Saudi Arabia’s long-standing plan to build Neom (opens in a new tab), a sci-fi megacity on the Red Sea, has seen a new marketing push, with a revamped official website and a surge of activity on the project’s official Twitter account. The Neom page posted concept videos and images of “The Line,” a proposed 200-meter-wide and 170-kilometer (105-mile) long “vertical city” that would be an integral part of the larger initiative.
First, the positives: this shit looks like Destiny. This thing looks like the Citadel from Mass Effect, Hollywood-caliber concept art of white terraces and neon signs with lush greenery everywhere. It’s like the rich part of Shanghai in Deus Ex: Human Revolution. It’s interesting to see something like this imagined on the planet we inhabit.
Now the hard part: does it seem intuitively feasible to build a super-thin megacity a hundred miles long in the middle of the desert, and also somehow a nice place to live that can accommodate nine million people, with a public transport system capable of sending them from end to end in 20 minutes? I’m particularly curious about the promised mirror shine on the city’s exterior walls. A small but significant detail is the fact that ordinary glass skyscrapers already pose a significant mortality risk to birds, but my mind is bewildered by the logistics of keeping this thing clean and maintained over the 105 miles.
The human race is no stranger to building impossible cities in the desert, but this concept may not have the best long-term returns. Las Vegas, America’s adult playground, has adopted aggressive, forward-looking water conservation policies, but its main source of drinking water, Lake Mead, has declined so dramatically in capacity that the drop in water level revealed the victims of Mafia beatings. (opens in a new tab) dumped into the city reservoir at the height of the Cosa Nostra. Fallout: New Vegas perhaps presented a rosier picture of the city in the year 2281 than what we see in real life. Man-made climate change seems poised to render countless once livable regions unsuitable for human habitation, so why build an expensive experimental megacity in an area already so unforgiving, displacing the estimated 20,000 Bedouin (opens in a new tab) who manage in the desert with a much less extravagant lifestyle?
Neom promises a “car-free environment” with a “100% sustainable transport system”, but will that offset the huge carbon footprint of building a future metropolis in the middle of the desert, not to mention the contributions of the Saudi Arabia to Climate Change as the Leading Oil Exporter?
Humanity demands inventive and creative solutions to fight climate change, but Neom’s original Syfy Channel film quality reminds me more of the empty tech promises of the 2010s: self-driving cars are somehow still five years away, robot drones will replace essential services like delivery, and now a monarchy built on oil wealth will build the city of the future in the middle of the desert.
Maybe I’m destined to crow-eat as the short-sighted haters of the House of Saud once they triumphantly build Mass Effect’s Citadel there, but to feel such embarrassment would be far from the worst fate suffered by a critic of Saudi Arabia. government.
The compelling sci-fi outlook of the Neom concept is reminiscent of my favorite works of fiction, and it’s a little invigorating to see someone making bold plans for the future in what is otherwise a dark time, but it’s little likely to be built. It’s part of a charm campaign to rebrand a regressive state that also happens to be a fantastic customer of American arms manufacturers. (opens in a new tab). Saudi Arabia’s reputation has taken a beating in recent years, notably with the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi (opens in a new tab) by Saudi intelligence agents, and the country’s continuation of a long war in Yemen, which the BBC describes as causing “one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world”. (opens in a new tab)“
So maybe take this neat art from the Presidium’s lush terraces and a wall of glass punctuating the endless sand with a grain of salt, however cool.