Saudi Prince building solar powered city with robots, glowing sand and an artificial moon

giant sandcastle
CC BY 2.0 Not NEOM, just a giant sandcastle/FabianZepeda/Pixabay

Will NEOM be "an aspirational society that heralds the future of human civilization" or "a totalitarian surveillance state"?

A Twitter wag called it "an 8-year-old's vision of the future after visiting EPCOT." That's NEOM, a new city-state being proposed for the northwest corner of Saudi Arabia by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS. It has everything! Entertainment, sports, tourism, and a whole lot more; according to the Wall Street Journal, the world's greatest minds and best talents will have the best paying jobs in the world's most livable city.

They’ll fly drone taxis to work while robots clean their homes. Their city will supplant Silicon Valley in technology, Hollywood in entertainment and the French Riviera as a place to vacation. It will host a genetic-modification project to make people stronger.

Some of the wonderful features listed in the Wall Street Journal:

1. Flying Taxis: Scientists might take a flying taxi to work. “Driving is just for fun, no longer for transportation (e.g. driving Ferrari next to the coast with a nice view),” planning documents show.
2. Cloud Seeding: The desert won’t always feel like the desert. “Cloud seeding” could make it rain.
3. Robot Maids: Don’t worry about household chores. While scientists are at work, their homes would be cleaned by robot maids.
4. State-of-the-Art Medical Facilities: Scientists would work on a project to modify the human genome to make people stronger.
5. World Class Restaurants: There would be fine dining galore in a city with the “highest rate of Michelin-starred restaurants per inhabitant.”
6. Dinosaur Robots: Residents could visit a Jurassic Park-style island of robot reptiles.
7. Glow-in-the-Dark Sand: The crown prince wants a beach that glows in the dark, like the face of a watch.
8. Alcohol: Alcohol is banned in the rest of Saudi Arabia. But it likely won’t be here, say people familiar with the plan.
9. Robot Martial Arts: Robots would do more than just clean your house. They also could spar head to head in a “robo-cage fight,” one of many sports on offer.
10. Security: Cameras, drones and facial-recognition technology are planned to track everyone at all times.
11. Moon: A giant artificial moon would light up each night. One proposal suggests it could live-stream images from outer space, acting as an iconic landmark.

And it will be safe! According to the WSJ,

Saudi CEO of NEOM Nadhmi al-Nasr © Saudi CEO of NEOM Nadhmi al-Nasr/ FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images

“This should be an automated city where we can watch everything,” Neom’s MBS-led founding board said, according to the documents—a city “where a computer can notify crimes without having to report them or where all citizens can be tracked.”

Tweet re Neom

Some people have issues with this kind of thing, but how can a TreeHugger not be impressed with a city entirely powered by sun and wind, making enough electricity to turn saltwater into fresh, to be kept cool with rain from seeded clouds, to see at night by the light of what looks like a rising moon, but in fact is a fleet of coordinated drones?

The Neom website promises the earth and a whole lot more.

NEOM is positioned to become an aspirational society that heralds the future of human civilization by offering its inhabitants an idyllic lifestyle set against a backdrop of a community founded on modern architecture, lush green spaces, quality of life, safety and technology in service of humanity paired with excellent economic opportunities.

Architects and builders will have fun, too:

Technologies such as building information modelling, prefabrication, wireless sensors, automated and robotic equipment and 3D printing will be the future of the construction industry. NEOM will utilise this in the creation of global design and construction companies that will reduce overall construction costs and time, as well as minimising labour use throughout the world.

TreeHugger has shown other attempts at cities of the future in the desert, most notably Norman Foster's Masdar, which has not yet lived up to its promise. One problem in attracting people may be the legal system and the treatment of women. But according to the WSJ, all the judges will be appointed by MBS and even though it will be governed by Sharia Law, they will look the other way.

One surprising element in conservative Saudi Arabia is a proposal to allow alcohol, say people familiar with the plan. With borders encompassing land acquired from Jordan and Egypt, Neom would function largely as a separate country. That allows MBS to argue that Western norms like drinking and bare female heads won’t be introduced to the land of the Muslim holy cities of Mecca and Medina.

Bloomberg notes that the project is actually happening but is going more slowly than expected.

“We really don’t have details about anything in Neom, which is why we don’t know how viable it is,” said Steffen Hertog, associate professor in comparative politics at the London School of Economics and Political Science. “No one seems to have committed any sums. Things are moving a bit more slowly than was anticipated.”

Others are convinced that it will be a totalitarian surveillance state. "That means while you’re chilling on the glowing beach, daydreaming about your next prix fixe meal, a drone equipped with facial-recognition technology will likely be transmitting your location to Neom’s '1984'-esque law enforcement officials."

But think of the wonder; this is a part of the world where the consultants could think of only two abundant resources: sunlight and salt water. Now it will have robots and genetically engineered humans. What a wonderful glorious world we live in.

Saudi Prince building solar powered city with robots, glowing sand and an artificial moon
Will NEOM be "an aspirational society that heralds the future of human civilization" or "a totalitarian surveillance state"?

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