On a sandy peninsula in northwest Saudi Arabia, the only interruption to miles of desert was the wreck of a Catalina seaplane, abandoned by its American pilot in 1960 and now covered in Arabic graffiti.
But it’s here that Saudi Arabia’s crown prince plans Neom, a city from scratch that will be bigger than Dubai and have more robots than humans. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman envisions it as a “civilizational leap for humanity” outside the traditional Saudi constraints and a business hub with advanced manufacturing, bio-tech, media and airlines.
The sci-fi city with glimmering office towers and five-star hotels is supposed to represent Saudi efforts to transform a nation once swimming in oil money and now facing a severe financial squeeze.
It would be a microcosm of Saudi Arabia 2.0 while its new 32-year-old leader reconfigures the rest of the economy to make it fit for the modern world in a way that past rulers have failed to do. Other massive cities in the desert have been announced with much fanfare, then have floundered short of expectations, like the $10 billion office park on the outskirts of Riyadh sitting largely unoccupied and unfinished.
Neom is a combination of “neo,” or new, and a derivation from the Arabic word “mustaqbal,” or future. It will be partly located in an area known as Ras Sheikh al-Hameed, a peninsula of land jutting about 31 miles (50 kilometers) into waters of the Red Sea after turning west off of route 5, the Saudi coastal road.
Some 10,000 square miles (25,900 square kilometers) have been allocated for the development of the urban area that will stretch into Jordan and Egypt. More than twice the size of neighboring Qatar, the area was chosen because of its “strategic location” and proximity to international shipping routes. This year, Egypt signed a treaty to give the Saudis two islands essential for linking the project to the Sinai.