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A very ambitious nation brand goal

Saudi Arabia is attempting perhaps the most ambitious nation brand transformation ever. It is certainly the most expensive. The government is investing not billions, but trillions of dollars.  $3 trillion, to be exact.

Historically, the country’s image has been that of a cruel and ruthless Middle Eastern autocracy, closed to outsiders, trampling on human rights, repressing women, with an economy dependent on oil, closed, backward and stale. The goal is to turn this on its head and use the Saudi Arabia nation brand to recognize the country as a powerful and progressive global force, a leader in technology, entertainment, and sustainability.

It seems almost impossible, reminiscent of DuPont’s decades-long failed attempt to shake off the image of being a chemical company. Will the Saudi Arabian nation brand transformation work? Inspired by an excellent recent article in Barrons, I investigated further. Let’s look at both sides.


The Saudi Arabia nation brand plan

First, what are the plans for the Saudi Arabia nation brand? The strategy is set out in Vision 2030, launched in 2016 by the country’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known by his initials, MBS. A globe-trotting millennial, MBS has been on a roadshow to promote Vision 2030, burnish the Saudi Arabia nation brand image and attract investment. He hired a PR firm, Edelman, to help him, with a multi-year, multi-million-dollar contract.

Vision 2030 sets out a sweeping modernization plan. Its stated objective is: ‘for our country to be a pioneering and successful global model of excellence, on all fronts’. This includes diversifying economically, socially, and culturally.

At its heart, is Neom, a $500 billion futuristic new city in the desert. It’s inspired by ideas from European avant-garde architects from the 1880s, 1950s and 60s and is like something out of a science fiction movie. The first of its nine regions is The Line, which is under construction. It is indeed a line, a city 110 miles (170 km) long, 1,600 ft tall and 650 ft wide, designed for 9 million inhabitants. It will have 3 layers, one on top for pedestrians, a middle one for houses and industry, and a bottom one for transportation and be powered entirely by renewable energy. AI will monitor the city and predictive and data models will be used to find ways to improve daily life for its residents.

Saudi Arabia economic brand transformation

Reducing the Saudi economy’s dependence on oil is a major theme. $270 billion is being invested in wind farms, solar power, and green hydrogen, with the aim of supplying 50% of the country’s power from clean energy. Lucid, the US manufacturer of luxury electric vehicles, has been lured into building EVs in the country, both for domestic sales and export. Mining is expanding to extract Saudi Arabia’s untapped deposits of gold, phosphate, and other minerals. Even the state oil producer, Aramco, is diversifying into petrochemicals. Technology is key. MBS wants the Saudi Arabia brand to be known as a tech hub, and Neom a competitor to Silicon Valley. The goal is to double the size of the tech sector and create 25,00 new tech jobs. The sovereign wealth fund says it will make the world’s largest investments in AI robotics and the cloud.

Saudi Arabia gaming and tourism

And the Saudi Arabia nation brand is going into gaming, with investments in Electronic Arts and Activision. This is just one piece of the second major part of the transformation—turning the country into a major destination for travel, tourism, and entertainment. Films and music are actively encouraged, no longer banned. Saudi Seasons – a series of festivals across cities with pop concerts, car races, pop-up restaurants, auto shows, and other entertainment program – has attracted huge crowds. Riyadh now has a Media City and recently hosted the Middle East’s largest pop music festival, put on techno concerts, and enticed Gwyneth Paltrow to a film festival. Another city, Qiddiya, is set to become the world’s largest entertainment center, almost three times bigger than Walt Disney World, attracting 14 million visitors a year. Its facilities are planned to include a 20,000-seat clifftop stadium, motorsports facilities, the world’s largest Six Flags theme park, a world-class waterpark, golf courses, cinemas, and a performing arts theatre.

New sea coast resorts are being built, with the aim of outdoing Dubai as a luxury tourist destination. Neom includes an island called Sindalah, being built as a playground for the global elite, including luxury hotels and shopping, high tech golf and lots of marina space for superyachts. The government wants tourism to represent 10% of GDP. Airports are being expanded, a second airline created, planes ordered.

Saudi Arabia sports

A big effort is going into sports – the aspect of the rebranding that everyone is familiar with. It began with LIV. Saudi Arabia’s upstart rival to the PGA caused huge acrimony, suspensions, and lawsuits, but the two surprisingly merged in summer 2023. Why? Money of course. The chair of the new venture is the head of the Saudi investment fund. And now, it’s football. In the quest to create a globally appealing brand, the government has spent over $1 billion on buying 23 famous soccer players, including Ronaldo, for its league. They’ve agreed a $25 million contract with Lionel Messi to promote Saudi Arabia on social media, bribing him with luxury vacations for him and his family, so he’ll have something to say.

Saudi Arabia cultural brand transformation

The third pillar is culture. The ‘morality’ police, the Mutawa, harshly enforced gender segregation, dress, and religious codes for 70 years. They destroyed musical instruments, raided beauty salons, shaved heads, whipped people, burned books. In 2016 they were abruptly stripped of their privileges, banned from pursuing, questioning, asking for identification, arresting, and detaining anyone suspected of a crime. Women are no longer jailed for being at the wheel of a car but can now drive and even socialize without a male guardian. Female labor force participation has shot up from less than 10% to 30%. The cultural rules have also been relaxed for foreigners, and don’t apply in tourist resorts

Will the Saudi Arabia nation brand transformation work

Is this enough? Will all these Saudi Arabia brand makeover efforts make people forget that MBS is the man who ordered the ‘murder squad’ that ambushed, strangled and dismembered the journalist Kamal Khashoggi when he went to the Saudi embassy in Istanbul to get his marriage license? Will the enormous investments in the economy, society and culture be enough to bring a new Saudi Arabia nation brand plausibly to life? Will they do enough to cover up the fact that MBS is still in charge, there is no opening up of the political system, which is still an autocracy, that repression, surveillance, and human rights abuses are ongoing, including lengthy jail terms or death sentences simply for tweets? That the construction of Neom has involved the mass displacement of the Huwaitat tribe, which has lived there for generations and a death sentence for three of its leaders? That the investment in technology will increase the state’s ability for surveillance? The planned AI monitoring of the population of The Line could turn it into a 1984-style dystopia? And, of course, that the economy will remain dependent on oil whatever else they do?

It might be. A lot has changed. The country is no longer ‘stale and sclerotic.’ It’s on the move. The stock market is booming. Global companies are coming. In 2023, a “Davos in the Desert’ conference drew the CEOs of Citigroup, BlackRock, and Goldman Sachs. Oracle and Microsoft are investing a couple of billion in Saudi Arabia’s cloud infrastructure. Celebrities and sports stars are flocking. It’s amazing what money can buy. The government is positioning itself as an international diplomatic powerhouse, acting in the interests of peace and stability. It is acting as go-between in the Russian war with Ukraine, almost reached an agreement with Israel until Gaza put a stop to it, and now taking center stage in negotiating a potential Israel/Gaza peace. The population is young, The Saudi Arabia brand has a much more appealing face than China, with its increasingly repressive government, aging population and slowing economy.

A lot will depend on the political situation in the rest of the world, and specifically on the US election. Saudi Arabia is already deeply involved with Trump. It’s given $2 billion to Jared Kushner’s investment fund, licensed the Trump brand for real estate developments in the Gulf of Oman, and is now paying Trump to host LIV events at his golf courses.

Whatever happens in the US, a huge amount has happened extremely fast, too fast for a total turnaround of the Saudi Arabia nation brand. When a brand is deeply tarnished, it takes decades to recover even if the brand’s actions truly live the promise. Saudi Arabia’s currently do not. A lot more must change for Saudi Arabia nation brand transformation to become real.







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