In northwest Saudi Arabia, where most people see a barren wasteland, Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman has envisioned the future, and according to the Wall Street Journal, it is something straight out of an Elon Musk wet dream, complete with flying taxis, robot maids, robot dinosaurs, robot martial arts, endless booze and glow-in-the-dark sand, among other things.
Perhaps MbS has been following Elon Musk's Twitter account a little too closely. Or perhaps he has joined him in a microdosing regimen. Regardless, MbS has hatched a $500 billion plan to cover 10,000 square miles of this desert to attract the "world's greatest minds and best talents" to the world's best paying jobs in the world’s most livable city.
A true modern day, pardon, future Shangri-La.
The ideas have been laid out in 2300 pages of confidential documents at Boston Consulting Group, McKinsey and Company and Oliver Wyman that the Wall Street Journal was able to review. The project is called "Neom", which - it will come as no surprise - is a mash up of the Greek word for "new" and the Arabic word for "future". The documents were dated September 2018.
The consultants employed an expansive (and expensive) mix of science fiction and corporate buzzwords to turn the Prince's imaginary city into a reality. Local tribes would have to be forcibly relocated and a court system developed by law firm Latham & Watkins would have judges reporting directly to the king and operating under Sharia law.
Neom’s MbS-led founding board said: “This should be an automated city where we can watch everything. A city where a computer can notify crimes without having to report them or where all citizens can be tracked.”
Perhaps the inspiration was not the Jetsons, but rather 1984. Also, it sounds like what the US is desperately trying to become. The board has adopted the recommendations of its consultants and people familiar with the project say they don’t know how much the plan will become a reality due to both funding issues and potential technological limitations.
Neom Chief Executive Nadhmi al Nasr said: “Neom is all about things that are necessarily future-oriented and visionary. So we are talking about technology that is cutting edge and beyond—and in some cases still in development and maybe theoretical.”
Perhaps inspired by the movie Syriana, the project marks the centerpiece of MbS's effort to transform Saudi Arabia from an oil-dependent desert wasteland to a forward looking diversified economy. Rather than relying on just petroleum revenue, MbS has stated that he wants Saudi Arabia to produce goods and services that it currently buys abroad (such as chainsaws and sulfuric acid?) He also proposed Neom as a way to keep Saudis spending domestically.
To ensure that his vision of Future World is truly unique, MbS plans to roll out the following :
1. Flying Taxis: Scientists might take a flying taxi to work. “Driving is just for fun, no longer for transportation (e.g. driving Ferrari next to the coast with a nice view),” planning documents show.
2. Cloud Seeding: The desert won’t always feel like the desert. “Cloud seeding” could make it rain.
3. Robot Maids: Don’t worry about household chores. While scientists are at work, their homes would be cleaned by robot maids.
4. State-of-the-Art Medical Facilities: Scientists would work on a project to modify the human genome to make people stronger.
5. World Class Restaurants: There would be fine dining galore in a city with the “highest rate of Michelin-starred restaurants per inhabitant.”
6. Dinosaur Robots: Residents could visit a Jurassic Park-style island of robot reptiles.
7. Glow-in-the-Dark Sand: The crown prince wants a beach that glows in the dark, like the face of a watch.
8. Alcohol: Alcohol is banned in the rest of Saudi Arabia. But it likely won’t be here, say people familiar with the plan.
9. Robot Martial Arts: Robots would do more than just clean your house. They also could spar head to head in a “robo-cage fight,” one of many sports on offer.
10. Security: Cameras, drones and facial-recognition technology are planned to track everyone at all times.
11. Moon: A giant artificial moon would light up each night. One proposal suggests it could live-stream images from outer space, acting as an iconic landmark.
For those concerned about their safety there, fear not - the Saudi state will have everything under control. Cameras, drones and facial-recognition technology will allow state intelligence to track every single person there. "Everything can be recorded," the founders' Board stated. Neom has already engaged IBM for potential facial recognition software.
The Board even thought of offering Tesla billions in subsidies to move to Neom, while giving the kingdom a stake.
Clearly, since it is deep in the realm of science fiction, MbS also considered partnering with unicorn-specialist SoftBank on its "Apollo" project, which seeks to create “a new way of life from birth to death reaching genetic mutations to increase human strength and IQ.”
Unfortunately, the $500 billion futuristic nirvana doesn’t come without headwinds.
According to the Journal, the Saudi government plans to forcibly relocate more than 20,000 people, many whose families have inhabited the area for generations. One resident of the area said "You are dismembering an entire society. For us, it's like death."
Additionally, companies have often avoided investing in Saudi Arabia due to the country's opaque legal system, corruption, alcohol ban and rules that require women to get a male relative's permission to travel. MbS has adopted the stance that these rules are so difficult to change because they are so ingrained in existing Saudi cities, that it is simply easier to just develop a new city and start over.
“Starting Neom from scratch, with independent systems and regulations, will ensure the availability of best services without social limitations,” MbS said at Neom’s first board meeting.
None of this is hindering MbS' enthusiasm to come up with a Disney World for the world's richest and most powerful. Construction on Neom is under way using thousands of foreign workers that in one section of the development were housed six to a tiny room as of June 17. Earlier this year, MBS issued a decree about an area called Silver Beach. “I want the sand to glow,” he said, according to two people familiar with the project. Engineers haven’t figured out a safe way to do it, the WSJ adds sardonically.
Each night, he told underlings, a fleet of drones should create the illusion of a rising moon—crescent, half, full. “That’s what he wants this future to be,” a former executive said.
To make that happen, Boston Consulting Group suggested partnering with NASA to make the fake moon “the biggest in the world.”
Read the full longform WSJ writeup here.