Shifting sands and changing tides: sending The Rig to rehab

What can we make of Saudi Arabia’s oil rig-themed luxury resort?

Saudi Arabia, the second largest producer of oil, has commissioned the retrofitting of a massive offshore oil rig. Not to extract crude, but to turn it into a theme park. The Saudi Public Investment Fund (PIF) is spending $5bn on this mega hotel in the Arabian Gulf which is being marketed as an ‘eco-experience’ for thrill seekers. 

Obviously there’s a despicable joke at play here that the oil rig, which is ubiquitously associated with climate devastation, is being turned into a luxury holiday resort. While millions face the devastating consequences of climate change around the world, the mega-rich are turning the very infrastructure which is feeding that demise into a luxury commodity. 

In addition to this, real oil rigs are infamously terrible places. They are dangerous and highly flammable, exposing workers to toxic gasses and frequent accidents. Even when they are not horrifically dangerous, they are dire as far as working conditions go. The oil and gas industry works on a 24-hour schedule which means shifts are long, they are in isolated and precarious places, and workers often live in shared rooms with their colleagues for weeks at a time.

The conditions are so terrible in fact that the industry is facing an issue of an aging workforce and has been bending over backwards to attract young workers. An article in Oil and Gas IQ states the industry suffers from a ‘perception problem’ because ‘oil and gas is not viewed as cool’ by Millennial and Gen Z workers, ‘who lack interest in this type of work’ due to a lingering ‘stigmatization of industrial work.’ At no point does Brent Kedzierski, the author and former Head of Learning Strategy and Innovation at Shell, stop to consider that this perception problem might be caused by oil rigs being associated with devastating climate breakdown rather than young people being workshy.

Even if it wasn’t for their central role in the climate crisis, turning an oil rig into a luxury resort is a fundamentally odd thing to do because they are the opposite of comfort and luxury. Whilst their operation fuels the wealth of the mega-rich, this is not a place they would normally be found in. 

But the oil industry needs this.

To understand why this is, it merits revisiting the ‘perception problem’ that has faced petro-states. Saudi Arabia has long been associated with a deeply conservative Islam, routine beheadings, forced amputations and flogging, and so on. On the other hand, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), though just as active in human rights violations, has been engaged in a successful state-level PR campaign since the 1970s. This has successfully made it at home within the respectable global elites. As a result the UAE is much more known for Dubai, the seemingly apolitical luxury metropolis which recently hosted COP28, than it is for autocratic rule, slavery regime, and regular executions of foreign workers. 

In a similar vein, Saudi Arabia is engaging in a state-level project to clean up its image and it is doing this through technologically advanced mega-projects. “The Rig” is one. But the arsenal of the Saudi Public Investment Fund is diverse and well-stocked. 

Neom is the largest of these projects, having benefited from $500bn investment from PIF. It encompasses a series of mega-projects such as The Line, a ‘cognitive’ city that is set to guarantee ‘a perfect climate all year round’. Neom has been busy presenting The Line as an environmental solution to urbanism. From event sponsorships at COP27 to billboard adverts in Stratford Westfield, Neom has become synonymous with Saudi technological innovation.

For all of its high-production renders, this surveillance nightmare in the making hasn’t got off to a good start. In addition to Neom’s environmental claims being dubious, the mega city has been most famous for displacing the Huwaitat tribe from the area which it claimed to be ‘virgin land’. Saudi security forces have killed a protester and in 2022 three men who protested the displacement were convicted of terrorism and sentenced to the death penalty.

The Public Investment Fund, which contains within it other projects such as Trojena, a “sustainable” ski resort in the desert, is part of a wider directive led by the Saudi ruling elite which is titled ‘Vision 2030.’ This vision sets out the pathways for diversifying the Saudi economy, ensuring that the leadership ‘will not allow [their] country ever to be at the mercy of commodity process volatility or external markets.’ 

The climate crisis once threatened to put the capitalist extractivist logic that rules the modern world into question because it exposes that the fossil-fuelled rampant growth mindset is only capable of destroying the earth and decimating humans and non-humans in its wake. However, it has long been the business of the mega rich and venture capitalists to turn existential climate catastrophe into a business opportunity.

The Rig, NEOM, and other techno-utopian projects enacted are part of this depraved project which turns the crisis into something to be mined for gain. But can Saudi Arabia’s mega-projects be viewed otherwise?

In the world of investment, diversifying your portfolio is one of the most important things to do. This is the practice of spreading your investments so you are not reliant on one income stream. This is good business because any one income stream could fall victim to a volatile market, leaving you vulnerable and cashless. The mono-stream of oil has been fruitful and constant for many petro-states so far but Saudi Arabia’s recent ventures clearly show that there are seeds of doubt in the continuity of this monopoly.

Like the UAE before it, Saudi Arabia can be seen to be engaged in an image cleansing project in order to amend its oily reputation. Turning an oil rig into a theme park seems like a villainous joke at a time when so many people around the world are calling for a total halt of all fossil fuel exploration. However, it is actually a desperate attempt to normalise the oil rig and oil infrastructure and integrate it within the less volatile leisure industry. 

The fact that the second largest oil producer in the world is doubting its main income stream shows that the tides are shifting for oil and that its future is not as secure as it once was. Thus, The Rig is an attempt to cleanse and normalise the image of this world destroying infrastructure and introduce it into the world of tourism and leisure. It is a villainous joke but it is also a sign that the long reign of oil monopolies is crumbling.

Marina Ionita is a writer from London. Find more of her work by subscribing to her free Substack, or follow her on X [formerly Twitter].