Saudi Arabia’s $500 billion NEOM project is promising to be home to the world’s healthiest population. Jason Harborow, NEOM’s Managing Director of Sport, explains how it will happen.

Sporting and social change is continuing apace in Saudi Arabia and no initiative embodies that sentiment more than the Kingdom’s new region of
NEOM. A project remarkable for its size and scope, ground has recently been broken on the development in northwestern Saudi Arabia.

NEOM – from the Ancient Greek neo (new) and the first letter of the Arabic word Mostaqbal (future) – is a utopian vision; the project is promising to become not just a hub for business and tourism in Saudi Arabia, but the hub for business and tourism in the MENA region.

Those responsible for conceiving of, designing and developing NEOM have essentially been given a blank canvas to create a region that is a world leader in sustainability, culture, business and wellbeing, with the aim to attract the globe’s best and brightest to Saudi Arabia.

It is a lofty aim but Jason Harborow, the Managing Director of Sport at NEOM, is confident that the ambitious plans to transform this quiet enclave of Saudi Arabia will become a reality. His domain is to set the sporting agenda for future residents and tourists alike.

“It’s important to remember that NEOM is not just for Saudi Arabia,” Harborow tells Sport Industry Insider. “It is a global project and for the Middle East region, the benefit will be huge. The vision is for this to be the destination of the future.

“From a sporting perspective we have looked carefully at trends in sport, conducting surveys and benchmarking against the leading sporting cities of the world. What will people want here? What should be the balance between traditional and non- traditional sports?

“We have a big commitment to developing flexible facilities. We don’t want huge sports stadiums sitting empty for 300 days of the year. Our facilities will be sustainable and multi-purpose – we’ve been working with some of the leading architects in the world. To be able to develop a new stadium/entertainment venue before you’ve even put one brick in the
ground or one piece of steel in place is exciting.”

Having previously worked on the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester, overseen the development and opening of New York University Abu Dhabi and been CEO of the Liverpool European Capital of Culture, Harborow brings a wealth of experience to his role. But there is no question that, in terms of scale, this is the biggest project of the Englishman’s career.

“The potential is just massive,” Harborow says. “Sport can be such a big economic driver when used properly and we want it to be at the heart of people’s lives. We want NEOM to be the world’s healthiest population. It sounds like a big goal but if we can get 60% of our population exercising for more than 150 minutes a week then we’re well on the way to being the healthiest place in the world.

“This is always central to our thinking – in terms of active recreation, the way we design buildings, the way we create cycling and jogging routes. A healthy lifestyle and opportunities for participation will be in-built from day one.”

One of the first opportunities NEOM will get off the ground is an extreme sports offering in the nearby Midian Mountains. It is a presently underserved sporting segment in Saudi Arabia but Harborow believes NEOM can quickly establish itself as a regional hub of extreme and adventure sports.

“This part of Saudi Arabia is incredibly beautiful – the seascapes, the desert and of course the mountains. The environment is already primed for extreme sports and this is our starting point. The infrastructure is being put in place and we will be ready to roll this out properly in the next six months. Whether it is jumping out of airplanes, climbing beautiful mountains or even just hiking – there is something for everyone.

“I view this as a multi-generational project and I think we can inspire people to come not just from Saudi Arabia, but all over the region and across the world. People who like extreme and adventure sports are naturally curious so the prospect of an entirely new destination will be exciting for them. We have 800 registered skydivers in Saudi Arabia who generally get on a plane on the weekend and go to Dubai. NEOM gives them an option closer to home.”

In 2020, the Dakar Rally will take drivers past NEOM to showcase the landscape in what will be the first major sporting spectacle to arrive. It is unlikely to be the last.

“It is a fantastic time to be involved in sport in Saudi Arabia. I work with a lot of guys who are born, bred and raised in the Kingdom and they truly are passionate about sport. They are particularly proud about hosting big events here. We’ve had the Formula E, football, boxing. We definitely expect to host events like this in NEOM too.

“More important to me though is the amount of grassroots sports events and participation which are now taking place and that’s what we want to build on. Saudi Arabia has moved from a very low number three years ago of only 13% of the population participating in sport to now just short of 30%. It’s been a massive shift, a massive cultural change. Sport is now very much at the centre of people’s lives.”

As well as creating state-of-the-art facilities to serve residents of NEOM, there will be a focus on attracting elite sports teams to the region. The UAE has become well established as warm-weather hubs for European football clubs to train in the winter but Harborow believes NEOM is in a position to usurp its gulf neighbours.

“If you look at what Dubai and Abu Dhabi in particular offer it is fantastic relaxation and hotels but there aren’t many actual world-class sporting facilities – I’m talking genuinely good enough for the world’s best athletes. And in terms of the number of clubs visiting, it is actually a very small market that I don’t think has ever been fully developed.

“We can see a gap here and are working really hard with governing bodies and teams in those leading football nations and in other sports too. We are able to say to them now, ‘if you could develop the perfect environment for training, off-field activities and hotels – what would that look like?’ This is obviously appealing to them.

“We’re getting real insight and will be able to implement this from the start. Abu Dhabi and Dubai have done a fantastic job but they didn’t do it as their main focus. It was a by-product. For us it is central – not just football but cricket, rugby, netball, tennis – many sports. We’ll be able to develop facilities which will be absolutely perfect for them. And of course, NEOM will be two hours closer to Europe than Dubai. We hope that cutting down on the travel time will be another incentive to choose NEOM.”

Manchester United and Liverpool were among the Premier League clubs to take mid-season breaks to Dubai this year.

Although NEOM is the latest in a series of positive sporting stories to come out of Saudi Arabia, the Kingdom has also been no stranger to negative press recently. But Harborow insists that people’s willingness to separate sport and politics has enabled him to have many encouraging conversations about NEOM.

“The reason I enjoy sport so much is that we see time and again how nations have different challenges at different times but sport always seems to be the thing that brings us all together. I’ve travelled extensively and I’ve honestly had no difficult discussions just because I’m representing Saudi Arabia.

“In fact, the opposite. People are inspired and excited to get involved at this time of exciting change. They want to talk about building sport in Saudi Arabia. We have been working on some fantastic long-term partnerships and strategic relationships and from what I’ve seen there is a great appetite for organisations to join us on this journey with NEOM.”