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Cities in the Sky: The Saudi Gamble with NEOM

Updated: May 14, 2021



Saudi Arabia announced plans to reduce its dependency on oil and gas in April 2016 with its Vision 2030 programme. The sector currently amounts to approximately 50 percent of GDP and 70 percent of export earnings. The nation’s elites clearly realise that a failure to diversify may leave the kingdom vulnerable to significant changes in energy markets as they shift from hydrocarbons to renewable or low-carbon alternatives.


The kingdom also has an issue with its domestic energy consumption. Since 1965 it has increased on average by five percent per year. As early as 2011 a Chatham House report noted that there was a hidden energy crisis whereby Saudis consumed a quarter of the oil they produced. Current projections position it as becoming a net oil importer in roughly seventeen years. And that’s if peace remains; at the moment the kingdom is remarkably vulnerable to attacks such as the 2019 drone strike on the Abqaiq plant when nearly half the country’s daily oil production was taken offline.


Perceiving these long-term weaknesses, the royal family has decided to challenge its rentier model. Petrodollars can no longer be relied upon as a permanent money-tree. Though historically this approach has worked – King Abdullah’s behaviour (increasing public spending to 28 percent of GDP) in the wake of the Arab Spring providing a classic example – Saudi elites realise the country must be bound by something stronger than the riyal.


While Saudi Arabia’s diagnosis is accurate, the efficacy of its cure is debatable. Instead of “westernising” (i.e. opening up its society to live or die on its strengths and weaknesses) the Beijing model is preferred. In other words, the kingdom combines autocratic rule with free-market capitalism while building AI systems (including surveillance) that boost both – allowing the state to leapfrog its shortfalls in institutional and industrial capacity.


The loudest symbol of this new approach is Neom, a free-zone area the size of Belgium that promises to play paradise to capital and a totalitarian hell to dissidents. While the IoT (Internet of Things) might make life effortless for agents of wealth (it’s left rather ambivalent whether these may be Saudi citizens or not), AI will also monitor political opponents online, recognise faces at rallies, ethnically or socially profile people using transport systems, and so on. Indeed, the main reason the IoT hasn’t taken off in the western world is that current data laws mean companies can only harvest a tiny percentage of the information needed ­– laws that pointedly won’t be observed in Saudi Arabia.


Not that these factors are paraded in press releases, which open with bovine gambits such as “the future has a new home,” “a place for dreamers,” and “better humans, better society.” Even its name, taken from the Greek words for new (neos) and the Arabic for future (mustaqbal) has a puerile quality that extends to its “leaked” contents, namely an artificial moon, phosphorescent beaches, drone-taxis, robotic butlers and animatronic lizards.


This surreal bucket-list might be amusing if it had fewer real-life casualties such as the region’s 20,000 current inhabitants, including the Huwaitat tribe who can trace their existence to long before the Saudi state – not a hard task when the latter was created in 1932. Over the last year Saudi authorities have arrested, harassed and even killed those who questioned or denied the sale of their land.


Indeed, much of Neom’s manifesto reads like a royal dictating a wish-list before demanding that a management consulting company rationalise and justify it. The result is a mix of the mad, bad, complex and silly. According to the plan, for instance, residents will have more Michelin restaurants per capita than any other; it will have the world’s most prominent e-gaming hub; it’ll have more rainfall than anywhere regionally because it’ll engage cloud seeding technology and so on.




The devil gurns in the detail. At the moment most wealth flows (or at least consumers) prefer free societies to either religious intolerance or total surveillance – though these waters are admittedly becoming more muddied in Sinocentric spheres of power. So how the Saudis enshrine their own judicial and regulatory systems (effectively creating two countries) within the state is fundamental to Neom’s progress.


It may also test notions of the royal family’s “absolute power.” After all, the project would be as if the Windsors decided to rid the British Isles of Kernow, overlay their granite with some sort of technological utopia cum theme park, and replace the Cornish with Swiss investors whose relationship to the UK government was tangential and tenuous at best.


Neom’s future may also be hobbled by the Middle East’s history. While one might think the region that once contained the Fertile Crescent might have some expertise in building urban wonderlands, recent history coughs when others might coo. For example, the UAE’s Masdar (11 miles from Abu Dhabi) is a shell. While Saudi Arabia has the King Abdullah Economic City (KAEC) – the only one of the six megapoleis planned in 2005 to be actually built – which houses a laughable 7,000 souls. To give some perspective, that’s the same number as the village of Wroughton in Wiltshire, UK.


These cities fantasise about becoming the next Dubai (which managed to wean itself off an overreliance on oil by becoming a free-trade and pro-tourism area) while recreating the bland aesthetic of Singapore’s Gardens by the Bay (indeed Neom even used a photo of the latter in its promotional materials). But the reality is cursed. Both remain ghost-towns hampered mainly by the fact they were designed from the top-down so that their inhabitants feel superfluous in them. Indeed, the structures may as well have been designed for beetles; they betray something rather profound, namely, that the human is no longer considered a child of God – the chief node in a divine universe – instead he has been transformed into the Herodotean ant, the gold-digging animal that scuttles about in a debased universe that has reduced Man to capital’s pawns.


The identity-wrecking shards of glass and steel that were once confined to bleak financial districts; the mindnumbing anonymity enforced by their nondescript contours, are admittedly rather romantic problems compared to more mundane (and fundamental) issues of energy storage. While Neom hopes to run on solar power, in reality its external storage is prohibitively expensive and not very environmentally friendly. Alternatives that play with molten salt are being developed but – as with so much of Neom (not least its “sun dome” desalination plants that promise to overturn all of desalination’s current issues) – there are too many question marks to produce confidence.


Instead of buckling down and producing answers, however, Mohammad bin Salman recently unveiled plans to fill part of Neom with a linear city that extends for over a hundred miles and will be imaginatively named The Line (rather weirdly transliterated into Dha Layn rather than translated into al-Khat, again casting doubts on whether these developments are for Saudis). Claiming to be mortally vexed by traffic incidents, dull commuter journeys and rising carbon dioxide levels, the crown prince announced that living in an exceptionally long line would solve these plagues.


The idea wasn’t a particularly bad one: a metro-line and freight train would run underground, there would be no cars or streets, and facilities would be built every 400 metres (reminding viewers that consistency possessed a thanatic quality). But, again, few know what crime the Saudis had committed that was so bad that they were now governed by McKinsey reports. Before doubts could be raised, however, an avalanche of numbers was unveiled: 380,000 jobs will be created, countless billions of dollars will be added to GDP in a decade etc. While Britain grimaced at the prospect of rule by faceless eurocrats, it’s easy to get the impression that many Saudis would gladly execute their hydra-headed government by international PR.


Yet the Saudis remain chained to rulers who have learned to despise them (and yearn for a new country to govern). Despite having to triple its VAT to 15 percent, suspend the civil service’s benefits etc. in an effort to balance its books the kingdom remains committed not only to the $500bn Neom project but a shopping list that includes $7bn Qiddiya (a vast sports and entertainment complex that will include an F1 track, stadium and theme-park) and $10bn Red Sea Project (a tourism development covering five islands) too.


It’s at Neom, however, that investments elide into silliness a little too smoothly. Sophia, for instance, is the first humanoid robot in history to be given a (Saudi) nationality. It’s worth noting that if she seems outdated in 2021, she may resemble a mascot of Luddism by 2030 when Neom is opened. Other irritants include promotional videos that display women jogging in western gear in a country that has only just permitted women to drive. Admittedly, under 30s form over 60 percent of the population but given they are just as nationalist as they are hedonistic they’re more likely to be reactionary than liberal when it comes to issues such as gender mixing, alcohol and public executions.


Perhaps the real folly isn’t political, however, so much as seismological. If Frank Herbert’s Dune was bedevilled by giant sandworms, Neom’s nemesis is a more faceless force. So while contracts are doled out to the likes of AECOM (engineering) and Bechtel (transportation), few seem willing to address the fact that Neom is located on an Arabian plate that’s associated with Red Sea divergence and the Aqaba transform boundary. The area is defined by numerous tectonic features but it’s the Gulf of Aqaba that provides the most grief with three big earthquakes recorded in 1983, 1993 and 1995 – an alarming frequency for a project located in north-west Saudi Arabia.


Earthquakes aside the biggest pitfalls are, first, the fact few trust Saudi Arabia’s ability to to pick winners in next-generation technologies and, second, that there is so little available information that few can judge the feasibility of even parts let alone the whole of the Neom project. These issues combined with Saudi Arabia’s poor track record of new-city building and a complete absence of proof of concept mean Neom is more likely to be a castle in the sky rather than a technological utopia. Hence the amusement that greeted the former Dutch ambassador to Saudi Arabia’s quip that


“We started NEOM but there will be no end to it.”



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