Plans for the trillion-dollar Saudi Arabian desert city of NEOM are taking shape, and prospective residents are being promised an experience like something from a sci-fi movie.
The city will have a 100 mile-long “vertical sky scraper” running through its heart. Also known as ‘The Strip,” it will be carved through the desert in the arid northwest of the country.
It will also feature glow-in-the-dark beaches, ski slopes, an artificial moon, robot butlers, and flying taxis, according to glossy brochures and public statements by its planners.
But behind the outlandish plan, developed by Saudi Arabia’s powerful crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, is a much darker reality.
The crown prince has been strengthening his ties with China’s leader, Xi Jinping, who has agreed to provide powerful surveillance technology.
Jili Bulelani, a Harvard University fellow who researches China’s global ambitions, told Insider, that Xi is seeking to “normalize and seek to legitimize its vision of a state-led cyberspace and surveilled public.”
China has already provided surveillance technology for the creation of so-called “safe cities”, run on user data, in Egypt and Serbia, report by the Washington Institute think tank found.
Crown Prince Mohammed appears keen to replicate those projects on a grander scale.
What is NEOM?
NEOM, the so-called zero-carbon city of the future, is the centerpiece of Saudi Arabian de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s attempt to modernize the country and reduce its reliance on fossil fuels.
“It’s a ticket for him to enshrine himself as the Saudi leader that modernized the country and usher it into a new technological era,” said Marwa Fatafta, a policy manager at Berlin-based digital rights organization Access Now.
NEOM’s executive director, Giles Penderton, told UAE-based newspaper The National that construction for the project was proceeding rapidly, and the city would house nine million residents by 2045.
According to the developer, NEOM will be made up of 10 regions. One region, known as the Line, is being marketed as a zero-carbon area, where residents’ data will be used to adjust services to their needs.
City planners say that current smart cities use around 10% of possible user data. Per their plans, NEOM, enabled by AI, will use 90%.
James Shires, a researcher at London’s Chatham House think tank, told Insider that the crown prince had ambitions for a city where services ranging from refuse collection, to health, to train times are regulated by data from sources such as smart phones and surveillance technology.
“NEOM is designed to leapfrog those [other smart cities], to begin from the ground up in sort of an entirely designed fashion to collect data and use that data for the purposes of the city,” he said.
But some voices, including Fatafta, the digital-rights advocate, are warning that the futuristic and luxurious vision in NEOM’s brochures conceals a darker project in line with Crown Prince Mohammed’s authoritarian instincts.
The “smart city” capabilities aren’t just a futuristic attraction, but could be deployed as a tool for invasive surveillance by state security services, she fears.
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