It’s a pet project of the Saudi Arabian government, and therefore presumably of Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince. It’s obscenely well-funded, and is flinging purses of wealth to anyone who comes on board. It’s also controversial: a maverick enterprise, intent on doing its own thing, consequences be damned.
We could be talking about the LIV golf league, which is backed by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund. Or we could be talking about Neom, the multi-billion dollar city being built in the desert in northwestern part of the country.
On Tuesday (Oct. 11), the Wall Street Journal reported that Saudi Arabia is pursuing Western c-suite executives with million-dollar salaries to work on Neom and other real-estate projects. Average basic pay alone is $1.1 million, not counting bonuses, and income taxes are non-existent. In response, a number of people have signed on, including executives formerly at GE, Cisco, Amazon, and the German energy company RWE.
When well-known golfers agreed to play in the LIV league, which launched its first season earlier this year, they had to contend with criticisms of selling out. Repeatedly, they were asked about human rights in the Saudi kingdom, and whether they were taking part in a giant “sportswashing” exercise. A chasm opened up between LIV and the PGA Tour, which banned golfers participating in the Saudi-backed league.
No similar dynamic is playing out in the corporate world, though. It’s as if golfers are expected to forgo big paychecks in the pursuit of some nobler ideal, while executives are expected to be in it for the money and nothing else. But given what we know of Neom and MBS, perhaps executives should be asked some difficult questions as well.
In early October, a Saudi court sentenced three men to death because they resisted the displacement of their tribe from the area where Neom is meant to emerge. The government is, in fact, relying heavily on evictions to clear the region, according to Al Qst, a human rights organization working on Saudi Arabia. Additionally, while Neom itself is touted to be a green city, its construction will be funded by Saudi oil revenues.
Executives shouldn’t be let off easy. If Phil Mickelson, who hits a ball towards a hole, had to respond to a letter from the families of 9/11 victims, CXOs can certainly be asked why they’re actively participating in greenwashing the kingdom.