasts: “NEOM will build a 100% renewable energy system and establish a world-class customer experience. It will develop a smart transmission and distribution network with the latest and most advanced technologies. We will strive to become the world leading in commercializing clean energy intensive industries, such as Green Hydrogen.”

Only time will tell – if the Neom project even comes to fruition – whether these promises are kept. But what we do know is that being carbon neutral will not be enough to mitigate the hugely negative impact Saudi Arabia already has on the climate.

According to the Climate Tracker website, even with its Vision 2030 pledges, Saudi Arabia still has a “critically insufficient” rating, the worst possible. And according to the Climate Accountability Institute, the kingdom’s Saudi Aramco oil company has contributed more to international carbon dioxide emissions than any other since the 1960s.

But it should be recognised that dependence on oil reserves is not in the best interest of the Saudi elite. The recent coronavirus crisis and competition over oil prices illustrated this starkly, with the price of a barrel of oil briefly dropping into minus figures. A shift towards renewables does not need to be out of the goodness of the Saudi regime’s heart — it makes good business sense, despite the state’s absolute reliance on fossil fuels to reach its current international standing.

Hypothetically, even if Neom, and the wider Saudi state, shifted entirely to carbon neutral or even negative energy production, that can not come at the expense of the people whose land would be seized to harness such renewable energy. As with other aspects of the Neom project, making a show of environmental concerns is being used as a means of selling the kingdom and its projects as being modern and liberal. You might call it a “greenwash”.

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