Insert World’s Newest Megacity Here Sun, Sea and Robots: Saudi Arabia’s Sci-Fi City in the Desert
On a sandy peninsula in northwest Saudi Arabia, the only interruption to miles of desert was the wreck of a Catalina seaplane, abandoned by its American pilot in 1960 and now covered in Arabic graffiti.
But it’s here that Saudi Arabia’s crown prince plans Neom, a city from scratch that will be bigger than Dubai and have more robots than humans. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman envisions it as a “civilizational leap for humanity” outside the traditional Saudi constraints and a business hub with advanced manufacturing, bio-tech, media and airlines.
“We want the main robot and the first robot in Neom to be Neom, robot number one,” the crown prince said in an interview in a palatial setting next to the Ritz Carlton in Riyadh. “Everything will have a link with artificial intelligence, with the Internet of Things—everything.”
Map data: Google, CNES/Astrium, DigitalGlobe
The sci-fi city with glimmering office towers and five-star hotels is supposed to represent Saudi efforts to transform a nation once swimming in oil money and now facing a severe financial squeeze.
Saudi Arabia’s growing deficit
Budget balance as a % of GDP
It would be a microcosm of Saudi Arabia 2.0 while its new 32-year-old leader reconfigures the rest of the economy to make it fit for the modern world in a way that past rulers have failed to do. Other massive cities in the desert have been announced with much fanfare, then have floundered short of expectations, like the $10 billion office park on the outskirts of Riyadh sitting largely unoccupied and unfinished.
The city “constitutes an attempt to create an economic zone that is more efficient and streamlined than the overall economy that will take time to reform,” said James Dorsey, a Middle East specialist at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University. “The question is whether one can isolate a megacity from the inefficiencies of the country’s economy.”
The Saudi economy is big, but trade is concentrated in oil.
Show: Trade GDP Oil Flows
to/from: Saudi Arabia U.A.E.
Money No Object
It’s also another example of Prince Mohammed’s willingness to throw money at projects regardless of dwindling resources. The unveiling of the megacity this week follows plans for a vast entertainment park, a tourist retreat and a $4.8 billion makeover for the waterfront in Jeddah on the Red Sea coast.
In keeping with the blueprint called Vision 2030, the project is nothing if not ambitious: The Gulf region is already full of skyscrapers in the sand and, whether Abu Dhabi or Doha, no metropolis so far has managed to match Dubai as an international business center, let alone outdo it.
A Catalina plane, downed in 1960, lies on the beach in Ras Hameed.
It took decades to develop Dubai into a tourist destination with 2.9 million residents, the world’s tallest tower and regional headquarters for such international banks as Standard Chartered Plc. Dubai International Airport is the busiest in the world after Atlanta’s and Beijing’s.
The planned city, though, won’t compete with Dubai, but rather complement it and other parts of the Gulf, according to Prince Mohammed. It will create “new demand, not the same demand of Dubai,” he said. “It will help Dubai, it will help Bahrain. It will help especially Kuwait,” which can export to Europe faster and cheaper than now, he said.
How many hubs do you need?
Dubai and Doha airports together serve more than 120 million passengers a year, while Dubai dominates in container traffic.
Show: Airports Ports
Total airport passengers, 2016
*One TEU (Twenty Foot Equivalent Unit, a common measure of container ship capacity) equals about 13 Panama Canal Universal Measurement System tons.
Neom is a combination of “neo,” or new, and a derivation from the Arabic word “mustaqbal,” or future. It will be partly located in an area known as Ras Sheikh al-Hameed, a peninsula of land jutting about 31 miles (50 kilometers) into waters of the Red Sea after turning west off of route 5, the Saudi coastal road.
Some 10,000 square miles (25,900 square kilometers) have been allocated for the development of the urban area that will stretch into Jordan and Egypt. More than twice the size of neighboring Qatar, the area was chosen because of its “strategic location” and proximity to international shipping routes. This year, Egypt signed a treaty to give the Saudis two islands essential for linking the project to the Sinai.
The drive through the area of the future city cut a path through a barren desert, bordered on the right side by sun-burnt, off-white hills and desert flats. Across the turquoise water, a Saudi Border Guards base and a communications tower sat. There was nothing else around the curvature of the pristine bay, save for the wreck of the Catalina airplane.
The prince already knows what he wants to turn the strip of coast into. Neom Bay will start as the operational hub for the city and “be like the Hamptons in New York later on,” he said. But that doesn’t mean more jobs for the young Saudi population increasingly edgy over its economic prospects. “It’s not Neom’s duty to create jobs for Saudis,” Prince Mohammed said. “Neom’s duty is to be a world hub for everyone in the whole world.”
The Saudi Vision 2030 is underpinned by the creation of the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund, an estimated $2 trillion pot of assets that will drive investment and create jobs. The fund has already committed $20 billion to an infrastructure investment fund with Blackstone Group LP and as much as $45 billion for a technology fund run by SoftBank.
How Neom stacks up to other cities
It will have significant regional and global competitors.
All cities are on the same scale: 10 miles
New York City
King Abdullah Economic City
* Present-day Ras Hameed
** Projected population is 50,000 by 2020 and 2 million capacity.
Key to Dubai’s expansion has been the influx of foreign investment and foreign workers who can live more freely than in most other places in the Gulf. Alcohol is tolerated, as are tourists in bikinis, and the United Arab Emirates government has allocated land for churches and temples.
In Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam, booze is forbidden and businesses close for prayer several times a day. Women are banned from driving—the law is set to change next year—and gender mixing is still widely restricted in public areas. The country has been criticized over its export of Wahhabism, a fundamentalist strain of Sunni Islam that has inspired extremist groups, including al-Qaeda and Islamic State.
Dos and Don’ts
Residents of Dubai live more freely than those in Saudi Arabia.
Women can drive*
Other faiths can practice
Nonmuslims can drink alcohol
No religious police
Women in public without an abaya
Businesses open during prayer
Workplace gender integration
Proselytizing is prohibited
Dynastic, autocratic rulers
Lashes administered for certain criminal offenses
Apostasy is a crime punishable by death
Homosexuality is illegal
More female university graduates than male
* Kingdom to issue driving licenses to women from June 2018
A promotional video released on Tuesday features a lifestyle so far unavailable in Saudi cities.
It showed women free to jog in leotards in public spaces, working alongside men and playing instruments in a musical ensemble. The one woman wearing a hijab had her head covered with a patterned pink scarf. Although the futuristic city will be business friendly, the government won’t allow alcohol, Prince Mohammed said.
“We can do 98 percent of the standards applied in similar cities, but there is 2 percent we can’t do, like, for example, alcohol,” the prince said. “A foreigner, if they desire alcohol, can either go to Egypt or Jordan.”
Even by Saudi standards, the area where they are building the city is conservative. Along the coastal road, there are no tourist facilities and restaurants that allow women, other than the recently opened Golden Tulip Sharma Resort.
The Jordanian beach resort of Aqaba will be a drive away, and there will be a bridge linking Egypt and its Sharm El-Sheikh tourist town, hit recently by a slump in visitors after terrorists downed a Russian passenger jet in October 2015.
Prince Mohammed dismissed concerns about past mistakes, such as the Riyadh office park or King Abdullah Economic City on the coast north of Jeddah. In the Vision 2030 document released in April last year, the government pledged to try to salvage economic cities that “did not realize their potential.”
“Neom is a totally different story,” he said. “There’s a commitment from the government; we’re putting our name on the first line.”
Previous projects fall short
The kingdom’s other projects, such as King Abdullah Economic City (KAEC), have trailed ambitions.
5,000Actual population(March 2016)2,000,000Planned population of KAEC(2005)
Initial ground-breaking will be in the last quarter of 2019, with phase one completed in 2025, according to a tour of the city given to delegates attending the Future Investment Initiative in Riyadh.
During the extravaganza, guests climbed stairs into a globe-shaped video projector with surround-sound and graphics that boasted a series of superlatives about the city, showing images of young people dancing at a rooftop party, an orchestra playing, a couple going for a walk and a family playing soccer on the beach.
Meanwhile, on the eastern side of the Red Sea bay, the Catalina plane sits, an abandoned piece of American-Saudi history protected by its remote location. The temperature hit 47 degrees Celsius in May last year when a Bloomberg reporter drove up to the region. A few resilient acacia trees capable of withstanding the heat dot the horizon.
The city will offer a “life with no limits,” the voiceover said during the tour. “In 2030 free time is plentiful, and we make the most of it.”
With assistance from Alaa Shahine, Riad Hamade, Andrew Barden, Alex McIntyre, Jennifer Prince, Fatma Abusief and Jinan Warrayat
Design & development: Christopher Cannon and Jeremy Scott Diamond
Photos: Glen Carey/Bloomberg
Sources: International Monetary Fund, U.S. Energy Information Administration , Dubai Airports, Hammad International Airport, General Authority of Civil Aviation, Abu Dhabi Airports Company, Interior Ministry (Kuwait), Bahrain International Airport, National Center for Statistics and Information (Oman), Sharjah International Airport, World Bank (Cairo Airport Development Project), Israel Airports Authority, Queen Alia International Airport (Airport International Group), American Association of Port Authorities, United Nations, Ar-Riyadh Development Authority, Dubai Statistics Center—Government of Dubai, Public Authority for Civil Information (Kuwait), Ministry of Development Planning and Statistics (Qatar), U.S. Census, OECD, Bloomberg reporting
Note: GDP for Egypt and Pakistan is for 2016. All other GDP data is for 2017. Trade and oil data are for 2016. Population data is as follows: Dubai as of October 25, 2017; Kuwait City is for 2017; Doha, New York and Riyadh for 2016; King Abdullah Economic City as of March, 2016; Jeddah for 2010.