Deep in the Saudi Arabian desert, a mega-project is under way that, if successful, will help the oil-rich country shift its economic focus to tourism and entertainment. It may sound far-fetched but ‘utopian’ city of Neom will have robot workers, flying cars, beaches with glow-in-the-dark sand and an artificial moon. Emily Eastman investigates
Saudi Arabian officials have called it “the world’s most ambitious project” and “an entire new land, purpose-built for a new way of living”.
Some of the proposed highlights at Neom include “cloud seeding”, whereby technology is used to make artificial clouds to make it rain and create a more favourable climate; an amusement park populated by robot dinosaurs; flying taxis; a giant fake moon; and glow-in-the-dark sand along the Red Sea coastline.
Critics have labelled it a project of “personal enrichment” for the kingdom’s de-facto leader Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and a liberal mask on the kingdom’s crackdown against its critics – architect Norman Foster suspended his participation in the project last October over the killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
The rhetoric surrounding the US$500 billion Neom mega-city project is convoluted and compelling. Set to be 33 times the size of New York City when complete, Neom is a planned 16-borough city on the Red City coast in Saudi Arabia’s north-western province of Tabuk. The US$500 billion is coming from the country’s Public Investment Fund, while the government hopes to attract millions more in foreign investment.
Neom forms part of “Vision 2030”, Saudi Arabia’s roadmap for the next decade that aims to reduce the kingdom’s dependence on oil and position it as a global technology and tourism hub. Setting the ground work now, Saudi launched an advertising and Instagram influencer campaign in the autumn showcasing the country as a beautiful – and welcoming – place to visit. It began offering tourist e-visas at the same time. (Here is a link to VisitSaudi.)The Neom project was announced in 2017, with Bin Salman saying he wanted Neom to attract the “world’s greatest minds and best talents”. The Wall Street Journal reported on planning documents in which Bin Salman “envisions Neom the largest city globally by GDP”.
To this end, McKinsey & Co, Boston Consulting Group and Oliver Wyman, three of the world’s leading consultancy firms, have been hired as advisers, and the scale of ambition is impressive.
Cameras, drones and facial recognition will be everywhere, and a genetic modification project has been proposed – Japanese tech giant Softbank has cited plans to create “a new way of life from birth to death reaching genetic mutations to increase human strength and IQ”.
Officials say that Neom will boast the world’s “leading education system”, with classes taught by holographic teachers. This month, Neom announced plans to become a leading e-gaming hub.
And despite the Saudi capital of Riyadh currently lacking any permanent Michelin-starred restaurants, the plan states that Neom will be home to more Michelin-starred dining options per capita than any other city.
In May, Saudi hosted an extreme sports event around the Neom site, inviting athletes including bouldering world champion Juliane Wurm and Saudi female rock-climbing star Yasmin Gahtani.Head wingsuit pilot Sam Hardy, British medalist at the World Wingsuit League, said. “I can 100 per cent see Neom being the place for extreme sports whether it is climbing, skydiving or kite surfing. The landscape, the mountains, the sand areas and the ocean are like nothing I have seen before.”
Neom CEO Nadhmi Al-Nasr said: “Neom is all about the unusual and the unexpected. Neom is is futuristic, risky and daring and it’s more than a dream: it’s a plan to enhance how we work and live.”
These may only be proposals, but if Saudi’s oil-state neighbours are anything to go by, there’s little that oil money can’t buy. And if the kingdom can achieve its goals with current revenue, it could succeed in developing Neom and future cities into new commercial hubs – a key part of plans to shift the economy away from oil in an increasingly volatile raw materials market.
However, similar projects, including the unfinished King Abdullah Economic City, also in Saudi, are already struggling. The first of six mega-city projects announced in 2005, King Abdullah Economic City failed to attract foreign investors and, as of 2018, had a population of just 7,000 – a far cry from the government’s targeted two million people by 2035.
Shortfalls aside, the Saudi government is pressing on with Neom. Phase one is nearing completion, and the entire project is scheduled for completion in 2025.
Work began this year on Neom Bay, a residential area and tourist destination that, according to the Saudi Press Agency, will have “white beaches, a mild climate and an attractive investment environment”. Tourism forms a key part of “Vision 2030” and. last month. the government opened the country’s doors to foreign tourists from 49 countries with the launch of its new e-visa.
It has also been reported that a number of Neom’s facilities will be open and the private airport, which is already registered as an official international airport, will be used for commercial flights by the end of this year.
As to whether Saudi Arabia can achieve all of its stated ambitions, only time will tell.