NEOM: Saudi's vision for a future-facing metropolis

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“This is not a place for conventional people or conventional companies; this will be a place for dreamers of the world,” said Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman of his new venture, NEOM, at the Future Investment Initiative in Riyadh this year. 

NEOM is the $500bn plan to build a future-facing metropolis, 33 times the size of New York City. Situated in a north-western region of Saudi Arabia that crosses over into Egypt and Jordan, it is the first private economic zone to span three countries. 

NEOM is packaged within Saudi’s Vision 2030 plan, spearheaded by 32-year-old Prince Salman and his efforts to change perceptions of the national brand; one that is loosening its dependency on oil and attempting to shake away old puritanical ideals. 

Appointed to lead the development is former CEO and chairman of Siemens AG, Klaus Kleinfeld. His task is to make a reality of this vision for an economic zone that has its ‘own trade laws, taxes and regulations specially created to boost healthy growth and wealth for the region, investors and residents’. 

This choice of project lead -- according to Salman, Kleinfeld was selected for his track record in leading dynamic, advanced businesses – is a clear signal of the future-facing intent for the development. The smart city promises a new way of living, with driverless transport including passenger drones, high speed and free internet known as ‘digital air’, and 100% renewable energy from solar and wind power. 

It is also strategically placed at less than an eight-hour flight away from 70% of the world’s population, and in an economic position that sees a tenth of global trade pass through. NEOM will be the entrance site to the planned King Salman bridge, which is set to stand over the Red Sea to reach over to Egypt as another symbol of connection for Asia, Arabia and Africa. 

At the same convention that saw Salman introduce NEOM, the announcement was made that Saudi Arabian citizenship was being granted to Sophia, an AI humanoid. While this was celebrated from a technological perspective -- and debated from a societal one -- there was much comment on the fact that the rights being granted to a robot appeared to be greater than those accorded to many other citizens of Saudi Arabia. 

A human Saudi woman would not have been as free to appear uncovered, as Sophia did; and her citizenship grants her more rights than those given to migrant workers that come to Saudi to help build developments like NEOM. 

Nevertheless, Saudi is going through a rapid rebranding. Women are being allowed to drive, music concerts are emerging from their underground hides and the Prince has vowed to “crush extremists”. If these two forms of advancement continue at the same pace, NEOM, and Saudi more generally, will be a fascinating case study on the interplay between technology and society, in many respects. 

Tarek Chaudhury, Flamingo