During a recent meeting of the Future Investment Initiative conference in Riyad the 32 year old crown prince of Saoudi-Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, announced the building of a 25.000 km2 smart city from scatch, 30 times the size of New York. The required investment – $500 billion – will be financed by selling 5% of the shares of the national oil company Aramco. Klaus Kleinfeld, former chief executive of Siemens AG and Alcoa Inc. will lead the project. I will discuss the plans first, after which I will comment on them.
The rational behind the plan is to decrease Saoudi-Arabian dependency on oil. In addition, the volume of money leaking out of the country will be diminished by expanding local investment options. At the same time the plan hints at fundamental changes in the Saoudi-Arabian society.
Boost for the economy
The new city wil become the trigger of the diversification of the economy. It will be powered by renewable energy, applying advanced energy storage and produce its own water supply. The core industries will be biotechnology, food technology, advanced manifacturing, creative industries and the development of digital content. Universities will focus on artificial intelligence, virtual reality and augmented reality technologies. The contribution to the Kingdom’s GDP is projected to reach at least $100 billion by 2030.
The city will be CO2 neutral. The personal transport will rely on autonomous cars. The city will be serving as a laboratory for innovative construction techniques and materials. Internet will be free, other forms of connectivity will be state-of-the-art. Land use will be mixed, allowing people to reach their destinations by walking to encourage a healthier lifestyle. Government services will be fully automated and easily accessible to all residents.
The city is located in a rich natural environment, offering a shoreline of 450 km. Its center will be a marvelous park. In every aspect human beïngs will be top priority. Its cultural life, healthcare and its educational institutions will measure with the best of the world. NEOM is meant to grow into an aspirational society with an idyllic lifestyle. It will become a community founded on modern architecture, green space, high quality of life, safety, and technology in the service of humanity paired with excellent economic opportunities. The city will offer a multicultural environment in wich a proactive and diverse community will thrive and living by world class social norms. These conditions will attrack the best scientists and entrepreneurs of the world, especially the younger ones.
NEOM will be granted the status of an autonomous economic zone and be will be independent of the Kingdom’s existing governmental framework, excluding sovereignity laws. This status enables the industry to manufacture and provide goods and services at globally competitive prices and also to be a place of freedom.
A cultural turn
A visionary Mohammed bin Salman said This project is not a place for any conventional investor … This is a place for dreamers who want to do something in the world… He added that young Saudis and the promotion of moderate Islam are the key to his modernizing dream for his country: We are only going back to how we were: to the tolerant, moderate Islam that is open to the world, to all the religions and traditions of its people.
At this point, I strongly recomment to watch the video that is part of the glossy presentation of NEOM.
The information above has already acknowledged you with the facts. Now focus at the subtext of this presentation and its subtle suggestions of a cultural turn. You are watching a modern country, with happy young men and women, mostly unveiled. Girls are dancing. The crown prince wil have understood that a cultural change like this requires NEOM to be an autonomous entity with Saoudi-Arabia. But it is evident that he aims it to become a role model for the country as a whole.
Realizing NEOM’s infrastructure, attracting new industries and having competent scientist and entrepreneurs migrated from abroad will be a huge operation. Taking into account the availability of large resources and the power of bin Salman, the project is not a mission impossible. However it wil take time. When asked about the number of citizens of NEOM, bin Salman said – rightly – that the population has to grown organically. But the same applies to the city as a whole which makes any estimation of its contribution to Saoudi-Arabian GDP in vain.
The cultural turn will be even more demanding, but it is a necessary requirement for the success of the project. Probably bin Salman’s intention to liberalize the country, the Islam included, will be supported by the younger generation, women in the first place. However the resistance from the traditional establishment will be tough. Only to-day the King put in jail sixteen of bin Salman’s opponents. Bin Salman might take as example the almighty and popular current Chinese president and leader of the communist party Xi Jinping. However Xi is standing at the shoulders of mighty predecessors like Deng Xiaoping and does not need taking into account conservative religious leaders.
NEOM is not just another smart city, it is a focal point for radical cultural and social change in Saoudi-Arabia and possibly the Arab world as a whole. Mohammed bin Salman is realizing the scale of his mission when he is saying: This is a double-edged sword. If they (young Saudis) work and go the right way, with all their force they will create another country, something completely different … and if they go the wrong direction it will be the destruction of this country.
 Referring at Chinese leaders is not by chance: My next article deals with another new mega city, Xiongan. This city, 100 km from Beïng has to relieve the capital’s growth and the subsequent pressure on trafic, air quality and housing. The city will cover three times the surface of New York; the sum to invest $250 billion.
*) This article was brought to you by Professor Herman van den Bosch, Professor at Open University of The Netherlands.