The Saudi dream: the dark side of the utopian city Neom26 Jul 2022 - 15:24
‘The Line’: what sounds like the latest dystopian show on Netflix actually is a fully-fledged project of Saudi Arabia’s crown prince Mohammed bin Salman (colloquially known as MBS) and part of the country’s so-called ‘Vision 2030’ plan. The Line is the infrastructural city planning of the futuristic metropole Neom,1 promising harmony, sustainability, health and innovation all within an ultra-high-tech surrounding.2
These liberal promises stand in stark contrast with the current conservative and traditional regime ruling the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Will Neom be the first step towards the country’s liberalisation, or is the city merely another prestige project by a rich oil state in the Middle East? Unfortunately, in a similar vein as the FIFA World Cup in Qatar, Neom might be the latter: a futuristic project that seems utopian and modernised from the outside but is plagued with human rights violations and environmental issues from within.
MBS calls the post-modern fantasy of Neom a “civilizational revolution”.3 However, these big words seem abstruse given the ultraconservative, religious regime present in Saudi Arabia. Internationally, the country still largely enjoys the public image of a ‘quasi-medieval’ kingdom where women are struggling for basic rights,4 public beheadings are no rarity and stoning is a legitimate form of punishment.
Whether Neom is the first domino to fall in a chain reaction towards a liberalised Saudi Arabia is doubtful
By creating a high-tech environment through Neom, the kingdom’s crown prince aims to change this public perception and to show the rest of the world that Saudi Arabia is leaving this past behind and moving into the future. Neom’s well-designed website presents the city as “pioneering the future”5 by fostering tolerance, technology and talent, with the ambition of wooing international actors into better diplomatic relations and increase investment into Saudi Arabia.6
However, these liberal goals are increasingly shaky in light of the country’s massive carbon footprint and the continuous human rights violations in the kingdom. So, whether Neom is the first domino to fall in a chain reaction towards a liberalised Saudi Arabia is doubtful. Paying close attention to these contradictions is vital for international actors to avoid getting blinded by the shiny bauble of Neom.
Mohammed bin Salman’s words “live where people come first”7 are showcased on the banner of Neom’s official website. What the website fails to mention, however, is that the mega city’s construction requires the internal displacement of about twenty thousand people belonging to a local Saudi tribe, the Huwaitat.
Neom is not the solution to human rights violations; instead it is representative of the authoritarian ruling of Saudi Arabia
Despite vague promises of compensation, the tribe was forcefully evicted from its home to make room for Neom and its one million future inhabitants. The Huwaitat tribe evidently is not part of the glamorous cosmopolitan image portrayed by Neom. The tribe leader, Abdul-Rahim Al-Huwaiti, voiced his concerns and criticised the project on YouTube in April 2020. Shortly thereafter, he was shot dead by security forces. This incident demonstrates that Neom is not the solution to human rights violations; instead it is representative of the authoritarian ruling of Saudi Arabia.
Despite this, the kingdom has sought to soften its public image since the announcement of Neom by decreasing the number of executions of convicts and moving these away from the public locus into the covert sphere. While this development can be perceived as a positive change for the public image of Saudi Arabia, the transition away from the public eye simultaneously presents a deeply concerning trend. It is becoming increasingly difficult for external actors such as other states and stakeholders to gain insight into the human rights violations as they are now taking place behind closed doors.
A further key motivation behind the construction of Neom presented by Saudi Arabia is the attempt to transform and diversify the country’s economy to one beyond oil. Neom is an ambitious investment by the Saudi government to diversify revenue streams and resources away from the dependency on oil exports. It is to be powered by 100 per cent clean energy and the city promises zero cars, zero streets and zero carbon emissions.
Neom might portray tolerance, technology and sustainability to the outside world, but behind the scenes the project seems to hardly act upon these values
However, it is questionable to what extent Neom can legitimately claim sustainability when a few hundred miles further in cities such as Riyadh and Jeddah fossil fuels are being burnt, and fracking is deployed to exhaust the last natural oil reserves in the country.8 The double standard of MBS’s Green Neom9 becomes even more obvious when considering that Saudi’s largest energy producer, Saudi Aramco, launched the largest shale gas development outside the US in 2020 and promised to increase oil production just weeks after announcing its commitment to climate solutions at the UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow (COP26).10
The double standards of the traditional functioning of the state and the utopian vision of Neom are clearly evident. Neom might portray tolerance, technology and sustainability to the outside world, but behind the scenes the project seems to hardly act upon these values.
Nevertheless, in the long term Neom might be able to contribute to the progression of human rights and environmental commitments in the kingdom. For this to happen, it is key for the West to act with due diligence by balancing the approval of the development while maintaining a sceptic, close eye on the deep-rooted double standards in human rights and sustainability matters. Only time will tell whether the West will maintain a nuanced perspective on these issues or turn a blind eye to them, especially in light of heightened oil interest in the Middle East now that Russian oil reserves are out of question.
This column was the winning contribution of our student column competition and was written by Mina Marie Schmidt. Mina completed the Politics Psychology Law and Economics (PPLE) programme at the University of Amsterdam and now studies European Affairs at SciencesPo. She is particularly interested in EU relations with MENA region.
- 1500 billion US dollars are being poured into the construction of Neom, 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. Also see the website of Neom.
- 2The infrastructure of the city is based on a multilayered system delving deep into the ground of the city – allowing for an ultra-high-speed transportation system beneath surface while exhibiting a flourishing pedestrian layer above surface. See the website of Neom.
- 3Robert F. Worth, ‘The Dark Reality Behind Saudi Arabia’s Utopian Dreams’, The New York Times Magazine, 28 January 2021.
- 4Women, for example, were only granted the right to drive in 2018.
- 5See the website of Neom.
- 6Hend Aly, ‘Royal Dream: City Branding and Saudi Arabia’s NEOM’, Middle East - Topics and Arguments, 12, 2019, p. 99-109.
- 7Neom, ‘The Line’.
- 8Jos Olivier and Jeroen Peters, ‘Trends in Global CO2 and Total Greenhouse Emissions’, PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, December 2020.
- 9Neom, ‘Changing the future of Energy’.
- 10Derek Brower, Katrina Manson, Andrew England, Tom Wilson and Samer Al-Atrush, ‘Opec+ sticks with oil supply increase after US overture to Saudi Arabia’, Financial Times, 2 December 2021.