Space pods and flying dragons: How Saudi Arabia wants to transform its capital

Saudi Arabia's Mukaab (the cube) skyscraper at the heart of the New Murabba, in the capital Riyadh.

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Abu Dhabi, UAE (CNN)It looks like a city out of a science fiction movie: Space pods, flying dragons and floating rocks. But this is the birthplace of Islam, Saudi Arabia, which wants to transform its capital into one of "the most livable cities on Earth."

The kingdom is building a new downtown in the capital Riyadh, its sovereign wealth fund announced on Friday. Spearheaded by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), the "New Murabba" (new square) project is meant to expand the capital by some 19 square kilometers (4,695 acres) to accommodate hundreds of thousands of residents.
At the heart of the project is the "Mukaab," a 400-meter (1,312-foot) high, 400-meter wide and 400-meter-long cube that is big enough to fit 20 Empire State buildings. It offers "an immersive experience" with landscapes changing from outer space to green vistas, according to Public Investment Fund (PIF), the MBS-led $620-billion sovereign wealth fund. The project is due to be completed in 2030.
    Holographic technology is meant to offer "a new reality" to consumers as they shop and dine. The building also includes recreational facilities as well as hotels and residential units.
      Saudi Arabia, which has been the subject of bad press for decades due to human rights violations, has embarked on an ambitious project to diversify the economy away from oil and shed its image as a conservative, closed-off state.
        "Back in the day, you would have negative discussions about Saudi Arabia affiliated to human rights abuses," said Andreas Krieg, research fellow at the King's College London Institute of Middle Eastern Studies. "But now they're trying to push new narratives of being a country of development and one that can build futuristic cities."
        But some analysts say Saudi Arabia has serious regional competition from neighboring Dubai and the Qatari capital Doha, both of which have for decades tried to position themselves as regional tourism and investment hubs.
          "Being second in the race is always a tough place to start when you want to become the leader," said Simon Henderson, director of the Gulf and Energy Policy program at The Washington Institute. He added that it is particularly difficult for Saudi Arabia because "they've spent decades not attracting foreign, non-Muslim visitors."
          But some have questioned whether the project will even come to fruition. Saudi Arabia has announced similar mega projects in the past, work on which has been slow.
          In 2021, MBS announced his $500 billion futuristic Neom city in the northwest of the country, with promises of robot maids, flying taxis, and a giant artificial moon. And last year, he unveiled a giant linear city, the Line, which aimed to stretch over 106 miles and house 9 million people.
          The kingdom already has an $800 billion plan to double the size of the capital in the next decade, as well as transform it into a cultural and economic hub for the region, according to Saudi media.
          "The more absurd and futuristic these projects get, the more I can't help but imagine how much more dystopian everything surrounding them will be," wrote Dana Ahmed, a Gulf researcher at Amnesty International, on Twitter.
          Saudi officials have insisted that work on the projects is going ahead as planned.
          It's unclear how much New Murabba will cost, or how PIF plans to finance it.
          Asked about the cost and financing plans, PIF told CNN that details have not yet been disclosed and that it will announce further information in due course.
          Some analysts are skeptical, saying that the kingdom may not be able to gather enough funding to fulfill its ambitions.