Neom - The Line to Oblivion

Despite the bafflement of many, Saudi Arabia's Neom continues to be developed. But who is it for? Will it ever come to fruition?

On April 13, 2020, Saudi Arabian security forces rolled up to the home of Abdur-Rahim al-Huwayti.

al-Khuraybah, situated on the shore of the Red Sea in the Kingdom’s northwest, had still retained some of the simple living of the Saudi Arabia of decades past. A far cry from the hustle and bustle of the Kingdom far to the south.

But now, al-Khuraybah was within the confines of Neom. A new megacity was coming for the Bedouins who lived here, whether they liked it or not.

Abdur-Rahim al-Huwayti was a resident of al-Khuraybah and a member of the Huwaytat tribe, whose long-standing presence in Saudi Arabia’s northwest was now a problem for certain high-up Saudi officials. Neom was being advertised to investors as “virgin land” where no man had stepped before, where innovation could make something extraordinary out of something inhospitable. But there were already towns and villages within what was now considered Neom. Their homes couldn’t be integrated into a megalopolis meant for skyscrapers. Their tribal lifestyle couldn’t be accepted into a supercity meant for foreign investors. 20,000 people needed to be expelled from what would become Neom, and they needed to be expelled now.

Abdur-Rahim al-Huwayti had taken a firm stand against the Saudi authorities. He had recorded videos of himself confronting land surveyors. al-Huwayti condemned the “terrorism” being done to his tribe by being forced to leave and rejected any compensation. He lamented the rapid and unwanted changes now being done to the land he called home, and how the morals of honor and unity seemed to have been lost to time in this new age the Gulf had all but galloped into.

At dawn on the morning of April 13th, Saudi security forces surrounded the house belonging to Abdur-Rahim al-Huwayti. They shouted from outside his door, demanding he leave it immediately and hand the house over to the authorities. al-Huwayti refused. A shootout ensued. Even though the videos were taken far from al-Huwayti’s home, the sounds of the gunshots broke through the air clear as ever.

Several days later, al-Huwayti’s face was plastered on the pages of newspapers all across Saudi Arabia. The headline read: “Wanted Man Killed in Tabuk.”

There was no mention of what he was wanted for, only that he had threatened the security of Saudi Arabia.

Abdur Rahim al-Huwayti was the first casualty of a project that had once been merely a crown prince’s pipe dream. Absurdities building and building until they became incalculable did not stop it. Sheer determination, incomprehensible amounts of money, and unquestioned power have willed it into existence. Despite the derision of many in the outside world, Neom is a farce slowly becoming a reality.

In 2017, Muhammad bin Salman, Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, announced at the inaugural Future Investment Initiative conference a massive undertaking for the Kingdom: an entire new city out in the desert called NEOM.

The almost cyberpunk-sounding name carried on its back the weight of two great civilizations, “Neo” from Ancient Greek, and “M” from Mustaqbal, the Arabic word meaning “future.” It would be a decades-long odyssey costing over $500 billion to make a comparatively underdeveloped part of Saudi Arabia, larger than the entire State of Israel, into one of the world’s greatest cities. Every man and woman on Earth who wanted to create and innovate would be willing to crawl over ice to be a part of Neom.

The scope of the plan received some coverage in the financial press, weighing its potential feasibility, but it just as quickly faded into the background. It’s not because people weren’t paying attention. If anything that year, media outlets, politicians, and investors simply could not get enough of bin Salman.

MbS had come up on a meteoric rise to power, imprisoning members of his own family and shaking them down for billions, and eventually engineering the deposition of the previous crown prince in favor of himself. bin Salman used his immense new power to liberalize the country slightly, giving women the right to drive, legalizing cinemas, and bringing in socialites to come see the “new” Saudi Arabia.

Not much had actually changed in Saudi Arabia in terms of freedom. There was still no elected legislature. There was still no constitution. Feminists still languished in prison for their alleged crimes from which MbS was now taking credit. And credit he did take to the bank.

The cover image of Thomas Friedman’s now infamous New York Times article about Muhammad bin Salman, written five months after he took power as crown prince in November 2017.

The positive coverage of Muhammad bin Salman was inescapable. Thomas Friedman wrote a glowing article about how only a fool would not root for bin Salman’s success. 60 Minutes aired an unnervingly friendly profile of him, a man with near-absolute dictatorial power over an entire nation. The crown prince was seen smiling with Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos and meeting Americans in suburbia. It seemed, if you were someone with little knowledge of Saudi Arabia, that the country was on the right track.

Then, came Khashoggi.

It came as a shock to media figures who had been so enraptured by the Saudi crown prince, less so to those who knew that Saudi Arabia had not in fact changed all that much. What did shock them all was just how brazen and gruesome the assassination was. In an instant, MbS was no longer the darling of the Western press, but now Public Enemy #1, the sadistic murderer of not just a journalist, but a journalist at an American publication owned by a man he had once been seen laughing with.

The next Future Investment Initiative conference brought with it the fruits of MbS’ efforts. Business leaders had never been allergic to investing in Saudi Arabia before, but the media narrative surrounding Khashoggi’s murder had made it too toxic to be involved with so publicly and so quickly. Investors had pulled out in droves. Media outlets withdrew from their partnerships. bin Salman privately mused about the dire circumstances that had come out of the assassination he thought would have gone off without a hitch.

“No one will invest [in Neom] for years.”

Just before the murder, bin Salman’s team had given over 2,300 pages of documents over to consulting firms, including McKinsey & Company, that outlined the full vision of Neom as MbS envisioned it.

Flying cars. Animatronic dinosaurs. Robot maids. Android fights. Drone armies. Genetic engineering. Weather at the beck and call of the city authorities. An artificial moon to enlighten the night sky next to the one crafted by God. It is impossible to list out every detail outlined in the consulting firm documents, but what was clear was that Muhammad bin Salman wanted to make a city unlike anywhere that existed on Earth.

The problem: it likely couldn’t exist.

Neom aims to have its first phase completed by 2025, and a million residents living there already by 2030. Cloud seeding and animatronic dinosaurs, while superfluous, are technologies that can be feasibly introduced. Flying cars, AI capable of making a city function, the very power to play God and make superhumans, and so many others, were total absurdities. It was a figment of imagination, with elements out of films such as The Fifth Element, Real Steel, and Star Wars, that would have been laughed out of any serious infrastructure plan. But through the forces of Gulf money and power, MbS had willed into existence the ability to get top-dollar consulting firms to draw up plans for it anyway.

As to be expected however, when rubber met road, investors were not tripping over themselves even before Khashoggi’s assassination just to have their name on the Neom project. After Khashoggi, some who had even already signed on to help build the megacity began to distance themselves from it. The Saudi Aramco IPO, meant to bring in over a hundred billion dollars for the country, had been delayed (though this came before Khashoggi’s murder), leaving a potential sea of funds to go into Neom now up in the air.

When the fine details of the Neom plan were revealed to the world after the consulting documents were leaked, the ideas were almost universally met in the press with confusion, derision, or outright mockery. Articles were written about the leaks by many major publications, but where the tone in previous pieces from earlier years were of skepticism but polite intrigue, most of the articles written about Neom now were astonished at how baffling and incomprehensible the plans seemed.

But MbS kept building.

In 2019, despite no Aramco IPO yet to support it, Neom began construction on its first stage: Neom Bay. Within a month, an airport was constructed with daily flights to Riyadh and 5G technology, the first airport anywhere on Earth with it. An opulent golf course right on the coast of the Red Sea, with a royal palace to go along with it. Sporting events were being held in the deserts and beaches across the city’s vast confines, from racing to beach soccer to skydiving.

Slowly but surely, investors who had been waiting for the heat from the Khashoggi killing to dissipate, and who had now seen development of Neom actually start to come to fruition, began securing contracts. AECOM, a multi-billion dollar engineering firm, received a contract to manage the Neom Bay area. Bechtel, another multi-billion dollar construction firm even bigger than AECOM, got a contract to help construct Neom’s transportation system. Even Foster and Partners, whose chairman Norman Foster had pulled out of advising on Neom after the killing of Khashoggi, came back and received a contract to design yet another airport for Neom, the second of a projected four.

Neom’s marketing campaign gradually began to expand, with videos talking about the supposedly ingenious ways the city would be built in expertly crafted corporate-speak. While Neom’s various social media accounts did tweet out occasionally in Arabic, it was virtually always translations of English material. It was clear to anyone watching that Neom was not meant necessarily for Saudis to live in and move to and create in, it was solely for foreigners to move to and invest in.

Enter: the Huwaytat tribe.

The murder of Abdur-Rahim al-Huwayti at the hands of the security services was the first spark of an inevitable problem Neom would always face. Very rarely when a population numbering in the thousands is asked to leave do they take compensation and go quietly. For something that is as inherently ludicrous as Neom, that chance becomes next to non-existent.

Abdur-Rahim al-Huwayti was not the only member of the Huwaytat tribe who resisted. Several others were arrested in the run-up to his murder by Saudi security forces. In the aftermath of his murder, Saudi authorities attempted to pay off vocal members of the tribe, offering hundreds of thousands of riyals ($27,000-$80,000 USD) to those who would attend a meeting to publicly denounce al-Huwayti’s resistance and reaffirm allegiance to King Salman. Some tribal leaders agreed and denounced him publicly. Other members of the tribe scoffed at the attempt and attended al-Huwayti’s funeral.

Saudi Arabia feared a PR fiasco, not just within the country, but from the outside as well. In addition to trying to pay off members of al-Huwayti’s tribe and restricting internal media coverage, the Saudis hired their most expensive public relations firm yet, Ruder Finn, to the tune of $1.7 million. However, it ultimately wasn’t needed. Social media campaigns, some international news coverage, and press conferences ultimately weren’t enough.

The issue was is that while both Jamal Khashoggi and Abdur-Rahim al-Huwayti were both Saudi, both dissidents, and both were murdered for their dissent, Khashoggi and al-Huwayti, for all intents and purposes, existed on other ends of the Earth.

Khashoggi, the descendant of the King’s personal doctor and nephew to a billionaire arms dealer, spent much of his life with the Saudi intelligentsia and Saudi government officials, up until his disagreements with them became too many for the monarchs to ignore, and he was marked for death.

al-Huwayti was just a tribesman.

Despite the impassioned outcry of other Arabs, Gulf monarchs have never been shy about ignoring them. Neither has the Western media.

With the heat from another murder now again fading into the background, MbS continued undeterred. The pandemic had ground construction to a near-halt, so the Saudi government switched to making Neom the go-to for government meetings and international visits. King Salman now held his cabinet meetings in Neom. Mike Pompeo flew to Neom to have meetings with his Saudi counterparts. Neom was even rumored to have been the location of the first ever meeting between Netanyahu and MbS.

Muhammad bin Salman was driven to prioritize Neom above all else. Even amidst the shrinking of the Saudi economy, the Saudi Energy Minister himself stepped in in August to make sure Neom received enough money to reach its 2025 targets. bin Salman had bided his time. Beginning construction on a planned city the size of a nation before all the money was there. Waiting out the scrutiny of a high-profile and botched assassination of a prominent dissident. Anticipating the right time for when investors would start crawling back to Saudi companies. Now he was ready for the next big push, his most public, his most ambitious, since the very announcement of Neom itself.

On January 8, Neom’s social media accounts posted a countdown timer and a simple phrase.

“It’s Time to Draw the Line.”

It was ominous by the standards of Neom’s previous marketing. Before, much of it had been dressed up in bright corporate colors and designed to sound as harmless as possible. What could “The Line” be referring to? The open question was intentional, with a separate website “whatistheline.com” listed at the bottom and a hashtag created with it, #whatisTHELINE. The Saudi government paid for an extensive ad campaign, promoting the announcement tweet into Twitter feeds and confounding users who had no familiarity with the Neom project before. They would eventually be directed to watch a speech from MbS.

As the video fades up, bin Salman is already standing at the center of a black stage with the logo of Neom behind him. He asks the viewer to consider the history of cities and how they prioritized cars over their own human inhabitants. He asks the viewer to consider how much of their days are wasted by traveling to work and back, and if that is supposed to be the pinnacle of human life. He asks the viewer to consider the startling effects that climate change will bring to cities all over the world, and if it is sustainable to continue sacrificing nature for development. Muhammad bin Salman says that he has the solution.

The Line.

A city of one million people, in a 105-mile long straight line.

The Line would be an entirely pedestrianized city within the Neom superproject. A city-within-a-city with no cars, no streets, no carbon emissions. 95% of its nature would remain intact. Every citizen would be able to fulfill their daily needs within a five-minute walk, but high-speed transportation would allow traversing the entire length of the city within 20 minutes. The city would exist on three layers, the fully-pedestrianized layer above, the infrastructure to keep the city working hidden below, and a level just below that to accommodate the subway system. The Line would stretch across four biomes from the coast to the valleys in what Saudi newspapers raved would be a “self-sustaining metropolis.”

MbS had claimed the project would preserve 95% of nature, but the design of the city goes straight through a gigantic mountain range. MbS claimed there would be high-speed public transport that could traverse the city in 20 minutes, but trains of that speed would be faster than any train currently in service anywhere on Earth. Questions swirled about what was the benefit of a city that was only a straight line, how the trains would work when there was no space to expand, and how walkability is improved by any of the design choices. Even the translation of the city’s name drew raised eyebrows. Instead of the Arabic translation of “The Line” being used, which would be “al-Khat,” instead it is just the literal transliteration of the English phrase. “Dha Layn.”

Years of hiring consulting firms, of collaborating with architects and being tasked with making the original vision of MbS real. But nothing had changed. The preposterous ideas that Neom had been based on had not been weakened one single iota, and had in fact compounded on itself, now consumed by even more increasingly farcical ideas than had existed before, in the form of a whole city-within-a-city that was entirely in a straight line. It would be impossible to separate the inherent absurdity from the very concept of Neom, no matter how much work its consultants, marketers, and chairpersons could try to in the future. The hubris of a monarch with near-absolute power, going on Google Earth and choosing to construct a city the size of an entire country because he saw an empty-looking part of the map, is impossible to dilute from the source.

Despite the confounding response of so many who came to realize just what The Line was, mainstream media from Riyadh to Dubai to DC, treated the idea just as they had when Neom was first announced, as if the cycle had reset itself. Breathless reports about the project’s ambition, the ingenuity of a fully pedestrianized city, and the fascinating ideas coming out of Saudi Arabia, began rolling in as if nothing from the past few years had happened. To the people that mattered to Muhammad bin Salman, his approach appears to have finally worked.

Meanwhile, in Neom, an odd atmosphere reigns. There are technically airports, palaces, hotels, banks, and houses, but there is an eeriness to what Neom chooses to show to the world. In virtually every video and image released, almost no infrastructure is to be seen, with its various leaders and officials talking in blank rooms or against the backdrops of massive sand dunes. It leads to an interesting paradox, where Saudi Arabia both wants to show that the land it exists on is ripe for the taking, where anything can be built and is just waiting for the right man, but also a place of rapid, unabated development, where in less than nine years, a million people will live in a near-utopia.

It is true when the people behind Neom say that nothing like it has ever been conceived of before, but there is a reason why that is. It is a task whose goalposts will always continue to move, whose completion dates will get further and further away, until what was promised becomes impossible.

In July 2019, Arab News asked Dutch Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Joost Reintjes about what he thought of the Neom project. While Reintjes and Arab News had meant to paint a bright and attractive portrait, what could very well be the truth came through the ambassador’s words.

“We started NEOM but we aren’t going to finish. There is no end to NEOM.”