Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at Future Investment Initiative

Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia lays out plans for $500bn futuristic megacity

Image credit: Reuters/Faisal Al Nasser

At a major event in the Saudi capital, Mohammed bin Salman, the 32-year old Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, announced the “Neom” project, which aims to build an independent, liberal, high-tech megacity in the country.

The project to build this futuristic city was the key announcement of the Future Investment Initiative, held by the Public Investment Fund in Riyadh this week.

The Crown Prince intends for Neom to be autonomous – with its own tax and labour laws and judiciary – and cover three countries on 26,500 square km of empty desert along the Red Sea: Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan. It would include the first bridge crossing the Red Sea between Africa and Asia.

Like Dubai, it could be a “free zone”, exempt from tariffs and running effectively separately from the rest of the country.

The estimated $500 billion (£381 billion) required for the project would come from the Saudi government, international investors and the Saudi sovereign wealth fund. The Crown Prince has appointed Klaus Kleinfeld, former CEO of Arconic, to lead the project.

The utopian plans for the city aim for it to be equipped with automated public services, free online education, driverless cars and passenger drones. It would have “digital air”: Wi-Fi available everywhere. There will not be room “for anything traditional”, the Crown Prince said.

According to Masayoshi Son, the billionaire CEO of Softbank, who may invest in the Saudi Electricity Company to develop solar capabilities for the megacity, Neom could have more robots than people.

In a promotional video, the city was described as “a start-up the size of a country that will change the way we live and work forever, healthier, happier with more time for the things that matter, a truly global culture […] that can show the rest of the planet how it’s done.”

“With energy that flows from the sun and wind, neighbours that can feed and clean themselves, technologies that make life everything it can be, this is where we can prepare together for the next era of human progress.”

The video depicts men and women of different ethnicities living and working together, growing plants in vertical farms, power being harvested from an enormous solar farm, people using VR headsets and women enjoying liberties – such as exercising in sportswear and working in a laboratory – they do not have in the socially conservative kingdom today.

Neom could be powered entirely by renewable energy sources, fitting with the Crown Prince’s “Vision 2030” program. Vision 2030, launched in 2016, aims to reform the Saudi economy for the post-oil era, diversifying the economy and adopting alternative energy sources such as solar and nuclear.

Mohammed bin Salman was appointed Crown Prince in June 2017 and is heir to the throne of Saudi Arabia. He is seen as a modernising force in the desert kingdom, which has a notorious reputation for ultra-conservativism and human rights violations. Bin Salman announced that he wanted the country to become a place of “moderate Islam, that is open to the world and to all religions”. Recently, women in Saudi Arabia have been given the right to drive, the legislation being pushed forward by the Crown Prince.

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