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Saudi Arabia submits bid to host 2029 Asian Winter Games at NEOM

Desert kingdom plans to create the Gulf's first "all year ski village”
Snow City
A picture taken on July 20, 2016 shows a general view of Saudi Arabians playing at the indoor snow theme park "Snow City" in the Al-Othaim Mall Rabwa in the capital Riyadh (AFP)

Saudi Arabia has submitted an official bid to host the 2029 Asian Winter Games in NEOM's futuristic Trojena sports city, the kingdom's state-run press agency SPA reported on Wednesday.

Trojena is part of NEOM, a planned megacity and the $500bn brainchild of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman at the center of plans to diversify the kingdom’s economy away from petrodollars.

The resort, set to be built in the Sarawat mountains, is located 50 kilometres (30 miles) east of the Red Sea coast and is 10 degrees Celsius cooler on average than the rest of the region. Saudi Arabia says it will host an "all-year ski village".

Skiing is not new to the Middle East. Lebanon is home to Mzaar and Faraya ski resorts, which have traditionally been magnets for wealthy Gulf vacationers. Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE all boast indoor ski resorts, but Trojena would be the first outdoor facility. 

While the area is one of the few locations in the desert kingdom that receives snow, it's unclear whether there would be enough to support winter sports activities on the scale Saudi Arabia envisions. Around 700,000 tourists are predicted to visit each year once the project is completed in 2026.

Besides a ski village, Saudi Arabia says Trojena will include ultra-luxury family and wellness resorts, retail stores and restaurants. A vertical village is also set to be carved into the mountainside.

'Blowing up the landscape'

Many have called into question the feasibility of NEOM. The deadline for the city's completion is set for 2025, but there is little evidence on the ground of building progress having been made.

The project has already been stymied by delays and hit by an exodus of employees, many of them Western consultants, who have complained about Saudi executives' unreachable demands.

Former employees have said NEOM CEO Nadhmi al-Nasr has a short temper and often issues threats to workers. 

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He once said he would "pull out a gun and start shooting if he wasn't told who was to blame" for two e-sports companies cancelling a partnership with NEOM over human rights concerns, according to two witnesses. Al-Nasr disputed the claims.

Some have also challenged NEOM's status as a carbon-neutral, environmentally friendly futuristic city. The construction of Trojena for example would require "blowing up large portions of the landscape" to build an artificial lake in the centre of the resort, according to Bloomberg. 

If Saudi Arabia's bid is successful it would be the first country in the Middle East to host the games, which first took place in Japan in 1986.

Saudi Arabia is putting sports at the centre of its economic diversification plan. The kingdom's sovereign wealth fund, controlled by the crown prince, is shaking up the world of professional golf with its own league, drawing in Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson.

Western golfers have come under fire from rights groups for participating in the league given allegations of human rights abuses inside the kingdom.