Finding Neom; Saudi Arabia’s Plan To Transform 26,500 Sq. Km Of Untouched Land Into The World’s Most Futuristic City

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You may think of Saudi Arabia as an oil-rich nation of unrivalled wealth, strict religious observance, and even stricter civil laws that tend to reinforce a male-dominated society, but if the current Saudi leadership has its way, your children almost certainly won’t.

Saudi Arabia has been on a charm offensive over the past six months, as it promotes 2 of the most ambitious sounding projects the world has ever heard of.

Firstly, the Saudi Vision 2030, first announced last April, is a wide-ranging blueprint for a post-oil dependent Saudi, with a diversified economy, and advanced health, education, infrastructure and tourism goals.

The second project was unveiled yesterday at conference that has been nicknamed the “Davos of the Desert”. The Future Investment Initiative is taking place in Riyadh this week. Christine Lagarde, Head of the IMF, and Masayoshi Son, the Chairman of Softbank, with whom Saudi Arabia has invested some $20 billion via the Softbank Vision Fund, are both in attendance, as are many of the great and the good from the worlds of investment, technology, and the press.

It was the perfect setting, then, for Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to unveil plans for Neom – a £500 billion, 26,500 square kilometre “mega-city”, variously described as a “special zone”, that is “unmatched in intelligence”, “a new blueprint for sustainable life”, and “a place on earth like nothing on earth, on a scale never seen before, where inventiveness shapes a new inspiring era for human civilization.”

Cynics may suggest the countries dwindling supplies of oil are forcing the Saudi government to adopt this futuristic, eco-friendly and more outward-looking strategy. The International Monetary Fund (IMF), for example, has suggested that the country’s foreign reserves will be entirely eroded with five years.

But, whatever the reason, Saudi Arabia is currently making all the right noises – the kind that futurists and technologists, and world leaders want to hear.

So, just what do they have planned, and is it feasible?

At present, the whole concept of Neom is just that – merely a concept. But all of the PR blurb, which includes a visually stunning website, discoverneom.com, a promotional video, and various downloadable PDFs, declares that the work begins – right now!

Neom’s project management team won’t be winning any prizes for modesty: “The world’s most ambitious project: an entire new land, purpose built for a new way of living”, is the project strapline.

The area that has been selected lies to the Northeast of the country; bordering 3 countries, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan; and connecting 3 continents; Europe, Asia, and Africa.

The strategic importance of the location has been stressed – approximately 10% of the world’s trade flows through the nearby Red Sea, and 70% of the world’s population can reach it in under 8 hours.

It’s also 10 degrees cooler, on, average, than the rest of Saudi Arabia, thanks to coastal winds coming from the Red Sea, and surrounding mountains, which make the terrain more diverse. The area also encompasses 486km of coastline.

Neom is intended to be completely self-sufficient in terms of energy, powered by wind and solar farms that will be built in the region – although the area is supposedly rich oil and gas reserves, too.

It is hoped that when the “city” is finished, it will top the world’s most livable cities index, and will be a a pioneer in not one, not two, but nine different areas; and they are.

Energy and Water, Mobility, Biotech, Food, Advanced Manufacturing, Media and Media Production, Entertainment, Technological and Digital Sciences, and the Future of Living itself.

In terms of building the future, there are 6 main pillars: Human Beings As A Top Priority (“world class social norms” are promised), Healthy Living and Transport (walking, biking, or future mobility technologies), Automated Service / E-government, Digitalization (“digital air” will be free to all), Sustainability and Innovation in Construction.

There’s no disputing that these are noble ambitions – and the team behind Neom – which is short for new future, by the way – also believe they can be lucrative ones too.

The nine sectors outlined for development are expected to return an estimated $70 billion in revenue to the country, that is currently being invested abroad. Neom will attract both domestic and international investors and tourists too, it is hoped, injecting much needed capital back into the Saudi economy.

The entire project will be owned and funded by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, and the region will even have its own laws, including tax and labour laws, befitting the “world’s first independent special zone”.

At “Davos in the Desert”, it was suggested that Neom could have “more robots than people”, and, of course, be serviced by drones, and driverless cars.

Neom, the concept at least, is a fascinating mix of today’s and tomorrow’s technologies, wildly ambitious, and despite the PR blitz, potentially contentious.

But one thing is for sure, it will be truly fascinating to watch this project develop – and you can do just that thanks to an interactive map on the Discover Neom site.

Neom is every futurists, technologist, financier, sociologist and investors dream, all rolled into one – but it does also rather conjur up that old Shelley verse:

“My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;

Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

With the eyes of the world watching, the Crown Prince, who says he wants to return Saudi Arabia to a “moderate Islam” nation and introduce sweeping social reforms, will be striving for Neom to avoid that fate.

 

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