When you think ‘city of the future’, you probably don’t think about the deserts of Saudi Arabia. But that’s exactly where Neom, the world’s most ambitious construction project, is well underway. It’s a signature project of the kingdom’s de facto ruler, Mohammad bin Salman.
The prince’s pet project
Since becoming crown prince of Saudi Arabia in 2017, Salman has been one of the most controversial men in the world.
On the one hand, he was lauded as a reformer early in his tenure. He loosened restrictions on women’s rights — allowing them to drive, perform in concerts, and attend sporting events, for instance. He has allegedly reined in Saudi Arabia’s religious police and has recently begun to court international tourism for the first time.
All this is unheard of in an authoritarian fundamentalist religious monarchy.
But claims that Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) is some kind of liberalizing influence ring hollow when you examine the rest of his record.
He effectively kidnapped the Prime Minister of Lebanon and forced him to resign. He purged the leadership of Saudi Arabia, spearheaded a criminal war in Yemen, and has been linked to the murder of Washington Post reporter Jamal Khashoggi. In light of these events, the press has rebranded him as an autocrat and a murderer.
On the weirder side, he may or may not be romantically involved with Lindsay Lohan.
But weirder still, and more revealing of his personality, are his plans to build a $500 billion futuristic city on the coast of the Red Sea. These plans involve artificial rain, flying cars, gene editing, robotic dinosaurs, and the construction of an artificial moon.
Let’s take a look at the blueprint for MBS’s supercity, the man behind the scheme, and his reasons for wanting them to come to fruition.
Who is MBS?
Mohammed bin Salman is the favorite son of Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, who has been the king of Saudi Arabia since 2015 when he succeeded his half-brother, King Abdullah.
It’s important to understand that, while the king is the supreme authority in the land, the crown prince, who is also the heir-apparent to the throne, manages day-to-day affairs. That makes MBS the point man for the government of Saudi Arabia, with broad authority to set policy to his own liking.
This power was enhanced in 2017, when MBS imprisoned 200 leading Saudis in the Riyadh Ritz Carlton Hotel, including 11 princes of the royal family. The official rationale for the arrests was an anti-corruption drive, but many have speculated the real motivation was consolidation of power.
(It’s worth noting that, while ostensibly promoting austerity and denouncing corruption in his rivals, MBS has purchased a €500 million yacht and a $300 million French chateau. Certainly, this is not a man who fears worldly pleasures.)
Broadly, MBS is trying to reorient Saudi Arabia’s economy, which is currently too dependant on the vast revenues it derives from its oil and gas deposits. His major objective, as outlined in a policy paper called Saudi Vision 2030, is to diversify his country’s economy so that it can survive in a post-oil future.
This brings us to the plans to build Neom, the supercity of the future that promises to attract the brightest minds (and fattest wallets) in the world to northwestern Saudi Arabia.
Neom: the city of the future
The city of Neom will be built on the Red Sea. The Crown Prince has already set aside 10,200 square miles (26,500 km2) for its construction. For comparison’s sake, that’s about the size of New Jersey or Belgium.
The name Neom is a portmanteau of the Greek word ‘neo’ (new) and the Arabic word ‘mostaqbal’ (future). So the name of the city is literally ‘New Future.’ A little on the nose, perhaps, but it fits with MBS’s dream of building the richest and most livable city on the planet
The initial cost of realizing this dream has been pegged at $500 billion, but wait until you hear what MBS hopes to get for that kind of money:
- Flying cars. Planning documents note: “Driving is just for fun, no longer for transportation (e.g. driving Ferrari next to the coast with a nice view).”
- Robot maids to clean homes and perform all repetitive tasks.
- Cloud seeding technology (which does not yet exist) in order to provide artificial rain in what would otherwise be an extremely arid environment year-round.
- “Vertical urban farms” and new desert farming techniques.
- A beach that glows in the dark.
- Holographic teachers.
- Robot martial art cage fighting.
- Genetic modification to make humans stronger and healthier. The ones who can afford it, that is.
- An artificial moon.
- A Saudi Jurassic Park with animatronic dinosaurs.
- Energy provided entirely by solar panels and wind farms.
- A bridge to connect the city with Egypt across the Straits of Tiran.
- Neom is planned to be a cosmopolitan, international city. Normal Saudi laws and customs won’t apply there.
Construction is already underway, with the airport nearly completed. According to plans, Neom’s first phase should be finished by 2025.
But there are some major snags.
The impossible city?
MBS may be a visionary who dreams of leading Saudi Arabia into a technocratic future, but he’s also a dictator with a violent temper. These two traits are kind of mutually exclusive. It’s hard to attract the best and brightest minds when you’re a guy who murders journalists and bombs hospitals.
MBS’s antics have made his dream city less likely to come to fruition. The consultants he had hired to help him — folks like McKinsey & Co, Boston Consulting, and Oliver Wyman — have sought to distance themselves from Neom, especially in the wake of Jamal Khashoggi’s murder.
In light of the backlash, the prince himself was forced to admit that “no one will invest [in the project] for years.” He has raised about $100 billion by selling off shares in the national oil company, Saudi Aramco. However, without additional foreign investment and interest, the project seems destined for purgatory.
It’s also worth pointing out that a number of the city’s selling points are not within the scope of current technology. Despite what The Jetsons promised us, we don’t have flying cars yet. Or weather machines. Or genetic engineering clinics. With enough money, these things may or may not be possible. But by 2025? Seems unlikely.
Finally, building a city 33 times the size of New York from scratch in the middle of the desert is a challenge, no matter how much cash you have on hand. At the very least, it means relocating 20,000 people who live in and around the proposed Neom area.
Despite all this, the idea isn’t completely crazy
If this all just sounds like a super expensive version of a spoiled rich kid throwing himself a lavish sweet sixteen… well, fair enough. But believe it or not, this project may not be as crazy as it sounds. There are definite upsides.
Firstly, Saudi Arabia is a petrostate. Its wealth comes from oil. But oil is a non-renewable resource, and the world is trying (however feebly) to transition toward green energy. In this climate, the future of Saudi Arabia looks murky. How will it produce wealth in a post-oil economy?
Neom, with its robot nannies and fake rain, is part of the answer. MBS wants to attract innovators and investors to his country, and built international partnerships that can carry it into the future. Neom is a way to lure not only the super-wealthy to Saudi Arabia but the super-innovative as well. It’s the kingdom’s answer to San Francisco.
Secondly, Neom will supposedly connect both Egypt and Jordan across the narrow Red Sea, creating a regional economic hub. However, it’s also very close to Israel, and it seems likely that completing this project would require Saudi Arabia to recognize Israel as a sovereign state.
That’s obviously a huge move. It could lead to enhanced stability in the Middle East, and bring Saudi Arabia closer to the West both politically and culturally.
So should it be built? Will it be built? Only time will tell. But if nothing else, perhaps the city of Neom will finally usher in the era of the flying car.