Neom. Saudi Arabia’s new Utopian City.
If you want to consider a completely new life in a new land, then Saudi Arabia claims to be building it for you in Neom, (literally ‘new’ with ‘m’, the beginning of the Arabic word for ‘future’). A £380 billion mega city 20 times the size of London which will take up to 30 years to build, it is said to be the world’s most ambitious project, part of Crown Prince Mohammad’s master-plan to modernise Saudi society and diversify its economy away from dependence on oil.
It’s obviously got something because his father, King Salman bin Abdulaziz a-Saud has opted to take his summer vacation there instead of his usual jaunt on the French Riviera – and they haven’t even started building it yet! The public cannot enter the site so no one is sure where he will be staying.
So what will Neom, this new future be like? The official web site says:
‘It’s going to be ‘an entire new land – purpose built for a new way of living.’
OK, but what is this new way of living?
Well, it’s going to be:
‘Unrivalled in concept, unmatched in intelligence, unconstrained by history and built on humanity’s greatest resource: imagination.’
Blah, blah, blah…
The real clue is in the next paragraph:
‘Neom will operate as an independent economic zone – with its own laws…specially created to build healthy growth for the region…’
In other words, Crown Prince Mohammad, isn’t quite convinced he can transform Saudi Arabia into a modern, liberal, oil independent, business friendly promised-land so he’s going to build one of his own on the Red Sea coast. (Saudi Arabia is currently ranked only 92 in The World Bank’s ‘Ease of Doing Business’ league.)
But there are big problems with this idea. Creating new utopian cities from scratch does not have a happy history (in the UK, Milton Keynes is regarded as moderately successful!)
Firstly, if it’s going to be ‘unconstrained by history’ how come Reuters reports that the government has asked construction companies to build five palaces for the king and crown prince in the best place on the coast?
Secondly, if it is ‘unmatched in intelligence’ how come Saudi Arabia exports virtually nothing that is built with intelligence? Electrical machinery and equipment is just 0.5% of the country’s exports.
Thirdly, it is just not true that it will be built with ‘ humanity’s greatest resource’ (unless you think oil is humanity’s greatest resource). Oil and related products account for nearly 90% of Saudi exports. Neom will be built, not on imagination but on oil revenues. If ‘imagination’ could be used to build a diversified economy, it should have started doing it by now. Instead, it remains a country with virtually no civil liberties, no elections, no dissent and, for all his reforming zeal, the Crown Prince has so far merely allowed women to drive and watch sports events.
On the subject of women in Saudi Arabia, Sophia the robot, an android was recently awarded Saudi citizenship and Ms Robot is apparently to be one of the first inhabitants of Neom. So, it looks like the ‘new way of living’ might offer more opportunities for female androids than for female humans. Now what does that remind me of? Oh yes, Stepford.