Jamal Khashoggi is a Saudi writer and author. Robert Lacey is the author of “The Kingdom: Arabia and the House of Saud.”
During his two-week trip to the United States, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (widely known as MBS) will visit Washington, New York, Houston, Boston and his beloved Silicon Valley, where he will seek partners to help liberate his country from its dependence on oil. He could have chosen other destinations — Los Angeles, perhaps, to get some tips on the new entertainment businesses he is hoping to grow in the kingdom. He could have made a stop in Philadelphia to learn what the Founding Fathers had to say on the levying of taxes (another of his welcome innovations), and to see how taxation works only when it is accompanied by popular consent and community participation.
Here’s another suggestion: The young Saudi ruler so keen to redesign his own country should visit Detroit to see how this once-bankrupt city is rebuilding itself.
The city, which in 2013 filed for the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history, was a story of urban deterioration. Now, under the leadership of Mayor Mike Duggan, Detroit has a new streetcar system, dozens of new and renovated apartment complexes, gleaming new sports stadiums, an expansion of Motown’s Hitsville USA museum — and, above all, a fresh “can-do” ethos fostered by the auto giants General Motors and Ford working with the United Auto Workers union.
Last year, Detroit burst into U.S. News & World Report rankings of the 100 best places to live in the United States at No. 89, only one spot below Los Angeles. Increased entrepreneurship has also played a role in its revitalization. Many of the developments in Detroit’s business districts have been driven by the billionaire investor Dan Gilbert. Still, critics would argue that Detroit’s progress has not been inclusive. Sixty percent of young children in the city still live in poverty, and many neighborhoods have not received the same levels of investment as the downtown areas.
Many inner cities in Saudi Arabia fester today as Detroit once did — they are miserable Third World slums that completely mock the oil riches of the kingdom. So, before MBS ventures into building new cities, perhaps he should deal with the old ones. During his visit to Egypt, which kicked off his current global tour, the crown prince revealed his shared dream with Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi of building a prosperous region in northern Saudi Arabia stretching across the Gulf of Aqaba to Egypt — a “Riviera of the Red Sea” to attract millions of tourists yearly. Yet since neither Saudi Arabia nor Egypt has a free press, no one asked the two leaders about Egypt’s numerous tourist destinations, such as Sharm El Sheikh, Hurghada and El Gouna. All have gorgeous beaches on the very same coast and a chronic lack of tourists; they are sad shadows of the resorts they used to be. Surely that problem should be addressed before splashing out precious government funds on still more cities in the sand.
In 2005, the well-meaning King Abdullah announced the building of six new “Economic Cities” that would provide jobs for 500,000 young Saudis. A dozen years and many billions of dollars later, those “cities” stand virtually empty. The saddest vision of all is the King Abdullah Financial District, a cluster of empty glass towers north of Riyadh where, as of April 2016, “not a single financial institution had agreed to take space in the 73 buildings under construction.” A similar ghost town is rising north of Jeddah. In 2016, MBS complained with characteristic frankness to Bloomberg Businessweek about the waste of public money. But he has since proposed more such projects, including his Red Sea dream zone, which would be partly occupied by robots in a system touted as “the future of human civilization.”
Detroit provides a lesson to MBS: Urban revitalization and recovery are possible, but only when inclusive investment in human capital and jobs are taken as seriously as the construction of beautiful buildings.
History will remember that the crown prince’s 82-year-old father, King Salman, was governor of Riyadh for over four decades, building the Saudi capital outward from its historic core. Mistakes were made — the urban blight in Riyadh today serves as evidence. But on the whole, Salman did well. He brought life into the ancient heart of the capital. If MBS can help ordinary Saudis to rebuild their lives in their existing homes and communities, and provide them with better schools, job training, roads and sanitation, he could realize he might not need to build fancy new cities miles out in the desert.