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Neom: A Utopian Clash between Tradition and Modernity

“The Line”. What sounds like one of Netflix’s dystopian shows is actually a fully-fledged project of Saudi Arabia’s crown prince Mohammed bin Salman as part of the country’s “vision 2030” plan. “The Line” is the infrastructural city planning of the future metropole Neom, a modern ecotopia, promising harmony, sustainability, health and innovation all within an ultra-high-tech surrounding. The term Neom is a portmanteau of the Arabic and Greek words for “new” and “future”, which is exactly what Neom embodies. 500 billion US dollars are being poured into the construction of the planned megacity, which is expected to stretch over 170 km and is situated in the North West of the Saudi Arabian Kingdom, adjoining the Gulf of Aqaba. Neom is designed in, as the name says, a line, connecting 4 distinctive ecologies, with “city modules” allocated around the spine of the city. The Line is expected to host 1 million people from all over the world “with zero cars, zero streets and zero carbon emissions”. The city is planning to achieve this utopian sounding dream through a multilayered invisible infrastructure. It consists of the Pedestrian layer, where people can live and work as well as nature can flourish in serenity; the service layer, built below the city, which will allow for transportation along the 170km long line; and lastly the spine layer, built even further below, hosting an ultra-high-speed transit controlled by AI.

Invisible infrastructural design of The Line. Credit: Neom

Sheikh Mohammed bin Salman calls the post-modern fantasy a “civilizational revolution”, transforming cities and human interactions as we know it from the bottom up. However, these big words seem abstruse given the ultra-conservative, religious regime present in Saudi Arabia. Within the international sphere Saudi Arabia largely enjoys the public image of a “quasi-medieval” kingdom, where women are still struggling for basic rights (granting women the right to drive cars in 2018 only), public beheadings are no rarity, and stoning is an acceptable form of punishment under the legal constitution, which is based on the Sharia, the Islamic law. Many scholars argue that one of the main motivations of Salman’s desire of a rapid leap-frogging into a high-tech environment is to change exactly this public perception of the country, thereby aiming to woo international actors into better diplomatic relations and increased investment into Saudi Arabia. This leaves room to question whether Neom is the first domino to fall in a chain reaction towards a modernized Saudi Arabia or whether Neom will merely be utilized as a publicity island of westernized modernization. In either case, the perverse clashes between Neom’s vision and Saudi’s current modus vivendi are visible in a myriad of fields, such as human rights and sustainability.

Mohammed bin Salman’s words “Live where people come first” are the banner on Neom’s official website. What the website fails to mention, however, is that Neom’s construction requires the internal displacement of about twenty thousand people belonging to a local Saudi tribe, the Huweitat, who have lived in the Northwest region for centuries. Despite vague promises of compensation, the tribe is forcefully evicted from their home to make room for Neom and the “1 million inhabitants from all over the world”. The Huwaitat tribe evidently is not part of those people as they do not fit into the glamorous cosmopolitan image portrayed by Neom. This displacement has not come without backlash though. The tribe leader Abdul-Rahim Al-Huwaiti has uploaded a video on social media in April 2020, voicing his concerns and criticism of the project and exposing the state’s forced removal of neighbouring villagers who did not want to give up their homes. Shortly after, Al-Huwaiti was shot by security forces. This incident is a microcosm of the problematic authoritarian ruling of Saudi Arabia. The monarchy can arbitrarily silence, jail and exterminate its citizens without the need for a legitimate investigation nor a justification. The disregard for basic Human Rights in Saudi Arabia is not a groundbreaking discovery, yet it once again demonstrates how the country handles dissent. The harmony and modernity advertised in Neom seem like a grotesque joke knowing that one’s well-being and safety is dependent on state obedience and the temper of the monarch. However, despite being built on a foundation of blood, Neom might offer a glimpse of hope for the future of Human Rights within Saudi Arabia. Since the announcement of the plans of the megacity Neom, the number of executions of convicts has steadily decreased year by year in efforts to soften the image of the Kingdom, with only 27 executions in 2020 as compared to the 184 executions the year before. Although the current COVID-19 pandemic certainly had an impact on this trend, the crown prince is also playing a major role in the transformation to soften the laws regarding executions. Executions have moved from the public spectacle into more covert locations such as prisons. Furthermore, Salman suspended executions regarding drug-related convictions. It is of course a huge leap to say that with these measures in place Human Rights are respected in the country, yet Neom might trigger a chain reaction of baby steps in the right direction. Softening the image of the country to legitimize Neom for diplomatic partners and the international community might be the wrong intention for a human rights-respecting approach, however, the change is still dearly welcomed.

Another vital key motivation behind the construction of Neom is the attempt to transform and diversify Saudi Arabia’s economy to one beyond oil. After an enormous surge in prosperity over the last decades due to rising oil prices, Saudi Arabia’s economy has now reached a point of inflexion. The world’s largest oil exporter can not rely on oil revenues anymore given the transformation of the global energy market and the recent turbulent energy crisis which oversaw a steady decline in oil prices. Neom is hence an ambitious investment by the Saudi government to rescue the economic situation of the country within a post-oil economy by diversifying revenue streams and resources away from the dependency on oil exports. Neom will be powered by 100% clean energy and as explained above, the city promises zero cars, zero streets and zero carbon emissions. These plans towards a green Neom are a step in the right direction, given Saudi Arabia’s current sustainability status. Saudi Arabia is within the top ten highest-ranking countries in annual greenhouse gas emissions, emitting 0.62 gigatons of CO2 into the world’s atmosphere in 2018 alone. The environmental costs of oil production carry long-term detrimental consequences, including desertification and the pollution of water resources, soil and air, which the WHO classified as “unsafe” within Saudi Arabia. Riyadh and Jeddah are major cities faced with the pollution caused by oil extraction, the burning of fossil fuels and the large number of vehicles using the road, exacerbated by cheap gasoline prices. Economists and scholars do not expect the use of vehicles and the burning of fossil fuels to maintain the luxurious lifestyles within Saudi Arabia to minimize within the next ten to twenty years. Hence it is questionable to what extent Neom can legitimately claim sustainability when a few hundred miles further cars, buses and industries are thriving, fossil fuels are being burnt, and fracking is deployed to exhaust the last natural oil reserves in the country. The double standard of Mohammed bin Salman’s “Green Neom” on the one hand and Saudi Aramco’s (Saudi’s largest energy producer) launch of the largest shale gas development outside the US in 2020 on the other seem contradictory and utterly antithetical. The bigotry of the Saudi regime to advocate for a green future while exhausting oil resources until complete depletion is deeply contradictory and unsettling. This is not to say that the clean energy plans of Neom are not admirable, yet it is vital to highlight the contradictory hypocrisy behind the vision for Neom’s sustainability and the traditional economic functioning of the Saudi state.

In both matters of sustainability and human rights, the double standards are clearly visible. This leaves room for interpretation whether the utopian dream of the super city Neom can be viewed as an engine of Saudi modernization or rather as complete absurdity given its conservative traditional context.


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