How Saudi Arabia’s NEOM is using sports to define its future.
NEOM, the $500bn 10,000-square-mile mega development in northwest Saudi Arabia, is a project with unlimited ambition. It was first announced by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in 2017, who has since then made it abundantly clear that it will serve as more than just a newfangled city with offices, homes, resorts and conventional infrastructure including an airport.
Instead, it is being built as an incubator for cutting-edge technology, with sustainability as a founding principle. It is also a staging ground for radical renewable energy initiatives which reimagines mobility through hyperloop-esque travel solutions.
Among the 14 core ideological concepts around which NEOM is being envisioned, sports is one of them. Playing a pivotal role in pushing that agenda is Neal Coupland, sports partnership director at NEOM.
“I think it’s important to put into context what we’re trying to achieve,” Coupland explains about his role within the project. “We’re trying to help define the destination through sport. Inevitably therefore, the partnerships we have need to contribute to the whole of NEOM, and not just to NEOM sports.”
One of the key partnerships it struck was in March last year when it signed a long-term sponsorship agreement to become the principal partner of the Mercedes-Benz EQ Formula E team. “We look at Mercedes as a very successful brand globally in car and vehicle manufacturing and mobility. Mercedes racing is the most successful racing team on the planet. We look at knowledge transfer and at sharing skills. When we look at the partnership of Mercedes Formula E, we want to contribute to the whole of NEOM, which is about our future livability, mobility, innovation and technology. Mercedes ticks all the boxes,” says Coupland.
He acknowledges that the timing of the partnership was unfortunate as it came when the Covid-19 pandemic began to sweep across the world and resulted in lockdowns around the globe. But it hasn’t been an entirely futile past few months as there were a few ePrix races held in the second half of last year and NEOM also collaborated with the carmaker on its Mercedes-Benz EQ FE Driver Development programme. “In the last six to eight months we have worked on a graduate development [programme] to develop young talent in the kingdom and start to get them into the Mercedes environment, so that they can then come back as managers and project leaders, engineers, software development marketers, through Mercedes.”
That Mercedes won the Berlin ePrix race at the close of last year’s truncated season meant that they finished third in the team’s championship, ahead of rivals at BMW, Audi and Porsche. It gives Mercedes – and its partner NEOM – rightfully earned optimism as they launch into the double-header Diriyah ePrix in Saudi Arabia this month with ex-Formula One driver Stoffel Vandoorne and Dutch driver Nyck de Vries taking the wheel of their machines that can accelerate from 0-100kph in 2.8 seconds and reach top speeds of 280kph.
For now, NEOM is an investor-based proposition, but with construction on an initial few projects already underway – including a NEOM Bay airport – it is destined to turn into an income-generating source for the kingdom. Likewise, the sports components at NEOM also remain an investor-backed initiative, with Coupland’s team investing in branding to get the visibility of NEOM high on global sporting events.
Eventually, NEOM could become a destination to attract sports. “When you look at skydiving and other adventure sports, we have the most amazing backdrop to be a global leader in adventure sport – beaches, mountains, deep seas, the wind for wakeboarding and surfing.” A teaser video on NEOM’s website doesn’t reveal exact plans for sporting infrastructure within NEOM, but does include visuals of football stadiums, cricket pitches, athletic tracks, and even a virtual reality-aided boxing training session.
In 2019, NEOM played host to its inaugural Beach Soccer Cup in which Oman won against Egypt in the finals. This year too the Beach Soccer Cup will return, and earlier last month the Dakar Rally 2021 also tore through the area’s rugged landscape.
But as Coupland points out, while the economic benefits of hosting sporting events could be massive, NEOM is more focused at the moment on promoting a lifestyle rather than a specific sport. A recent study by The Royal Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene noted that among 26,000 families surveyed in Saudi Arabia, 71.7 per cent of all Saudi males do not practice a physical activity, whereas that figure stands at a staggering 91.1 per cent for Saudi women. “In terms of lifestyle, we want to be the healthiest place on earth where 75 per cent of the population does 180 minutes of exercise every week. We can then make a big economic contribution by keeping people fit and in the workplace, and not in the healthcare system, which costs hundreds of millions of dollars.”
Aiming to provide an adrenaline rush, NEOM promises to roll out an extreme sports calendar and also tap into esports, which has grown exponentially within the kingdom and globally over the past 12 months. NEOM’s sporting partnerships haven’t been without hiccups – Riot rescinded its decision for NEOM to become a major sponsor of the League of Legends European Championship last July, a day after it was announced.
Beyond NEOM, Saudi Arabia is becoming a major reckoning force in sports. The kingdom will host its first Formula 1 race in November in Jeddah, and the high-profile Saudi International golf tournament returns to the kingdom in February, part of the European Tour, which will see world number one Dustin Johnson tee off against the likes of Bryson DeChambeau, Tommy Fleetwood and Sergio Garcia.
Saudi Arabia does have the potential to reach the level of its neighbours such as the UAE, which regularly hosts mega sporting events across cricket, tennis, racing, mixed martial arts and golf. Qatar, which resumed diplomatic relations with its GCC neighbours, will be hosting the FIFA World Cup next year. NEOM is watching and scoping for events that could make its way into the development. “It’s going to be really important to try not to be too competitive against each other in terms of getting events,” says Coupland. “That’s going to happen to some degree, but in NEOM we’re going to have our own USP which is about the healthiest lifestyle on the planet.”
The Saudi Crown Prince recently announced a 170-kilometre long car-free, zero-carbon city within NEOM called The Line, which is being prepped to house a million residents and generate 380,000 jobs by 2030.
While construction will begin this quarter, the $100bn-$200bn being allocated for infrastructure includes a walkable belt of hyper-connected communities where no journey between two destinations along The Line is longer than 20 minutes.
“We look forward to the opportunities that The Line brings in terms of how people access sport. It’s about access and opportunity. One of the biggest barriers to people being active and healthy is the time it takes to get to the right facilities to take part in those exercises. “If we can solve those issues through The Line, which of course we hope we can, then that’s going to be a massive factor in hitting our target of getting 75 per cent of the population active for three hours a week.”