Saudi Arabia's Vegan Prince Will Bring an Animated Aquarium to Riyadh As the Kingdom Tries to Modernize

Saudi Arabia has launched a charm offensive of princes to woo U.S. businesses into the Kingdom.

On the heels of a high-profile visit of Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman to the United States, his relative prince Khaled bin Alwaleed is in New York promoting a project he's launching in Saudi Arabia with National Geographic: an animated aquarium.

National Geographic's Encounter: Ocean Odyssey, which employed award-winning artists to create an interactive experience so visitors feel like they're walking through the natural habitats of marine life, only opened its doors in New York in October. But now it's teaming up with Saudi Arabia's Entertainment Authority and Prince Khaled's venture capital firm to bring an even bigger version to Riyadh in 2019.

The installations of floating manatees and stingrays, created by the same artists who designed the dragons for Game of Thrones, seem like the perfect pet project for the Middle East's vegan prince. If he weren't one of Saudi Arabia's richest royals, Khaled could pass off as another idealistic venture capitalist who spends time in Silicon Valley. His interests include animal rights, cybersecurity, and cryptocurrency.

He even brought the company Beyond Meat, a startup that grows meat in a lab, to Saudi Arabia. "Plant-based, Crossfit, healthy living, proud geek," reads his Twitter bio, which sits under a large banner photo of the Saudi King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman.

Khaled said he would like to see zoos abolished altogether. "Who wants to see a polar bear in downtown San Diego?" he asked. "It makes no sense to use a zoo for an educational experience. The animals are taken out their home."

The project is being launched as Saudi Arabia's heir apparent, Mohammad bin Salman, known colloquially as MBS, promotes a new vision of moderate Islam for Saudi Arabia, a vision that includes concerts by foreign musicians, movie theaters, and other forms of entertainment. On Wednesday, the same day Khaled was in New York to promote his project with National Geographic, Saudi Arabia's Ministry of Culture announced that AMC theaters had obtained the first license to operate a cinema in Saudi Arabia. A 35-year-ban on cinemas was abolished as recently as December.

During a recent trip to Los Angeles, MBS was welcomed by a plethora of Hollywood entertainment industry bigwigs who see dollar signs in a country where around 70 percent of the population is under 30, has plenty of disposable income and few entertainment opportunities. For now, young people are still traveling to neighboring Bahrain to watch movies on the weekends. But Alwaleed says this will all change soon. "There's a huge push for domestic tourism," Khaled explained. "And we're going to be stealing a lot of [Bahrain's] business."

The reforms are part of the Crown Prince's attempt to move the country away from its reliance on oil money and make it more attractive to foreign investors.

And by blending education with entertainment, the Encounter aquarium fits neatly with the Saudi Crown Prince's vision for the country, Khaled said. Over a vegan meal of fresh vegetables and quinoa, Khaled extols the virtues of the Saudi Crown Prince's push to modernize Saudi Arabia and move it away from its dependence on oil revenue. He refers to the interview MBS gave to CBS's 60 Minutes, a report some critics claimed gave free publicity to a repressive regime, saying that it provided a good explanation of the direction the country is going.

"This is part of the bigger thing that Saudi Arabia is doing now. This is a really important occasion of unprecedented change," Khaled says. "I've been working in Saudi since 2005, and opening a company is easier, it's streamlined now." He calls Saudi Arabia's General Entertainment Authority "visionary."

Still, some experts say it's too early for investors to get excited about operating in what is still the ultra-conservative Sunni Muslim Kingdom.

"The history of the Kingdom is one of extreme conservatism, and in the 90s, the government seemed to support fundamentalism, which opposes any liberal entertainment industry like cinema or music concerts," Nabeel Khoury, a former diplomat who was the U.S. cultural attaché to Saudi Arabia in the 1990s, told Newsweek.

"So this shift right now is a bit sudden on the part of the government, and it is largely in the hands of one man, Mohammad bin Salman. When considering risks, one needs to wait and see how this plays out, whether there is resistance from fundamentalist elements on the ground or not," Khoury continued. "MBS isn't even the king right now and Saudi Arabia is spending a huge amount of money on this disastrous war in Yemen. One needs to wait for the dust to settle."

Indeed, the war in neighboring Yemen is now in its fourth year as Saudi Arabia continues to pummel the country with airstrikes in an attempt to defeat the Houthi rebels, who are loosely affiliated with Riyadh's regional enemy Iran. In response, the Houthis have been launching their own missiles into Saudi Arabia, causing concern as the missile fall near airports and residential areas. On Tuesday, the Houthi rebels succeeded in hitting a Saudi oil tanker.

Despite his focus do-gooder business ventures, Saudi Arabia's geopolitical and internal problems can't be too far from Khaled's mind. His father, Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Al Saud, was among 11 princes detained in November last year in an anti-corruption purge and locked in the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Riyadh. He was released in January after he gave an exclusive interview to Reuters praising the Saudi royals and his treatment while in captivity. Many suspect that the arrests were politically motivated and allowed the increasingly powerful Crown Prince to consolidate power and assert control over other influential members of the royal family.

Meanwhile, one day Prince Khaled was distracted on the job because a Yemeni missile entered Saudi Arabia and landed near his home, according to one of his business partners. "He was on the phone calling home to make sure the family was OK," Steve Mullins, the managing director of Khaled's company KBW Ventures told Newsweek. During another meeting, Khaled spent the majority of the time on the phone exchanging messages with MBS, he added.

Nevertheless, Mullins said that the ongoing conflict in Yemen and the frequent missile launches don't influence his company's investment decisions, or its plans to build Encounter in Riyadh.

"I'll have to check our insurance policy," he joked.