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Neom: Saudi Arabia’s A.I. Megacity

Introduction.

Saudi Arabia has garnered an overwhelmingly negative reputation from the Western world in recent years, and for good reason. Women’s rights are sharply restricted, freedom of the press is unheard of, laborers are forced into conditions just shy of slavery, and state-sponsored discrimination runs rampant. Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, the de facto leader of the nation, is widely regarded as a dictator, sitting at the head of a repressive network that relies on torture and extrajudicial killings to keep the population in line.

But if you know anything about bin Salman, and the Saudi regime as a whole, you probably know that they aren’t the biggest fans of how they are portrayed by global democracies. And indeed, while the most fundamental and totalitarian parts of the regime have remained basically unchanged, a number of lesser reforms have been aimed at changing Saudi’s portrayal on the world stage. Women’s rights have been slightly expanded, the religious police have begun to have their powers restricted, and foreign visas have started to allow a greater tourist population into the country.

At the heart of bin Salman’s reform efforts is Saudi Vision 2030, a massive strategic proposal designed with three main objectives in mind: Boost the Saudi economy, reinforce and culturally enrich Saudi society, and change the Saudi government’s structure toward greater automation and efficiency and away from pure oil dependency. Saudi Vision 2030 has a vast number of proposed initiatives, developments, and reforms, but its crown jewel is the subject of today’s video.1

This is Neom (nee-OHM). Short for Neo-Mustaqbal (MOO-stock-ball), meaning “New Future”, it is a planned city that is assigned for construction in Saudi Arabia’s northwestern Tabuk (ta-BOOK) region, bordering the Red Sea. With a staggering price tag of five hundred billion dollars, US, Neom is expected to sprawl across well over ten thousand square miles, 26 and a half thousand square kilometers. That’s 42 times the area of Tokyo, 33 times that of New York City, 27 times Abu Dhabi, and 17 times London, depending on how you prefer to compare sizes. Billed as a true “Smart City”, Neom is expected to take Saudi Arabia to the next level of technology, innovation, and economic success—and if the regime has their way, that will be just the beginning.

The Concept.

Neom was first proposed in 2017, just four months after Muhammad bin Salman was appointed as Crown Prince, and from the start, the bigger intentions behind the project were clear. Bin Salman was a controversial choice for acting ruler from the start, and by rallying his nation immediately behind a vast industrial and socioeconomic initiative, he could take a fair amount of heat away from other, more serious questions about his background, abilities, and intentions. From a domestic standpoint, rallying a young population with high unemployment rates and a faltering, single-export economy behind this kind of project was a perfect way to consolidate power, drive employment, and unite Saudi Arabia around a vision of the future in which bin Salman would, ostensibly, still be in charge. From an international perspective, Neom was a way to rehabilitate Saudi Arabia’s fundamentalist, authoritarian image on the world stage, which was especially important as global oil consumers began to look at producers other than Saudi. Just as important was the potential for Neom to appeal to global investors, across many areas of interest, as the Crown Prince attempted to build a society from the ground up.2

Neom was unveiled at the Future Investment Initiative conference in Riyadh, where bin Salman himself pitched the idea alongside domestic and foreign partners. Even at the start, the proposal itself was a more than a little outlandish. Concept art showed flying cars, and robots performing household tasks, in addition to security and care-giving. Artificial intelligence would manage all sorts of functions of daily life, and an artificial moon—that’s right, an artificial moon—would rest in the sky above. Bin Salman waxed poetic onstage about the project’s potential: “This place is not for conventional people or conventional companies, this will be a place for the dreamers for the world. The strong political will and the desire of a nation. All the success factors are there to create something big in Saudi Arabia.”3 The city’s webpage, now Neom.com, described it as such: “NEOM is positioned to become an aspirational society that heralds the future of human civilization by offering its inhabitants an idyllic lifestyle set against a backdrop of a community founded on modern architecture, lush green spaces, quality of life, safety and technology in service of humanity paired with excellent economic opportunities.” By October of 2017, ads for Neom were already playing on televisions as far away as America.4

However, there were parts of the proposal that were decidedly less idealistic, although just as aspirational. Among early goals were that Neom would be powered by solely wind and solar energy—a goal that is far easier to reach in Saudi Arabia than most places. Additionally, the development outlines indicated that Neom would have its own, autonomous judicial system, which could conceivably be in lock-step with the existing repressive, cleric-driven Saudi system…but that also might not be. Residents within Neom’s boundaries would be subject to distinct, new tax and labor laws, though these have not yet been clearly defined. And finally, Neom called for one thing above all else: Land development, into cities, industrial areas, and more—beginning with The Line5.

The Line.

The Line is the first tangible development initiative that has started construction within the Neom region. At a proposed length of 170 kilometres, or just over a hundred miles, The Line is a linear city subdivided into numerous, hyper-connected smaller communities, stretching from the Red Sea to the northeastern region of the country. Plans for The Line state that there will be no cars in this development, no roads, and over a million people. The Line will be interconnected by an underground transportation system, but on the surface, the city is meant to be connected to nature. Every function of daily life—education, medicine, recreation, work—are apparently going to be within five walking minutes of each other, if the project architects and planners can make it work.6

The Line uses a nodal design, which views each section, or point, within the city as a self-contained unit. Each unit has schools, grocery stores, clinics, and everything else needed to attend to society within that section, ensuring that a resident of the section only rarely needs to journey out elsewhere for reasons other than recreation.7 Belowground, two additional levels will help to balance out the needs of The Line’s residents, with one level focused on infrastructure, and the other on transport.8 The transportation level calls for, among other things, a high-speed train that moves faster than any rail line in use today, capable of taking residents from one end of The Line to the other in just twenty minutes at speeds of 512 kilometers per hour, over 300 miles per hour.9 Watching over it all, an AI will use predictive data modeling to generate new solutions to existing problems within The Line, and proactively improve life in other ways.10

The Line is central to a number of objectives bin Salman and his advisors hope to meet with Neom. The development is supposed to begin welcoming residents in 2025, with a goal of hosting nearly 400,000 jobs and contributing nearly $50 billion to annual GDP by 2030.11 The megacity is planned to be a free trade zone, where the nebulous new tax and governance structures for Neom will first be put into effect.12 As part of this early phase of the project, US company Oracle has announced that it will be the first tenant in The Line’s massive data center, spreading fast, stable Internet connectivity across the area. In addition, a joint project with Saudi’s King Abdullah University of Science and Technology will establish a coral garden, expected to be the world’s largest, across 100 hectares on a Red Sea island off the coast of The Line.13

Oxagon.

Source: neom.com

In November of 2021, bin Salman announced the next step in bringing his Neom vision to life: Oxagon, a gargantuan, eight-sided industrial complex partially housed on land, and partially floating on the Red Sea. Situated nearby to the Suez Canal and within easily accessible distance to The Line, Oxagon will incorporate a current port, Duba, into a much larger development. Oxagon is meant to serve as a supply hub servicing the rest of Neom, with a fully integrated distribution system operating at net-zero emissions levels.14 A promotional video claimed that Oxagon would be the world’s largest floating structure, with an entirely automated port and a marine research center.15

At Oxagon’s organizational core are seven sectors of industry, where its energy will be focused: Autonomous mobility, water innovation, sustainable food production, health and wellness, digital manufacturing, sustainable energy, and modern construction. Like The Line, Oxagon is expected to be mostly walkable, and otherwise accessible via hydrogen-powered transport. The industrial zone will integrate advanced concepts in technology, from machine-learning and robotics to the Internet of Things. Also central to the Oxagon plan, a portion of the complex will be dedicated to innovation and education, with a goal to place Oxagon—and thus, Neom and Saudi Arabia—on the same level as the biggest innovation hubs around the world.16

Later-Stage Plans.

As design goals for Neom have become clearer, so has the list of goals and plans for later in the development process. Neom is imagined as a “living laboratory”—not just cities and outlying towns, but new air- and sea-ports, enterprise and industrial zones, research centers, sports, entertainment, and tourist attractions. Oxagon and The Line are the first planned developments of their kind within Neom, but by no means the only one, and with a truly vast region to fill, there is plenty of additional potential for new developments and ideas. Current word is that Neom may even allow alcohol, a landmark shift in Saudi thinking given that the substance is very, very illegal in the rest of the Wahhabi nation.17

Goals toward sustainable energy have become more precise, with green hydrogen added to Neom’s prioritization of wind and solar. US company Air Products & Chemicals has been contracted to build a green hydrogen plant there, the largest in the world, at a price of about five billion dollars.18 With a more diversified set of energy sources, Neom can hit its goal of fully sustainable power more easily, and since Saudi Arabia is one of the few regions of the world where green hydrogen can be produced, the plant may become an evidence-based advertisement to other nations, with Neom used to illustrate the potential of this energy source. In addition, Neom plans to become host to an advanced water desalination and distribution infrastructure, relying on what developers call an “Internet of Water” to guide delivery, recycling, and monitoring of the system.19

The plans for advanced tech at Neom have only continue to expand. In December 2021, Neom announced joint plans with Volocopter, a company working to design air taxis, to essentially design and create an air taxi system for use across Neom. Ideally, this program will have fifteen aircraft in the sky by 2024, with more to come. On top of this, British software company Arqit Quantum has joined up with Neom to build a quantum cybersecurity system, with the goal of defending AI-run cities against extremely sophisticated cyberattack.20

Of course, Neom wouldn’t be Neom without some other, more outlandish goals, and there are plenty of those still floating around. That giant artificial, glowing moon we mentioned earlier is still part of the plan, plus a vast and continuous cloud-seeding effort to create rainfall in the area, but on a much more massive scale and in a harsher environment than has been achieved anywhere on Earth. Developers have teased a Jurassic Park-style theme park with massive robot dinosaurs, plus a form of entertainment in which robots fight each other using martial arts techniques. In 2019, Mohammed bin Salman announced that he apparently wanted the sand on Neom’s beaches to glow in the dark, although there doesn’t seem to be much of a plan as to how exactly that’s going to happen.

Controversies.

Neom paints an incredibly rosy vision of the future, but what about the present? Unfortunately, it appears to have been too much to ask that the construction of a sustainable, equitable utopia be at all sustainable…or equitable…or utopic. In fact, we can probably sober up any listeners’ ideas about the grandiose futurism of Neom with just two words: Jamal Khashoggi. Killed in 2018 by a Saudi hit squad, Khashoggi has been remembered in the Western world as a brutal reminder of the Saudi government’s reach and their authoritarian, and often violent ambitions. When Neom is looked at through the lens of that targeted assassination, or the Saudi regime’s broader tendencies to incarcerate critics, repress women and minorities, and propagate one of the world’s most horrific ongoing conflicts in Yemen, the sprawling development plan begins to take on a different light.21

Where the Saudi government advertises an omnipresent, omniscient AI, working to keep the appetites of Neom’s citizens satiated, there is an opposite argument to be made: So-called cognitive cities, like Neom, rely upon data collection on a nearly incomprehensible scale. For an AI like this to fulfill its tasks, it doesn’t just need to know what society does, but what you do, not just in your public life, but your private one as well. Similarly, AI-integrated ports, industrial zones, innovation sectors, and research hubs must keep tabs on every quiet revelation and trade secret, all funneled back to the AI’s owner, Saudi Arabia and Muhammad bin Salman himself. What is conceived and marketed as a technophile’s dream quickly becomes not just an economic powerhouse for the Saudis, but an extremely bright, innovative population with all elements of one’s public and personal life brought forth for the Saudis to see. And given that this is the same dictatorship that murders journalists, punishes dissidents, and ensures absolute rule by the majority, such a prospect is truly frightening for those who might inhabit Neom one day.

And beyond the specter of future social control, there is a great deal of repression happening around Neom even today. If you think back to the twenty-six-and-a-half thousand kilometres Neom is planned to inhabit, ask yourself: was nobody else already there? In truth, the region had been home for thousands of tribal Huwaitat people before bin Salman set his sights on it, and in the face of the Saudi economic machine, they have been powerless to resist the destruction of their homeland. One tribesman who attempted to protest the Saudi government’s actions was shot by security forces, and his people have been evicted from the territory.22 The area targeted for Neom has been repeatedly described as “virgin land”, untouched by human hand and foot, but that simply isn’t the case. Twenty thousand Huwaitat have either already been evicted, or are going to be, with no word on where they might be allowed to go afterward. As you can imagine the Neom PR team has been silent when asked about this.23

Finally, there is the simple fact that megaprojects like this have been attempted in Saudi before, and they simply haven’t worked. Ten billion dollars were poured into the “King Abdullah financial district” in Riyadh, which has stagnated and gone unfinished for over fifteen years of development.24 Similarly, the “King Abdullah Economic City” was conceived in 2006, and was supposed to have four and a half million inhabitants by 2020…but has roughly four thousand today. And the Jeddah Tower, once expected to become the tallest building in the world, has been on hold since 2018.25 The nation’s cities and towns are largely in disrepair, and many Saudis feel, justifiably, that the half-trillion dollars being thrown at Neom will do nothing to benefit the people, whereas they could if simply spent more wisely.26

Conclusion.

Neom is complicated, to say the very least. Staggeringly ambitious in conception, and often sparse on details, it cannot help but seem like yet another of the failed megaprojects that authoritarian governments have long relied on, to take focus away from human rights abuses and a bad reputation at home. Couched in the Saudi government’s focus on internal repression, regional competitiveness, and persistent desire to woo the Western world, Neom today looks more like a PR prop than anything else. With few outside observers ever able to directly witness what may, or may not, be going on in that vast landscape, there is little evidence that The Line, Oxagon, or any of Neom’s other high-minded fantasies will become reality anytime soon, or ever.

But at the same time, it is difficult to look away from the indicators that something may actually be coming, out on the coast of the Red Sea. From high-profile Western companies signing up and pitching in, to a surprisingly consistent marketing campaign, to a list of design concepts that appears only to be ramping up in scale, Neom actually has something resembling potential, far-fetched as glowing sand, robotic maids, and artificial moons may be. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo even made a visit to Neom in late 2020, indicating that the megacity remains central to Saudi foreign policy.27

From Muhammad bin Salman’s grandiose, technophilic fever dreams, a real cityscape could still conceivably emerge, and as long as that hope exists, there are those among us who will feel naturally entranced by what it might become. Its architects are members of a brutally repressive regime, one that is not above using violent and inhumane tactics at home and abroad. But any viewer of this channel knows the wonder that comes from a megaproject finally seeming as if it might be realized…and for better or for worse, Neom continues to carry that spark, at least for now.

1 “Full text of Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030”. english.alarabiya.net.

2 https://carnegieendowment.org/sada/83975

3 https://www.cnbc.com/2017/10/24/saudis-500-billion-plan-to-neom-business-city.html

4 https://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2017/oct/24/saudi-arabias-new-city-neom-mecca-robots/

5 https://www.cnbc.com/2017/10/24/saudis-500-billion-plan-to-neom-business-city.html

6 https://tomorrow.city/a/neom-saudi-arabia

7 “The Line – Saudi Arabia’s Controversial 170-Km-Long Linear City of the Future”. www.odditycentral.com.

8 “Saudi Arabia is planning a 100-mile line of car-free smart communities”. Engadget.

9 “The Line – Saudi Arabia’s Controversial 170-Km-Long Linear City of the Future”. www.odditycentral.com.

10 “Saudi Arabia is planning a 100-mile line of car-free smart communities”. Engadget.

11 https://tomorrow.city/a/neom-saudi-arabia

12 https://constructionreviewonline.com/biggest-projects/neom-city-project-timeline/

13 https://www.arabnews.com/node/1999681/business-economy

14 https://constructionreviewonline.com/biggest-projects/neom-city-project-timeline/

15 https://www.businessinsider.com/saudi-arabia-oxagon-floating-eight-sided-city-2021-11

16 https://www.offshore-energy.biz/oxagon-worlds-largest-floating-industrial-complex-unveiled/

17 https://www.the-sun.com/news/4385780/inside-saudi-arabia-megacity-neom-robots/

18 “Can Saudi’s Neom be a blueprint of a hydrogen-run city?”

19 https://tomorrow.city/a/neom-saudi-arabia

20 https://constructionreviewonline.com/biggest-projects/neom-city-project-timeline/

21 https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/28/magazine/saudi-arabia-neom-the-line.html

22 https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/28/magazine/saudi-arabia-neom-the-line.html

23 https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2020/may/04/its-being-built-on-our-blood-the-true-cost-of-saudi-arabia-5bn-mega-city-neom

24 https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2020/may/04/its-being-built-on-our-blood-the-true-cost-of-saudi-arabia-5bn-mega-city-neom

25 https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/stalling-visions-gulf-case-saudi-arabias-vision-2030

26 https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/28/magazine/saudi-arabia-neom-the-line.html

27 https://carnegieendowment.org/sada/83975

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