Saudi Arabia is looking toward a post-oil future by sinking some US$500 billion into a massive, ultra-futuristic megacity project it calls Neom (or Neo-Mostaqbal; new future). Saudi Crown Prince Mohhamed bin Salman announced the giant project on Tuesday, a brand new city on the intersection of three countries, where "there is no room for old thinking."
This bold new vision comes with a startling and unequivocal message from Saudi Arabia's next king to its ultra-conservative Wahhabi clerics: "We are returning to what we were before, a country of moderate Islam that is open to all religions and to the world. We will not waste 30 years of our lives, wasting time dealing with extremist ideas. We will destroy them today."
Neom represents a radical shift in thinking. This giant city will be built to straddle the borders of Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt, with a total area around 26,500 square kilometres on the East side of the Gulf of Aqaba. The current project map, mind you, shows an area entirely within the Saudi Arabian border. For it to straddle borders, it'll need to include both sides of the gulf – and it's worth noting that Israel owns a tiny slice of that waterfront too, home to the resort town and sea port of Eilat.
The Neom area is currently almost entirely barren desert, although some 10 degrees cooler than the average Gulf state city, with 460 kilometres of Red Sea coastline (if both sides of the gulf are counted), numerous islands, and a 2500-metre tall mountain range for scenic charm. An airport built here would be less than 8 hours flight for some 70 percent of the world's population.
Neom will operate as its own independent "special zone." It will remain under the Saudi Kingdon's sovereignty, but will have an entirely new set of laws, both judicial and regulatory, developed with the primary purpose of attracting as much global investment, talent and business as possible. Investors will be invited to participate in the drafting of regulations and legislation, and the social side of things can be expected to be much more liberal and globally focused than Saudi Arabia has been known for in recent years. The promotional material shows shadowy images of women with free-flowing hair and nary a hijab to be seen.
Dr. Klaus Kleinfeld, the former Chairman and CEO of Alcoa, Arconic Inc., and Siemens AG has been nominated as CEO of the Neom project.
The whole area is a giant blank slate, upon which the Crown Prince wishes to write the future of modern humanity. As such, Neom will be built on cutting-edge technological foundations.
Energy and water
Clean energy is the top of the priority list here; vast solar and wind harvesting power plants are planned. Large-scale energy storage solutions are also on the menu, as well as some kind of desalination program to recover fresh water from the Red Sea.
Neom may be the first city ever designed with three-dimensional electric commuting in mind. With phase one of the city expected to be complete by 2025, this isn't far out of line with many expectations of when autonomous flying taxis should be ready for commercialization. Road users won't be left behind, either, with a massive King Salman Bridge project planned to connect Asia with Africa.
Neom is ready to fully adopt the concept of vertical farming to help feed its population in a water, time and space-efficient way, as well as arid and seawater farming and solar-powered greenhouses. Creating a fertile oasis in this dry desert area will be no small challenge.
The new city will work hard and design its regulatory framework to attract high-tech businesses, particularly in fields like biotech, advanced and additive manufacturing, robotics, renewable energy and futuristic transport solutions. Flying cars seem to be a key priority, with the Discover Neom website offering developers "a chance to test out inventions like … passenger drones and self-learning traffic systems in a live destination setting."
There's plenty more to dig through: Free, "highest speed" internet for everyone; automated, interactive government services for residents; wave pools; a focus on media, digital content and video game production; huge sports and recreation facilities, with a focus on global events. It's a city that will be built around best practice healthy living guidelines. By 2030, the project team expects Neom to be contributing as much as US$100 million per year back to the Saudi economy, and leading the world in per-capita GDP.
It's a glorious goal, and rarely do we get a chance to see a clean-sheet vision of a future city at this stage; pure idealism, pure futurism, the loftiest of progressive, sustainable goals and the might of an almost inexhaustible chequebook behind it.
But if this is to be Dubai 2.0, there are many lessons to be learned, particularly in how an ultra-futuristic city like this can be built while maintaining dignity, living standards and human rights for the mammoth labour force upon whose backs and by whose hands the city will be built. One hopes an omelette like this can be made with a minimum of broken eggs, that this Elysium can be built without the creation of an impoverished underclass.
Source: Discover Neom