NEOM: Futuristic Empire or Dystopian Dominion?

A rare glimpse at NEOM, Saudi Arabia’s future-forward techno-city and Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS)’s hope for a more prosperous, innovation-driven local economy.

A techno-utopia equally populated by robots and human beings? A modern empire serving as Saudi Arabia’s ticket to a bold and first-of-its-kind post-oil future on the banks of the historic red sea? A project that integrates revolutionary innovations once only found in fairy tales, like flying taxis, robot maids and dinosaurs, an artificial moon, and more? If you can dream it, you may just be able to find it… in NEOM.

NEOM is the future and futuristic city that rests at the heart of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS)’s vision and plan for his home country’s economic growth and prosperity. But at a cost of $500 billion and little more than an airport and landing strip to show to date, will NEOM be worth its hype and become the future-forward empire MBS dreams, or will the cash, constraints, and clashes involved in its execution result in a project that is little more than a dystopian dominion, and a far cry from the promised tech hub and vacation hotspot?

NEOM, the vision

The model for NEOM is a smart mega-city that contains 16 boroughs and is roughly 33 times the size of New York. Designed to champion the use of the latest urban technology to shift Saudi Arabia’s image and economic dependence away from the oil industry and towards a new era as the technological nerve center of the developed world. 

From scratch.

What will NEOM look like? 

According to the project’s promotional video and website, NEOM will be more than just a place, it will be a mindset. The project is expected to be fully powered by renewable energy, and integrate forward-looking solutions for energy storage, transport, R&D, and manufacturing. Green technology will be used to build the city’s water capabilities and maximize its usage efficiency, while urban mobility solutions will include seaports, airports, autonomous transport solutions such as autonomous vehicles/drones, and more. Blueprints detailing artificial rain, a fake moon, holographic teachers, and other wild developments further promote the city’s sustainability and profitability goals.

An international innovation center will be established for the development of essential items, like food technologies, leveraging the temperate local climate, and the latest advances in seawater and desert farming, aeroponics, and hydroponics to their advantage. And when it comes to the city’s leisure and entertainment activities – don’t worry. The city is expected to be packed with excitement, performance, and visual art productions, as well as artificial intelligence, virtual reality and augmented reality-based products and services – from smart sporting facilities to robots used for everything from housekeeping to street exhibits.  

And the list goes on. If NEOM’s execution is anywhere as enthralling as its promise, locals and visitors will enjoy an unmatched and future-forward experience across all areas of daily life. 

What is needed to take NEOM from dream to reality?

If we peel away the magical wrapping that is the NEOM dream, we are left with a long list of hard facts that simply cannot be ignored. To transform the promise that is the NEOM mega-city, the following must be reliably and consistently supplied:

  • Lots of money. Although $500 billion has already been raised, the state continues to solicit additional funds, indicating that not all promises can be delivered, unless major investors step in.
  • A huge workforce. McKinsey & Co, Boston Consulting, and Oliver Wyman were hired by the Saudi government to advise on the project. In addition, workers are being brought in from other countries, such as Pakistan.
  • Adherence to timelines. A company called Neom was established in 2019 by the Saudi government for the purpose of keeping the project on track. But while Phase 1 of the project was scheduled to complete by the end of 2020, it is not clear what was included in the phase. 
  • Exceptional amenities. A wide variety of Michelin-starred restaurants, a giant e-gaming epicenter, a ‘Jurassic Park’-like tourist attraction with robotic dinosaurs, a leading education system taught remotely, using holographic technology, and the list goes on.

NEOM, the reality 

Will NEOM deliver on its promise? Only time will tell. At present, the site of the future techno-city is little more than an official airport, vast expanses of land, and whispers of endless innovation – some that will improve locals’ quality of life, while others seem to be planned just to create a “wow” factor. Land that is at the center of a major controversy, creating a rather dystopian dominion for those who are unfortunately involved. 

According to the local Al Huwaitat tribe, the Saudi government is forcibly displacing their people living in the area, in order to build the mega-project. Their resistance to the expulsion has been met by tribe members being abducted and arrested by Saudi security forces, and in April of this year, activist Abdul Rahim Ahmad al Huwaiti was shot and killed for refusing to leave his home in the region. 

Bottom line

It is clear that Saudi Arabia’s NEOM project holds vast potential for a highly-unique, innovative, and sustainable future for those living and visiting the future man-made metropolis. That being said, the methods used to create and sustain NEOM may not be worth the hefty financial and humanitarian toll required to achieve MBS’s goal. And, at the end of the day, one is left wondering – is the goal of innovation creating smarter, more connected communities, or is it technological advancement… at all costs?