Saudi Arabia’s long-term project to build neom (opens in new tab), a science fiction megacity on the Red Sea, has received a renewed marketing push, with a revamped official website and a wave of activity on the project’s official Twitter account. The Neom page has posted concept videos and images of “The Line,” a proposed “vertical city” 200 meters wide and 170 kilometers (105 miles) long that would be part of the wider initiative.
First, the positives: this shit looks like Destiny. This thing looks like Mass Effect’s dang Citadel, Hollywood-caliber concept art of white terraces and neon signs with lush greenery everywhere. It’s like the rich part of Shanghai in Deus Ex: Human Revolution. It’s interesting to see something like this proposed on the planet we inhabit.
Now, the hardest part: does it seem intuitively feasible to build a hundred-mile wafer-thin megacity in the middle of the desert, and somehow also make it a nice place for nine million people to live, with a transit system capable of sending them end-to-end in 20 minutes? I am especially curious about the promised mirror shine on the outer walls of the city. A small, but important detail is the fact that regular glass skyscrapers already pose a major mortality risk for birds, but I am amazed at the logistics of keeping this thing clean and maintained for all 105 miles.
The human race is no stranger to building impossible cities in the desert, but this concept may not have the best long-term return. Las Vegas, America’s adult playground, has embraced aggressive and forward-looking water conservation policies, but its primary source of drinking water, Lake Mead, has dwindled in capacity so drastically that shrinking water levels have revealed the victims of mafia hits. (opens in new tab) dumped in the city’s reservoir during the heyday of the Cosa Nostra. Fallout: New Vegas may have presented a rosier picture of the city in the year 2281 than what we actually look at. Man-made climate change seems poised to make countless once-livable regions unfit for human habitation, so why build an expensive, experimental megacity in an area that is already so unforgiving, displacing the roughly 20,000 Bedouins (opens in new tab) who can get by in the desert with a much less extravagant lifestyle?
Neom promises a “zero car environment” with a “100% sustainable transportation system”, but will this offset the huge carbon footprint of building a future metropolis in the middle of the desert, let alone Saudi Arabia’s contributions to climate change as the world’s largest main exporter of oil?
Humanity requires inventive, creative solutions to fight climate change, but Syfy Channel’s original movie quality of Neom reminds me more of the empty tech promises of the 2010s: somehow self-driving cars are always five years away, robot drones will replace essential services such as delivery, and now a monarchy built on oil wealth is going to build the city of the future in the middle of the desert.
I may be destined to crow like a short-sighted hater of the House of Saud once it triumphantly builds the Mass Effect Citadel there, but feeling such shame would be far from the worst fate a critic of the Saudi Arabian government faces. .
The immersive sci-fi vistas of the Neom concept are reminiscent of my favorite works of fiction, and it’s kind of enlivening to watch someone make bold plans for the future in what’s otherwise a grim time, but it’s not likely that it will. will be built. It’s part of a charm campaign designed to rebrand a regressive state that also happens to be a fantastic customer of US arms manufacturers (opens in new tab). Saudi Arabia’s reputation has taken a hit in recent years, especially with the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. from the Washington Post (opens in new tab) by Saudi intelligence services, and the pursuit of a long war in Yemen, which the BBC says is causing “one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world”. (opens in new tab)“
So maybe take that neat art of lush Presidium terraces and a glass wall accentuating the endless sands with a grain of salt, cool as it may be.