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Saudi Arabia's $500 billion fantasy of a utopian megacity

CityLab logo CityLab 11/3/2017 Mimi Kirk

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The promotional video for Neom, Saudi Arabia’s latest desert city project, promises not just a megacity, but a utopian metropolis serving humankind.

“This is the blank page you need to write humanity’s next chapter,” the British narrator intones as visions of flawless greenhouse vegetation, frolicking families of all races and creeds, and solar panels gently float across the screen. “This is where we can prepare together for the next era of human progress.”

Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman announced Neom last month. The $500 billion megacity, whose name is an amalgamation of neo — Latin for “new” — and “m” for the first letter in mustaqbal, the Arabic word for “future,” will span 10,000 square miles. That’s 33 times the size of New York City. The metropolis will skirt the northwest coast of the country on the Red Sea, even reaching north into Jordan and across the sea, via a bridge, into Egypt.

Prince Mohammed envisions Neom as a hub for manufacturing, renewable energy, biotechnology, media, and entertainment, filled with skyscrapers, five-star hotels, and robots to free humans from repetitive labor. The website dedicated to the city proclaims that it will offer “an idyllic lifestyle…founded on modern architecture, lush green spaces, quality of life, safety, and quality in service of humanity paired with excellent economic opportunities.”

Despite the lofty rhetoric, incredible size, and enormous price tag, Neom is in many ways simply the latest example of the kingdom’s quest to decrease its economic reliance on oil. While Saudi Arabia’s oil won’t run out for decades, fluctuating prices make it difficult to rely on revenue. Last year, Prince Mohammed launched Vision 2030, a 15-year plan of policy changes that aim to keep the country prosperous without oil.

Saudi leaders have understood for years that their country’s economy must change, but the projects launched to further that goal, including planned “economic cities,” have not always succeeded. King Abdullah Economic City, a metropolis and port located south of where Neom will sit, houses fewer than 10,000 people after more than 10 years, though its projected population was two million. And King Abdullah Financial District north of Riyadh, meant to rival Dubai as an economic hub, is still incomplete after more than a decade. As of last April, nary a financial institution had agreed to occupy any of the district’s 73 buildings.

Can Neom succeed where others have failed? Steffen Hertog, an associate professor at the London School of Economics, says Neom may benefit from its high level of political backing and more centralized leadership. “While other economic cities were held back by unclear jurisdictions and lack of cooperation with relevant government agencies, this is unlikely to be a main obstacle for Neom,” he says.

Though Saudi Arabia’s other economic cities had the express purpose of creating jobs for young Saudis — around 50 percent of Saudis are under 25, and a fourth of this group is unemployed—Neom won’t be filling that need. “It is not Neom’s duty to create jobs for Saudis,” Prince Mohammed told Bloomberg. “Neom’s duty is to be a world hub for everyone in the whole world.”

Visitors watch a 3-D presentation on Neom in Riyadh, Saudia Arabia.© Faisal Al Nasser/Reuters Visitors watch a 3-D presentation on Neom in Riyadh, Saudia Arabia.

Such a vision means creating a space open to Western norms and practices — another promo video shows a ballerina, an orchestra, and women in exercise gear—and thus friendly to Western funding. Though the Saudi government and its sovereign wealth fund will financially back the city, it will need investors to thrive.

Hertog says that no private commitments have been made. “Investors will want to see more detail before moving forward,” he says, “but because Saudi Arabia is more financially constrained than it used to be, it may not be able to make large up-front investments before private money comes.”

The prince’s desire to jumpstart the country’s non-oil economy also spurred the recent lifting of the ban on women driving. Though the move is a boon for women’s rights, the main reason behind it is to facilitate women working outside the home. “As Saudi Arabia’s reliance on oil becomes untenable, the kingdom will need a more productive workforce — and that includes women,” Kristin Smith Diwan, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute, told CityLab in September.

Some analysts find the prince’s moves to make Saudi society more “liberal” hypocritical, especially when the government, already known for its crackdowns on free speech and dissent, is arresting clerics, intellectuals, and activists at the same time it is promising a more open culture.  

Madawi Al-Rasheed, a visiting professor at the London School of Economics, wrote in Middle East Eye that though women will soon be able to drive, “perhaps [they will also] drive themselves to prison, should they question the regime’s economic policy or social agenda.” According to Al-Rasheed, the idea of Neom is “marred by repression.”

With Neom a symbol of Saudi Arabia’s future, all eyes will be on whether it becomes the utopia the promotional video promises, or whether it’s destined to be an expanse of half-finished skyscrapers or a functioning—if politically repressive—urban economic experiment.

Mimi Kirk is a contributing writer to CityLab covering education, youth, and aging. Her writing has also appeared in The Washington Post, Foreign Policy, and Smithsonian.

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