1 September 2022
Lone and Level Sands
Neom: a tyrant’s dream.
By Lynda Goetz
Neom. It even sounds like something out of science fiction. A planet? A spaceship perhaps? Actually, it is the name of Muhammed bin Salman’s futuristic city in the desert: futuristic both in the sense of its concepts and the fact that, although it was announced in 2017 and was supposed to have been largely built by 2020, there is currently very little evidence of its existence.
Muhammed bin Salman (generally known as MBS) is the young, ambitious and ruthless ruler, in all but name, of Saudi Arabia. The sixth son of the current titular ruler King Salman, he was never expected to gain power, but the death of his father’s two older brothers in 2011 and 2012 and then the unexpected decision of his father to name him Crown Prince, ahead of the more sophisticated and Western-educated sons of Salman’s first wife, have placed him in a position which he has rendered unassailable by virtue of a number of deceptions, plots and manoeuvres. Crown Prince MBS at the age of just 37* is now effectively the undisputed ruler of a very wealthy Middle Eastern power, a country with a sovereign wealth fund estimated to be in the region of $620 billion (£532 billion).
Those who write regularly on Middle Eastern matters have it on pretty good authority that MBS has an explosive temper, terrifies most of those around him and has no intention of sharing his power with anyone, including the extensive family of which he is part. Those perhaps less familiar with Middle Eastern politics associate MBS with the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in very unsavoury circumstances; a murder for which MBS has taken responsibility, but which he says he did not order.
The treatment of many members of his family invited from abroad for a conference in October 2017 may also ring bells for some. This was the international investment conference at the Ritz-Carlton in Riyadh at which MBS unveiled his plans for the country’s post-oil future, including his plans for Neom. Family members and businessmen were detained in the hotel and ‘persuaded’ to give up bank details and details of assets – adding $100 billion to the ruler’s (or the country’s) coffers.
In a lengthy article in July, Nicholas Pelham, Middle East correspondent of The Economist, gave a wide-ranging review of MBS’s rise to power and the ways in which he has consolidated his power. However, his attempts to find any evidence of Neom beyond a new road, a sculpture and a pre-existing hotel proved elusive. Last month, too, Abbie Cheeseman in The Telegraph reported on the ‘near-impossible’ plans for the city, with foreign consultants and experts resigning in droves over the impossible demands and toxic work environment, and in last week’s Moneyweek journalist Simon Wilson also tackled the issue of the Saudi megacity.
Unfortunately for the Crown Prince’s massively ambitious plans, which he hubristically declared to be his ‘pyramids’, most Western commentators appear unconvinced that his vision will be realised any time soon, or at all. Although it is true that Riyadh and Dubai, as well as some other major city projects, have been magicked out of the desert in some astonishing timescales, more recent ambitions have not always materialised and there appears to be serious concern that many aspects of the high-tech project are simply not possible. ‘The Line’ is conceived as a hermetically sealed system with mirror cladding to reflect the sun’s heat and create its own biosphere suitable for humans and plants with food produced in vertical farms.
According to the Neom website ‘THE LINE, which is only 200 meters wide, 170 kilometers long and 500 meters above sea level…. will eventually accommodate 9 million residents and will be built on a footprint of 34 square kilometers, which is unheard of when compared to other cities of similar capacity. This in turn will reduce the infrastructure footprint and create never-before-seen efficiencies in city functions. Its ideal climate all year round will ensure that residents can enjoy surrounding nature when traveling on foot. Residents will also have access to all facilities in THE LINE within a five-minute walk, in addition to a high-speed rail with an end-to-end transit of 20 minutes.’
“At THE LINE’s launch last year, we committed to a civilizational revolution that puts humans first based on a radical change in urban planning. The designs revealed today for the city’s vertically layered communities will challenge the traditional flat, horizontal cities and create a model for nature preservation and enhanced human livability. THE LINE will tackle the challenges facing humanity in urban life today and will shine a light on alternative ways to live.”
HRH continued, “NEOM will be a place for all people from across the globe to make their mark on the world in creative and innovative ways. NEOM remains one of the most important projects of Saudi Vision 2030, and our commitment to delivering THE LINE on behalf of the nation remains resolute.”
The projected cost of the Neom project is $500 billion, but many questions hang over it. Western scientists have questioned its green credentials as well as who it is aimed at. The area, the size of Belgium and larger than Israel or Kuwait, on the edge of the Red Sea designated for this vision is, or rather was, home to the traditionally nomadic Bedouin Huwaitat tribe. According to claims by human rights campaigners, two towns have already been razed and some 20,000 Huwaitat moved without proper compensation. Nicholas Pelham described ‘piles of rubble’ lining the road when he went out in an attempt to see what, if anything, was happening at the site. One man was shot and killed by security forces (as he predicted would happen) when he refused to move and began posting online. The Saudis claim that this futuristic city will appeal to the young and it is undoubtedly true that the Saudi population is very much on the youthful side and forecast to increase quite dramatically. MBS also sees Neom as a tourist magnet for the post-oil era.
The inherent paradoxes and contradictions at the heart of this hugely expensive mega project seem to have been overlooked or ignored by the despot keen to leave a legacy. In spite of the millions thrown at it already, it doesn’t look at present as if it will ever create a model for ‘enhanced human livability’, let alone reach a state of decay prompting comment by future poets. But, who knows, this may indeed be how humans are forced to live once we have used up all that oil, which there is almost no doubt the Saudis will not stop extracting until they have, as MBS’s half-brother Abdulaziz, the Saudi energy minister, is reported to have said, taken out ‘every last molecule of hydrocarbon’. In the meantime, it will be needed to fund this ‘dystopia portrayed as Utopia’.
*(37th birthday on 31st August)
tile photo by Emma Van Sant on Unsplash