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Phosphorescent beaches that glow in the dark. The first open-air ski slope in the Arabian Gulf. Billions of trees planted in a country dominated by desert. Trains that levitate. The highest rate of starred restaurants per inhabitant. Flying taxis powered by drones. An artificial moon. A car-free, carbon-free city built in a straight line in the middle of the desert for over 170 km. Robot-beetles cleaning residents’ homes. This city supplants Silicon Valley in technology, Hollywood in entertainment and the French Riviera as a holiday destination. All powered by 100% renewable energy. Too good to be true? Perhaps not: Neom promises to be a ‘blueprint for tomorrow in which humanity progresses without compromising the health of the planet’.
A daring, ambitious and mind-blowing dream of ‘a New Future, the future of innovation in business, livability and sustainability‘ – NEOM (Arabic: نيوم ), was presented by Saudi Prince Mohammad bin Salman in 2017 during the explanation of the Vision 2030 project, the plan aimed at the economic, social and cultural diversification of the country, which will allow it to no longer depend on oil. The ecological city will be built on the shores of the Red Sea, in the desert in the north-west of Saudi Arabia, in the province of Tabuk, extending towards Egypt and Jordan (thus connecting Asia, Africa and Europe), covering a total area of more than 26,500 km2 – an area larger than the whole of Kuwait or Israel. It will cost more than USD 500 billion, financed by the state and local and international investors. In 2018, Egypt announced that it is contributing by selling some land.
NEOM (meaning the ‘New Future’) is not just a place, it is a mindset. It is designed, built and administered in a way that is free of outdated economic and environmental infrastructure. The city is designed for four major goals: 1) to diversify the Saudi economy and secure a leading role in global development; 2) to become the home, workplace and new future for more than a million people around the world; 3) to introduce a new model of urban sustainability and set new standards for health, environmental protection and the effective and productive use of technology; 4) to include research centres, sports and entertainment venues, tourist destinations – all on a human scale: liveability, health and well-being. Total security: cameras, drones and facial recognition technologies are planned to follow everyone at all times.
The project is divided into three parts: THE LINE – a modern city designed with total respect for nature; OXAGON – its manufacturing and innovation city; TROJENA – the mountain tourist destination that will offer the Arabian Gulf’s first open-air skiing. Everything will be managed by two NEOM subsidiaries: ENOWA, the Neom subsidiary created in 2022 that deals with energy, water and hydrogen, and NEOM Tech & Digital Company. The holding company NEOM Company develops the project and is wholly owned by the Public Investment Fund (PIF), the sovereign wealth fund of Saudi Arabia.
The XVRS platform that underpins all functions and services in NEOM was officially announced last February in Riyadh, during LEAP 2022, the forum that aims to be the meeting point for the largest international TECH groups. XVRS, the result of a major investment by Neom Tech & Digital Co., will be tested in Neom, and can be purchased by other companies or cities that want to adopt the Saudi model of ‘Technological Humanism’, to implement functions and services. Despite the doubts raised by the project, the expectation for its realisation is very high. Its CEO is Nadhmi Al-Nasr, who has over 30 years of experience at Saudi Aramco.
The Line – the vertical city
The location of the new futuristic city – NEOM
The inhabited part of Neom, which can accommodate up to 9 million people, will be built in layers and levels – a straight line across the desert, only 200 metres wide and 500 metres above sea level, but 170 km long. No cars, no roads, everything will be powered by 100 per cent renewable energy and 95 per cent of the land will be within walking distance. The vertical green city with an ideal climate will be built for man and around man – happier, more prosperous: 380,000 jobs will be created by 2030, and many costs (such as insurance and car maintenance, petrol, parking, etc.) will not exist. The city that promotes education, research and innovation; here, talented people will be welcome.
Ali Shihabi, a former banker and the founder of The Arabia Foundation, who has been a member of Neom’s advisory board since 2020, explains that The Line will be built in stages, block by block. “People say it’s a crazy project that will cost billions, but it will be built module by module to meet demand.” Just like the traffic-free ‘super-blocks’ of Barcelona: each square will be self-sufficient and contain services such as shops and schools, so that everything you need is within a five-minute walk or bike ride away. Once completed, The Line will be travelled by hyper-fast trains, with a maximum journey time of 20 minutes. The automated services will be managed by artificial intelligence.
According to Prince Mohammad bin Salman, Chairman of the Board of NEOM, “THE LINE will overcome the challenges humanity faces today in urban life and shed light on alternative ways of living. We cannot ignore the environmental and livability crises that plague the world’s cities and NEOM is at the forefront of providing new and imaginative solutions to address these problems. NEOM is leading a team of the brightest minds in the fields of architecture, engineering and construction to make the idea of building upwards a reality“.
Oxagon – the floating city
The geometry of Oxagon, almost all by the sea
OXAGON: the first floating city on water – NEOM’s next-generation port and logistics hub, fully automated, will be a place where innovators and entrepreneurs can accelerate ideas from laboratories to markets; the factories of the future for the products of the future will be created here. An integrated physical and digital supply chain will offer unparalleled global port and airport connectivity. Seven innovative sectors: sustainable energy, autonomous mobility, water innovation, sustainable food production, health and wellness, digital technology and manufacturing (including telecommunications, space technology and robotics) and modern construction methods, all powered by 100 per cent clean, carbon-neutral energy. They call it Industry 4.0 .
Saudi Prince bin Salman is enthusiastic about it: ‘OXAGON will be the catalyst for economic growth and diversity in NEOM and the Kingdom, further fulfilling our ambitions under Vision 2030. OXAGON will help redefine the global approach to industrial development in the future, protecting the environment while creating jobs and growth for NEOM. It will contribute to Saudi Arabia’s regional trade and create a new focal point for global trade flows. This new city, built around innovative new industries, has begun its development and we look forward to its rapid expansion‘. And there are already some investors who believe in the Prince’s dream and want to start their own projects within the Oxagon, creating factories with the latest artificial intelligence technology.
The world’s largest floating structure (over 7 km) is ideally located on the Red Sea, close to the Suez Canal, the gateway for the movement of goods between Europe and Asia, through which some 13% of world trade passes. At the heart of OXAGON will be the adoption of state-of-the-art technologies such as the Internet of Things (IoT), human-machine fusion, artificial and predictive intelligence and robotics, all coupled with a network of fully automated distribution centres and autonomous last-mile delivery vehicles. On the Red Sea coast Neom announced a collaboration with Kaust Innovation (a Saudi Arabian deep tech research and development centre) for the world’s largest coral reef restoration project.
The development of OXAGON is well underway and plans for large production facilities are underway. These facilities include the world’s largest ($5 billion) green hydrogen project involving Air Products, ACWA Power and NEOM; with the world’s largest and most advanced modular construction factory (Gulf Development International Ltd) and the region’s largest hyperscale data centre, a joint venture between FAS Energy Co. and NEOM. And it is here, in Oxagon, that a unique seawater desalination system will be installed that will provide (as early as 2023) pure, potable water, all powered by 100 per cent renewable energy (solar and wind), built by Enowa, Japan’s Itochu and French giant Veolia. The first productive tenants will be welcomed as early as the end of 2022. On the 48 km2 of Oxagon, 90,000 people will live (the first in 2024) and 70,000 jobs will be created.
Trojena – the mountains of NEOM
Trojena – a destination like no other
Trojena is part of the NEOM regional plan and is located 50 km from the coast of the Gulf of Aqaba, with an altitude of between 1500 and 2600 metres and an area of almost 60 km2. The most fascinating area of Neom will offer unique experiences: there will be six development districts (Gateway, Discover, Valley, Explore, Relax and Fun) organised around real and virtual architectural structures.
The project, which will offer year-round outdoor skiing, adventure sports, water sports, hiking, mountain biking and a luxurious high-tech vertical village (the ‘Vault’) around a beautiful freshwater lake, will be completed in 2026. The complex will include flats, chalets and villas, as well as hotels ranging from ultra-luxury to experience, wellness and family resorts. In addition, there will be a wide range of retail, leisure and dining options. TROJENA expects to attract 700,000 visitors and 700 permanent residents by 2030.
In March 2022, Mohammad Bin Salman, described it as follows: ‘TROJENA will redefine mountain tourism in the world by creating a place based on the principles of ecotourism, highlighting our efforts to preserve nature and improve the community’s quality of life, in line with the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 goals. It also confirms our commitment to be part of the global effort to protect the environment. TROJENA will be an important addition to tourism in the region, a unique example of how Saudi Arabia is creating destinations based on its geographical and environmental diversity. This forward-looking vision will ensure that mountain tourism represents another revenue stream to support the Kingdom’s economic diversification, while preserving its natural resources for future generations‘.
Abdul Rahim al-Huwaiti posted videos online in which he said he expected to be killed
The project is fabulous, modern, innovative, but there is always a ‘but’. Beneath the veneer of luxury lies a history of threats, forced evictions and bloodshed. The site will be built on the home of the ancient Huwaitat (or Howeitat) tribe, a proud, ancient and traditionally nomadic Bedouin tribe that has lived for hundreds of years on both sides of the Arabian-Jordanian border and in the Sinai Peninsula. Revered in history as fearless warriors, they fought alongside T. E. Lawrence in the Arab Revolt of 1917, who mentioned them in his epic memoir, Seven Pillars of Wisdom.
“For the Huwaitat tribe, Neom is built on our blood, on our bones,” said activist Alia Hayel Aboutiyah al-Huwaiti. ‘It is certainly not for the people who already live there! It is for tourists, for people with money. But not for the people who live there‘. The project promises to create jobs and generate wealth in this underdeveloped region, but so far the local population has not seen any benefits.
Weeks after Neom’s announcement in 2017, residents of the area went to the regional governor to ask if they would be relocated – he replied that he could not help them. This is not uncommon in the Kingdom – the relocation of residents in the interest of public works projects. In 2017, the United Nations condemned the forced demolition of the fortified town of Awamia, in the eastern region of Qatif, as a violation of human rights. Karima Bennoune, UN Special Rapporteur on Cultural Rights, stated that “the historic buildings were irreparably burnt and damaged by the use of various weapons by the military, forcing residents to leave their homes and neighbourhood, fleeing for their lives“.
The council decided that perhaps some of the residents can stay if they are retrained to have the appropriate skills in Neom. The people will receive compensation and benefits, as well as ‘new properties’ within the kingdom; including a scholarship programme to ‘acquire the necessary skills to be part of Neom’s vision‘, according to official statements.
Photovoltaic panels in the Huwaitat Desert
For the development of Neom, the Saudi government cancelled two cities and forcibly removed 20,000 members of the Huwaitat tribe, without compensation. A relocation plan by the Boston Consulting Group foresaw a time frame until 2025. Urged by Mohammad Bin Salman to move quickly, the date was brought forward to 2022. Residents say they have only heard rumours. Some say the move would be devastating. “You are dismembering an entire society. For us it is like dying,” said one of them.
In April 2020, a civil servant at the Ministry of Finance refused to be evicted from his house in Tabuk and started posting videos online. Days later, he was shot by Saudi security forces, as he had predicted in one of his videos. Several other Bedouin tribesmen, who commonly possess weapons, were arrested for spreading slogans against displacement and for refusing to sign relocation documents.
A Saudi human rights activist, Alya Abutayah Alhwaiti, who now lives in London, claims to have received death threats by telephone for raising international awareness against the futuristic city of Neom. Ms. Alhwaiti added that she was threatened with ‘the same fate that befell Jamal Khashoggi’.
How things really are
A satellite image of a Neom project square in the desert (October 2020)
The Neom website claims that the first phase of the project will be completed by 2025. The reality, for now, is more modest. A satellite image currently shows that a single square has been built in the desert. In addition to rows of houses, there are two swimming pools and a football pitch. Ali Shihabi says that this is the camp for Neom staff, but we are not on site to verify this. The biggest concern is the sustainability of the project: will it really be ‘the most food self-sufficient city in the world’? The project involves the use of greenhouses and vertical cultivation, a revolutionary idea for a country with only 1.5 per cent of its total land area classified as arable and which currently imports more than 80 per cent of its food. The same with renewable energy: the project predicts that 50 per cent of electricity will be from renewable sources by 2030, but in 2019 only 0.1 per cent of energy was procured cleanly.
Critics argue that the project is mainly aimed at the rich. Palaces have been built for the royal family, and satellite images show a heliport and a golf course. Ali Shihabi claims that the city will accommodate everyone, ‘from workers to billionaires’, but admits that this is not how it is perceived. ‘The problem with Neom is that it has failed in its communication strategy,‘ he says. “People think it is just a toy for rich people“.
Foreign companies have long avoided investing in the country because of an opaque, unpredictable, religion-based legal system; corruption; and social restrictions that prohibit alcohol and require women to have permission from a male relative to travel. Prince bin Salman found these structures so entrenched that it was easier to develop a new city with new laws than to change the existing ones. In fact, in the new city it is proposed to allow alcohol and women’s bare heads, which is a surprising proposal for conservative Saudi Arabia.
The construction of Neom requires money that Saudi Arabia does not have. The country has recently run a budget deficit and MBS has bet on a $45 billion investment in a fund of Softbank Group Corp, a Japanese technology company. The money for Neom, therefore, has to come from abroad. Large Western companies have to be attracted. In 2017, Neom’s board of directors suggested guaranteeing Tesla Inc. billions in annual purchases from the government in return for Tesla’s transfer of car production to Neom – and the sale of a stake in the kingdom. In 2018, Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund spent $2 billion to buy 5% of Tesla. CEO Elon Musk later said he would take Tesla public with the help of Saudi Arabia, but later backtracked and said he had no plans to do so.
To date, the project has gained some important partners such as: McLaren Racing (with a new electric racing programme), Mercedes-EQ (Formula E Team, an automotive industry giant with the ideas of sustainable innovations), AFC (Asian Football Confederation) and OceanX (exploring inaccessible parts of the ocean, to conserve the ecosystems of the Red Sea). In short, international investors have not yet taken the bait. The scope of the project is vast and the region already has well-established commercial and transport hubs in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Qatar. Neom is inextricably linked to the Crown Prince, who as de facto leader of the kingdom has drawn the wrath of the Saudi war in Yemen and his alleged links to the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
What has really been built to date: almost nothing
“Investors will start to get interested when the basic infrastructure is operational, so that they do not take the absolute green-field risk,” said a financial source familiar with the project. In 2017, Softbank Group CEO said the company would work with Saudi Arabia to develop NEOM. The Saudi Arabian sovereign wealth fund PIF invested around $45 billion in Softbank’s inaugural $100 billion Japanese technology fund.
The first phase of the project, which will run until 2030, will cost 1.2 trillion riyals, about half of which will be covered by the Public Investment Fund (PIF). Officials will seek to raise a further 600 billion riyals from other sovereign wealth funds in the region, from private investors in Saudi Arabia and abroad, and from an initial public offering of Neom on the Saudi stock market: ‘We aim to take Saudi Arabia to the top three largest stock markets on the planet,’ Prince Mohammed said, adding that he expects Neom’s IPO to take place around 2024 and could add more than 1 trillion riyals to the size of the kingdom’s market. Neom will start engaging key potential investors by the end of the year. Officials are talking to companies ‘all over the planet’ and many Chinese companies are already working on Neom.
Despite its Vision 2030 programme, Saudi Arabia has promised to increase oil production just weeks after making major ecological commitments at this year’s COP26 climate conference (which promised zero net emissions by 2060). According to the Energy Minister, Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, the Saudis will not stop pumping: ‘We will still be the last man standing and every molecule of hydrocarbon will come out’.
All this is talk. Prince Bin Salman has put a lot on the line, and not only financially. Should the project abort, it is hard to imagine that his power would emerge intact from such a crisis, not least because the multi-billion debts incurred will have to be repaid anyway. For him, there is only one direction: go ahead, no matter at what price. No matter, on whose life.
 https://www.datacenterdynamics.com/en/news/neom-forms-joint-venture-with-fas-energy-to-develop-data-centers-in-saudi-arabia/ ; https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2020/may/04/its-being-built-on-our-blood-the-true-cost-of-saudi-arabia-5bn-mega-city-neom