Local airline Saudia will debut the world’s first scheduled commercial flights from emerging Saudi Arabian smart city Neom, to both Dubai and London. Jenny Southan reports

Deep in the Saudi Arabian desert, a mega-project is under way that, if successful, will help the oil-rich country shift its economic focus to tourism and entertainment. It may sound far-fetched but ‘utopian’ city of Neom will have robot workers, flying cars, beaches with glow-in-the-dark sand and an artificial moon.

Neom forms part of “Vision 2030”, Saudi Arabia’s roadmap for the next decade that aims to reduce the kingdom’s dependence on oil and position it as a global technology and tourism hub. Although details on its progress are scant, there must be something there as Saudia will soon be operating flights to it.

Departing from Neom Bay airport (NUM), Saudia’s Dubai (DXB) route will be served by once-weekly flights from the end of June 2022. The Saudi flag carrier says a service from Neom to London will “follow shortly” but provided no specific date.

Saudia also says it plans “flights to select regional and international destinations” from NUM, indicating more route announcements are on the horizon.

The NUM-DXB route is a joint effort by Saudi and Neom, the company building the new city, and aircraft operating the service will sport a “NEOM-SAUDIA” livery.

Saudia’s director general Ibrahim Al-Omar, says: “This partnership is in line with Saudia’s ambition to support Saudi Vision 2030 by increasing passenger traffic domestically and regionally, as well as expanding our connections to global cities. As Neom continues to progress, demand for travel to there is only increasing, making it a natural addition to our list of destinations.”

Neom CEO Nadhmi Al-Nasr says: “Neom Bay Airport is a key enabler of Neom’s development, facilitating efficient access to Neom for residents and business partners, and drastically improving the ease with which Neom can connect with people from all over the world. This is an exciting step in our journey to provide the best possible air connectivity to Neom and a signal of our rapid growth.”

Saudia notes that Neom “sits at the crossroads of three continents” and flights from NUM will be able to reach 40 per cent of the world in under four hours.

If Saudi Arabia wants to become a legitmate international tourism destination (not just one for Saudis), Globetrender believes it will need to work extremely hard to improve its human rights.

For example, Human Rights Watch says: “Despite major women’s right reforms in recent years, including an end to travel restrictions (for example, women over 21, like men, can now obtain passports and travel abroad without a guardian’s permission), Saudi women still must obtain a male guardian’s approval to get married, leave prison, or obtain certain healthcare.

“Women also continue to face discrimination in relation to marriage, family, divorce, and decisions relating to children, including child custody. Men can still file cases against daughters, wives, or female relatives under their guardianship for ‘disobedience,’ which can lead to forcible return to their male guardian’s home or imprisonment. Women’s rights activists remain in jail or on trial for their peaceful advocacy.”