In a curious bit of timing, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia recently announced plans to construct a nearly 37-acre theme park resort complex “inspired by offshore oil platforms” only days before unveiling a $187 billion, net-zero-by-2060 COP26 climate plan. A plan that’s already lackluster ambitions are undercut by the fact that Saudi Arabia has no intentions to scale-back oil production and reduce fossil fuel exports in the near future.
While some media outlets have reported that the helipad-dotted Persian Gulf theme park, tentatively dubbed The Rig, would incorporate actual sealed-off and decommissioned oil drilling platforms, that detail isn’t spelled out in an October 15 announcement made by the oil-dependent kingdom’s Private Investment Fund (PIF), which ranks as one of the largest sovereign wealth funds in the world.
If anything, failing to clarify whether The Rig will be an actual oil platform conversion project or simply a theme park engineered in a facsimile of the real deal adds to the starry-eyed mystique of the project. What PIF does make clear is that The Rig will include a trio of hotels, fine dining aplenty, “aquatic sporting experiences” and unspecified “adventures” as part of a larger strategy to “further strengthen Saudi Arabia’s international entertainment and tourism offering[s].” Renderings of the proposed complex as well as a promotional video provide a more detailed tease and depict a series of enormous interconnected platforms featuring, among other things, a tangle of waterslides, at least one very large swimming pool, an observation wheel suspended over the ocean, roller coasters, gondolas, and “extreme” diversions such as zip-lining, bungee-jumping, parasailing, mini-submarine excursions, and more. At least one of the restaurants will be sub-aquatic and there are plans for a 50-berth marina as well as a dock for visiting cruise ships.
PIF pledged that the ambitious tourism project will “follow leading global standards and best practices” in order to “ensure the sustainable preservation of the environment in the project’s vicinity” while furthering Saudi Arabia’s “broader efforts on environmental protection.” How any of this will be achieved is unclear, as are estimated construction start and end dates.
The Rig, which PIF anticipates will prove particularly popular with Saudi residents and visitors from neighboring Gulf States (the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Oman, Bahrain, and Kuwait) ranks as one of several major projects and companies established by PIF—the Red Sea Development Company, Alsoudah Development Company, and the Cruise Saudi Company among them—to bolster tourism. As noted by CNN, Saudi Arabia lacks the international tourism draw of some of its neighbors, namely the UAE, due in part to an appalling history of human rights abuses and strict restrictions placed on women.
Earlier this year, PIF announced that a Six Flags amusement park will be part of the Qiddiya leisure and entertainment “gigaproject” underway on the outskirts of the Saudi capital of Riyadh. First unveiled in 2019, the Bjarke Ingels Group master-planned Qiddiya is a self-described “disruptive destination-resort community” and cornerstone project of the Saudi Vision 2030 to “open Saudi Arabia up to the world” by diversifying the kingdom’s economy (which also means reducing its dependence on oil.) Saudi Arabia is by far the world’s top exporter of oil, and second only to Venezuela in possessing the largest proven crude oil reserves.
While many may find the construction of an overwater theme park that seemingly glorifies the export of fossil fuel production during a global climate crisis to be a bit deranged, the act of theming tourist-snaring resorts and diversions around an emblematic global export isn’t entirely unprecedented—just ask La Cité du Vin in Bordeaux, France, or even Hersheypark in Pennsylvania.
COP26 begins on October 31 in Glasgow.