The futuristic megacity NEOM: can it become a reality or is it just a Utopia?

Valentina Mazzotti

Mayank Gupta

Have you ever heard about NEOM? Well, if not, it is high time to check one of the latest megaprojects envisioned by the government of Saudi Arabia. In fact, on October 24, 2017, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman announced the launch of a project involving the construction of a futuristic $500 billion city, called ​Neom​ that runs entirely on alternative energy and sustainable agriculture.

When I found out that Saudi Arabia was planning to build the world’s most advanced energy hub that relies entirely on renewable energies, I was impressed and surprised as well. We all agree on the fact that the conversion to green energies has become a priority nowadays and that all countries of the globe must collaborate in order to reach the goal of a cleaner and more sustainable world. However, do you think that the best path towards a sustainable world economy is building from scratch a mega-smart city? What is the point of concentrating half of Saudi Arabia’s financial and economic means in one giant megaproject, instead of promoting sustainability with smaller but consistent interventions over the whole kingdom? If the prince had at heart the well-being of the Earth, he would first concentrate on decreasing the pollution rates and boost energy efficiency of the thousands of power plants located over Saudi Arabia’s territory. Starting with the PP-9 plant, which made Riyadh the largest crude oil-fired power plant in the world. However, guess what, instead of devoting the money to sustainable energy conversion, the prince has devoted $960m, to expand this plant in Riyadh further.

Furthermore, do you know which company in the world accounts for the highest percentage of carbon dioxide every year? Saudi Aramco, which is the state-owned oil company of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. As of 2020, has the company taken steps to minimise the environmental impact of its operations and have there been any personal interventions from the prince? No, and we might find the answer to this question by considering that Saudi Aramco is the sixth largest company in the world by revenue and the oil and gas sector accounts for about 50 per cent of Saudi Arabia’s GDP. While doing research about Saudi Arabia’s efforts in becoming more sustainable, I have encountered many controversies. First, if a country aims at promoting a more sustainable lifestyle, would it not be best to first invest in public transport, recycling facilities and a well-planned urban community model. Secondly, in order to aim for sustainability, it is essential to inform the general population and especially the youth. The youth has the right to be informed and should have a leading role and be involved in every project the country is promoting, because, if you like it or not, but are future lives depends on the actions that politicians and governments are taking today.

When I read about ​Neom​, I asked myself how a new city, built completely from scratch could benefit the new generations and represent the best action against climate change. Moreover, I wondered why a country like Saudi Arabia, which is the largest exporter of petroleum in the world and which has the fifth-largest proven natural gas reserve, is planning to build a so-called smart city, i.e a city that relies on renewable energies. The heavy dependence of Saudi Arabia on oil was exactly what brought in 2016 to the launch of the Saudi Vision 2030, an ambitious plan to revolutionize Saudi society, reduce dependence on oil, and make the country a technology hub. If everything goes as planned with ​Neom​ and the prince’s grand plan to bolster non-oil revenue and attract foreign investment succeeds, then Saud Arabiai’s upper class will surely benefit from it and will have an additional source of income besides oil and natural gas. Okay, but will the general Saudi middle and lower class and the entire world population benefit from it as well?

In order to answer this question, let’s explore together some of the most innovative features of this planned megacity. The city is located in the seaside corner of northwest Saudi Arabia, a barren region where the only abundant resources are sunlight and unlimited access to salt water. This might sound surprising and could lead to the question: how is Neom going to shape its farming and its agriculture technologies? With the goal of improving the sustainability of the food system - in the challenging environment of the desert - Neom is supposed to draw on "cloud seeding" technology to make artificial clouds. This will allow producing more rainfall than naturally possible in the desert. Moreover, having 450 km of coastline to its disposal, the city aims to be a global powerhouse in water production and storage, planning to depend on 100% desalinated water using renewable energy to ensure zero CO2 emissions.

This sounds extremely straightforward, but I ask myself why not promote this technique worldwide and apply it in every country's agriculture sector instead of building an entire new city based on these principles. The answer is that ​Neom w​ ants to attract foreign attention and capital, and the only way to do so is to keep innovative techniques for themselves in order to hold the record of most innovative place on earth. If Neom wants to represent future humankind, does it mean that it’s potentially open to every human on earth? No.It is still unknown which criteria will be used to select​ Neom​’s future inhabitants, but one thing is certain: ​Neom​ is not open to everyone. According to Saudi Crown prince, ​Neom​ will attract the “world’s greatest minds and best talents” to the world’s best paying jobs in the world’s most livable city. Neom’s residents will not only have access to the world's best schools, universities and research hubs, but they will also take advantage of educational, cultural and fashionable experiences which are supported by the most advanced future technologies in the field of AI and automation. According to Neom’s website (yes, the city has a website and if you are curious, you can check it at will also have the "leading education system on the planet," with classes taught by holographic teachers.

How will Neom’s excellent education system affect youth worldwide? In the most optimistic scenario, Neom will gather the world's best pedagogists and educators that will design a new education model that will be applied worldwide and will prove more successful than the ones we already have, improving the entire society and world we live in. In my opinion, it’s more realistic that with all the world's best minds in one place, we will see the rise of a new elite, which will be the only one benefiting from this excellent and sadly exclusive education. The idea behind Neom is to create a city that embodies all strengths, like first-class entertainment, health-care and sustainability that some cities on earth already possess singularly. Not only does it aim at attracting medical tourists seeking first-class medical treatment, but it wants to stand out as a popular tourist destination as well. That would be great, but let’s examine the potential risks of concentrating the entire knowledge, all research projects, all resources and every innovation in one unique place. We could, for example, run the risk of making this excellence hub, in this case ​Neom​, an exclusive place open only to people that have the financial means to fund the research made at ​Neom.​ Neom would be still the world's most advanced smart-city, but instead of serving the entire world population, as it should, it would become an exclusive place that advances the interests of the world’s upper class.

On top of that, many controversies surround the smart-city project and humanitarian concerns have been raised about the eviction faced by the Huwaiti tribe members who are settled in the area where ​Neom​ is being built. I don’t know how you feel about it but I find it ironic and contradictory that the cost of ​Neom​, which has been billed as humanity’s next chapter, is the eviction of an entire Bedouin tribe. Aren’t the future achievements and developments we wish to attain one day not made of diplomacy, peace and sustainability? A promotional video of Neom boasts extravagantly that the city will host “better humans and a better society”, but why would these better humans built their city on the blood and on the bones of the Huwaiti tribes? I’m aware of the fact that Saudi Arabia is not traditionally known for its civil rights, but I grew up in a country where there is the belief that developments and advances in society go hand in hand with civil progress, democracy and respect for the next. Neom’s society, how Saudi’s prince likes to describe it, will be surrounded by the most advanced technologies, however, progress as a whole is not limited only to advancements in the field of technology and science. In my opinion, the developments and improvements we are hoping to see in the future have to include a variety of factors that range from society, to science up to health and sustainability. If Saudi Arabia wants to have a leading role in improving humanity, it can’t presume that building a technologically-advanced megacity is going to be enough in order to be regarded as progressive and modern. The process of building this advanced city must be ethical and must be the fruit of diplomatic agreements and cultural respect; unfortunately, this is not the case with​ Neom​.

Another matter of controversy concerns the feasibility of some of the plans of the project itself. The scope of the projects based on the crown prince's vision incorporates in fact some technologies that don’t even exist yet, like flying cars, robot maids, dinosaur robots, and a giant artificial moon. Nonetheless, the Crown Prince's determination to fulfil his Neom dream should not be underestimated and according to a Saudi’s spokesperson, the kingdom does not intend to abandon its futuristic project, despite the global economic downturn we are currently experiencing due to the coronavirus pandemic.

I have to admit that the goal of the project is ambitious and straightforward. However, with all that we have considered, are we certain that the project of building a smart megacity from scratch in a country known for its poor civil rights laws and with the lowest youth political involvement rate is the best way of investing in renewable energies, and not just a way Saudi Arabia hopes to attract international capital investment?


Illustrated by Dyuti Basu