Saudi Arabia wants NEOM to have flying cars, a fake moon, and 24/7 surveillance


Saudi Arabia wants NEOM to have flying cars, a fake moon, and 24/7 surveillance

NEOM CEO Nadhmi Al-Nasr speaks at a 2018 conference in Riyadh. (Courtesy NEOM)

Have you heard of NEOM?

The futuristic city-state rising on the northwestern corner of Saudi Arabia

The Wall Street Journal recently uncovered more details on the $500 billion desert destination that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) wants to create. The ambitious project, which aims to transform 10,000 square miles of desert into “the world’s most liveable city,” hasn’t been a total secret. MBS has been promoting it since 2017.

But the WSJ’s findings on what NEOM would truly consist of, based on a review of 2,300 pages of documents on the plans, offers the best glimpse inside it. We’re talking about a place of extreme automation, surveillance, and wealth meant to attract large Western companies, help diversify Saudi Arabia’s economy, and decrease its financial reliance on oil. 

If fully constructed, NEOM could be the next Dubai, but with far more advanced technologies and an urban ecosystem built from scratch that would rival every major metropolis in the world, at least according to MBS. But the truth is that NEOM might not be fully realized due to the reported corruption that exists within the Saudi government. Right now, many countries are hesitant to do business there because of it. Even architects and major leaders in the field who previously committed to and served on NEOM’s advisory board are flat-out refusing to work with the country anymore.

Located on the very edge of Saudi Arabia where the Red Sea meets Egypt, Israel, and Jordan, NEOM features a masterplan that’s rather inconceivable and extremely expensive, but construction is already underway and an airport has already been built. Here are some of the consultants’ big ideas: flying taxis to take residents to work, robot maids to clean peoples’ homes, beaches with glow-in-the-dark sand, cloud seeding to bring rain to the hot desert, a hologram faculty teaching at leading local schools, a robot dinosaur island that serves as a tourist attraction, and state-of-the-art medical facilities where scientists will work to “modify the human genome to make people stronger.” Last but not least, MBS wants to build an artificial moon that would light up the city at night. While that could be accomplished with drones, one of the more nefarious ideas proposed by MBS himself is the constant surveillance of NEOM’s citizens through facial recognition technology and a legal system operating outside the bounds of Saudi Arabia’s courts.

Regardless of whether it gets built, it’s interesting to note that the proposal for NEOM was dreamt up by a team of U.S.-based consulting and management firms. The WSJ discovered that Boston Consulting Group, McKinsey & Company, as well as Oliver Wyman, were working on the project. Their recommendations go beyond urban planning and include a slew of economic incentives and legal systems that NEOM could utilize to both lure residents and keep them there. In addition, the expert advisory group also provides plans to relocate the over 20,000 people that already inhabit the region. 

Satellite image of map
NEOM is being built in the northwestern corner of Saudi Arabia in a barren desert along the Red Sea. (Courtesy NEOM)

How and when these out-of-this-world ideas will come to fruition is unclear, but we do know that the Crown Prince wants things to move quickly. NEOM‘s first phase of development is expected to be completed by 2025, but it remains to be seen whether there will be any flying cars.