Saudi Arabia is investing billions of dollars to develop a high-tech bastion in the holy city of Medina, burial place of the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) and the cradle of Islam.
The so-called Knowledge Economic City (KEC) is the fourth in a series of projects launched in December 2005 aimed at attracting foreign investment and bolstering development.
It is being promoted by the Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority (SAGIA) and financed by the private sector a few miles from the center of Medina and the Mosque of the Prophet, a top pilgrimage destination.
SAGIA governor Amr al-Dabbagh told AFP that the projects were inspired by some 3,000 "special economic zones" that exist around the world to promote investment.
"In our case we call them Economic Cities because they have more ingredients," he said. "They are places where people can work, enjoy life and make money."
KEC is the latest in a series of mammoth development schemes in the kingdom, where the first project known as King Abdullah Economic City is being built at Rabigh on the west coast.
The KEC is being built around a special theme to promote knowledge and sciences with through education, health and information technology.
The history of Medina, Islam's second holiest site, was one of the reasons it was chosen to host the new city.
Medina is a cradle of Muslim civilization and the birthplace of Islam along with Mecca, the holiest city in Islam, which is also in the Hijaz in western Saudi Arabia.
"Medina was the springboard for Islamic civilization," said Tahir Mohammed Bawazir, chairman of Knowledge Economic City Developers Company Ltd. "This is the place where it all started. So there is history."
The Prophet Mohammed fled along with the first followers of Islam from Mecca to Medina -- which means "city" in Arabic -- in 622 AD to escape persecution. His tomb is in Medina.
The KEC project's backers hope that Medina's rich past will attract Muslim scientists as well as companies wanting to do business with the Arab and Muslim world, bolstering development on all fronts.
"It's an attractive proposition for people to live here," said Bawazir.
The construction drive coincides with an unprecedented economic boom generating colossal oil revenues for Saudi Arabia, the world's top crude exporter.
It is estimated that the KEC, expected to house 130,000 people, will cost eight billion dollars.
By the year 2020 new cities that have mushroomed from the Saudi desert could be home to 4.8 million inhabitants and generate 1.2 million jobs.
Employment is a high political and economic priority for the authorities of the kingdom in which half of the total population of around 23 million is under 18.
Expatriates make up more than a quarter of Saudi Arabia's total population, according to official figures published in September 2004.