Flying taxis, robotic avatars and holograms — Saudi Arabia pushes ahead with its sci-fi city vision

Environment

The future Site of the city Neom, a planned cross-border city, stands empty before development begins in the Tabuk Province of northwestern Saudi Arabia, December 18, 2019. Picture taken December 18, 2019.
Lucas Jackson | Reuters

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — If you’ve been seeing mysterious Bladerunner-type ads popping up on your phone recently for Neom in Saudi Arabia and wondered what on earth you’re looking at it’s not surprising — this futuristic desert development is eye-popping in its ambition.

With a mammoth budget of $500 billion, Neom is a key element of Saudi’s Vision 2030 plan originally launched back in 2016 as part of the kingdom’s mission to diversify away from its oil-dependent economy. Excavation work started this month along the entire length of the project.

The development has received its fair share of skepticism around feasibility, with a raft of articles in publications ranging from The Guardian to the Financial Times including commentary from architects who conclude the project is a pipe dream. Other critics note its carbon emissions among broader concerns.

Located on a coastal strip in Tabuk in the northwest of the country, there are three areas of Neom that have been officially announced — primarily The Line, a linear city with Utopian vistas straight out of a Hollywood movie.

Composed of two parallel skyscrapers that cut right through the desert for 170 kilometers from the coast to the mountains, The Line will be 200 meters wide and soar to a height of 500 meters (higher than most of the world’s towers) — and for an added surreal touch, will be encased on all sides with gigantic mirrors.

The project is based on a new concept of “zero gravity urbanism,” which is the idea of layering city functions vertically, while enabling inhabitants to move seamlessly in three directions (up, down, and across). When completed it could accommodate up to 9 million residents.

NEOM political map of the 500 billion dollar megacity project in Saudi Arabia along the Red Sea coast. Location of the smart and tourist city with autonomous judicial system. English labeling. Vector.
Peterhermesfurian | Istock | Getty Images

Cynicism toward the project is something Neom leaders acknowledge but strongly rebuff.

“I want to be clear about this — Neom is a complex, bold, and highly ambitious undertaking and is most certainly not an easy one to deliver,” Antoni Vives, chief urban planning officer at Neom, told CNBC.

“But we are making strong progress, and it’s exciting to see the vision come to life.”

While construction of this “Oz of the Middle East” is only at the beginning stages, there’s already a push to lure top international talent across industries such as tourism, technology, and entertainment to come and live and work. And there seems to be plenty of cash on the table to attract talent, with some reports suggesting Neom is paying top executives as much as $1.1 million a year.

For those who do make the leap, they’ll be signing up for a world of no roads, no cars — only flying taxis — plus a high-speed rail with an end-to-end transit time of just 20 minutes. Then there are the robotic avatars and holograms set to become part of everyday life.

The other planned Neom areas are Oxagon, a “gateway to advanced and clean industries,” which will become the largest floating industrial complex in the world — and Trojena, a year-round destination with mountain quality dry air, a ski slope, mountain biking, water sports, wellness facilities, and an interactive nature reserve.

A handout image provided by NEOM on Oct. 5, shows a view of the design plan for Trojena.
– | Afp | Getty Images

According to the planners, each area will be powered solely by renewable energy, sustainably connected, and surrounded by nature that will be re-greened and rewilded.

Aside from buzz around mind-bending Neom, there’s a larger picture emerging in the world’s fastest growing economy. According to global real estate consultancy Knight Frank, the total value of real estate and infrastructure projects since the launch of Saudi Arabia’s National Transformation Plan in 2016 has now crossed $1.1 trillion.

“We are currently tracking 15 giga projects in various phases of construction around the Kingdom, many of which are new standalone super-cities in their own right,” commented Knight Frank’s Harmen de Jong, partner and head of real estate strategy and consulting for Saudi Arabia.

For business owners who have long worked in the Middle East, Neom represents a new era. “I believe this project is unprecedented and will drive innovation and technology as we have never seen before,” Catherine Granger, the CEO of regional artificial intelligence specialist Trajan Consulting, told CNBC.

AI is set to be “the beating heart” of Neom, as outlined at the Global AI Summit recently in Riyadh.

Granger’s firm has been working closely with Neom and she believes the view of Saudi Arabia among the business community has changed inexorably. “Global multinationals now view the country as one of the most prolific business epicenters in the world,” she said.

Indeed, Neom is placed to potentially become a global gateway for international trade, not least because of its strategic location on the Red Sea through which almost 13% of the world’s trade passes — plus 40% of the global population is within a six-hour flight.

On top of enticing the hardcore business investment, Neom has grand plans for the world of art and culture, recently opening Neom Media Village and Bajdah Desert Studios which together comprise the country’s largest sound stages and film production support facilities. The aim is to transform and grow the kingdom’s media industry — another key focus of the Vision 2030 plan.

Visitors watch a 3D presentation during an exhibition on ‘Neom’, a new business and industrial city, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, October 25, 2017.
Faisal Al Nasser | Reuters

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