South Korea's leader discusses megaprojects with Saudi prince

AP , Thursday 17 Nov 2022

South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol hoped for greater cooperation with Saudi Arabia - including on its $500 billion futuristic desert city project - as he met the kingdom's powerful crown prince Thursday, Seoul officials said.

Mohamed bin Salman   Yoon Suk Yeol
Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, left, shakes hands with South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol to leave the presidential residence after a meeting in Seoul, South Korea, Thursday, Nov. 17, 2022. AP


Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman flew to South Korea earlier Thursday for talks with Yoon and business tycoons on his first visit to South Korea since June 2019.

During talks attended by senior officials from both countries, Yoon said he hopes that South Korean companies will participate in megaprojects in Saudi Arabia such as Neom, a futuristic, carbon-free city planned along the kingdom's Red Sea coast, Yoon's office in a statement.

Yoon also wanted the two countries to cooperate on defence industries and the development of hydrogen and other new energies and promote tourism and cultural exchanges, the statement said.

Prince Mohammed said he wants to drastically expand bilateral cooperation in the areas of infrastructure construction, energy and defence industries, Yoon's office said.

The prince's trip to South Korea spawned hopes that South Korean companies' active participation in the Neom city project would greatly invigorate the country's economy, like a previous construction boom in the Middle East backed up South Korea's rapid economic rise in the 1970s.

``There are political and geopolitical risks in the Middle East and it's true that there are questions about the Neom city project. . But the Neom city can still be a new breakthrough for the South Korean economy,'' the Maeil Business newspaper said Wednesday in an editorial. ``The (South Korean) government must support a possible second Middle East boom by reforming regulations.''

The Neom project envisions flying cars and a 170-kilometre (105-mile) -long, zero-carbon emissions city that's entirely enclosed and powered by Artificial Intelligence. In 2017, when Prince Mohammed announced plans to build the city, he said that ``this will be a place for the dreamers of the world.''

Some observers say Prince Mohammed hopes the city will become a skyline-studded Saudi version of Dubai that will offer the kingdom jobs and cement a future beyond its vast crude oil reserves.

It also would reframe a rule so far coloured by the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi and the kingdom's grinding war in Yemen.

``Some people say the idea of the Neom city project is too utopian and doubt whether it can be really established,'' said Paik Seunghoon, principal researcher at the Institute of Middle East Studies at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul.

``But it's one of the projects that Prince (Mohammed) is pushing hard so that he will try to have (the Neom project) running to some extent," he added.

Joo Won, deputy director at the Seoul-based Hyundai Research Institute, noted that there have been ``more negative views toward the project'' than positive ones.

``It's a matter of financial resources. Saudi Arabia needs money to build such a city. During periods of high oil prices like these days, they can afford it. But oil prices would go down one day and the project could stop,'' Joo said

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