With its pristine beaches, manicured lawns and rows of newly built villas, the King Abdullah Economic City bears all the hallmarks of the modern Saudi Arabia envisaged by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Women walk freely without the long, cloak-like abayas. A golf course nestles up against the Red Sea coastline and international companies including Pfizer and Mars have opened factories in the city.
Yet the development instead serves as a cautionary tale of the challenges the young heir apparent faces as he pursues a highly ambitious programme to overhaul the conservative kingdom, including his own plans for a new $500bn megacity, Neom. The King Abdullah city, also known as KAEC, was launched a decade ago as part of a $30bn project to build six cities to diversify the oil-dependent economy, attract foreign investment, create 1.3m jobs and add $150bn to gross domestic product. But only one of the six made it off the drawing board, King Abdullah city, which today has a population of just 7,000 people set against a target of 2m by 2035.
Despite offering more social freedoms than other Saudi cities, King Abdullah city, 145km north of Jeddah, feels eerily quiet and empty. It was intended to be a hub for logistics and manufacturing. But its struggle to attract investors and residents has underlined a perennial battle the kingdom faces bringing in foreign capital beyond the energy sector.