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NEOM : City in the Sand

NEOM : City in the Sand
Riyad (iStock)

A colossal white elephant or the embodiment of cutting-edge urban innovation and smart technology? Neom, a futuristic, $500 billion metropolis sprawling across the northwest desert of Saudi Arabia, divides opinion. Either way, the project – which is now in its early stages of development – continues to generate column inches.

Life After Oil

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman announced the Neom project in 2017 as part of the “Saudi Vision 2030”. This plan aims at reducing the country’s heavy dependence on hydrocarbons (think Dubai on steroids). 

Neom is the combination of the Greek term neo (“new”) and the Arabic word mostaqbal (“future”). Its lofty aim is to create a world-class economic, scientific, and technological hub on the edge of the Red Sea. This 25,000 square-kilometer “living laboratory” aims to attract the world’s finest minds and leading companies. Not to mention a million inhabitants. John Rossant is the founder of the NewCities Foundation and a member of Neom’s advisory board. For him,

“Neom is probably the biggest single urban project in the world. We’re talking about an area roughly the size of Belgium. It will be a post-industrial city, with an emphasis on clean energy, foreign investment, and smart design.”

World-class Ambition

NEOM Saudi Arabia
The future city of Neom will be built there (Courtesy of NEOM)

According to the Neom Company, the city’s first phase will be completed by 2025. Work has already begun on various infrastructure projects, with a commercial airport, staff residences, and offices all now operational.  In September 2019, Neom awarded contracts to build and operate three new residential areas for construction workers with a capacity for 30,000 people.

If Neom does manage to translate itself from the drawing board into reality, technology will play a central role in the city’s development and day-to-day running. There are plans for artificial rain, a fake moon, robotic maids, flying taxis, and holographic teachers supposedly in the pipeline. As “a new blueprint for sustainable life“, it would be entirely run on renewable energy. There will also be desalinated seawater, with residents served by vertical farms and solar-powered greenhouses. 

According to Neom’s founders, the city will be so advanced that robots will outnumber humans. Besides, everything will have a link with artificial intelligence.” Amongst other things, it will also be a state-of-the-art center for advanced manufacturing and medical innovation. The goal is to spearhead genetic engineering efforts to improve the human body.

According to Wael Hussein, a media and communications manager working for the Neom Company,

“One of Neom’s value propositions is to be an open laboratory for all innovators from around the world to come and experiment with their technologies. All the economic sectors within the city will showcase the latest and most innovative technologies, freeing up humans to engage more socially, instead of wasting their time on redundant daily tasks.”

High-tech Healthcare

Neom aims to attract potential residents by promoting itself as a cutting-edge destination for health and well-being. The goal is to present Neom with state-of-the-art medical facilities and “world-class” disease treatment. There will be multi-specialty smart hospitals across the city. They will deliver an array of automated services, explains Dr. Maliha Hashmi, an executive director at Neom and Deputy Sector Head for the city’s Health & Wellbeing and Biotech Sector.

“This advanced system will be based on proactive prevention, not just treatment. The focus will be on pain management, muscular and skeletal diseases and cancer, as well as a balanced overall approach to wellbeing.”

A dedicated digital infrastructure, integrating genetic and smart technologies with artificial intelligence, will see Neom offer real-time assessments and “digital twins” to both residents and visitors. 

“At the point of entry, everyone – both Neomians and visitors – will have the opportunity to have a digital twin of themselves created. This will lead to personalized and precise medical treatment. General treatment pathways will be removed and everything will be catered to a person’s specific genomic profile. These methods exist today, but simply haven’t been brought to scale at this level yet.”

Saudi currently spends an estimated $12.5 billion on overseas healthcare. So, those overseeing Neom see the city’s development as an opportunity to redirect that money back inside the country.  Launched in 2013, the Saudi Human Genome Program (SHGP) aims to sequence the genomes of the entire Saudi population. This will lead to the early diagnosis of genetic disorders and the prevention of common hereditary diseases.

Biotechnology is one of Neom’s 16 priority industries. The city aims to position itself at the forefront of developments in gene therapy, genomics, stem cell research, nanobiology, and pharmaceutical manufacturing. 

Challenges Ahead

Plans for Neom were announced at the Future Investment Initiative conference in 2017. This annual event takes place in Riyadh to discuss global economic and investment trends. Given the city’s futuristic ambitions, it was rather apt that at the same conference, an intelligent humanoid robot called Sophia declared her Saudi Arabian citizenship. It was the first time in history that an AI device was awarded such status.

When it comes to Neom, it’s hard to figure out just where the reality ends and the grandiose make-believe begins. Given the project’s advisory board filled with internationally renowned tech and science luminaries, many don’t view it as a coincidence that Saudi Arabia has invested $1 billion into Lucid. Lucid is Tesla’s rival autonomous carmaker.

According to those overseeing the project, Neom has already invited tenders from a range of international firms, while plans are moving forward to build a road bridge to Egypt. Supposedly, Arup, WSP, and Fugro NV have been awarded contracts, although all three declined to comment on their involvement.

Watch This Space

Neom Saudi Arabia
Courtesy of NEOM

Going forward, Neom will have to attract serious foreign money and foreign talent if it is to succeed. However, many of Saudi Arabia’s other supersized projects, such as King Abdullah Economic City, have so far singularly failed to do so. 

Hussein Ahmed, a tech analyst with UK-based consulting company GlobalData, believes Neom can build on the experience gained in the development of other regional smart cities.  

“Prince Mohammed bin Salman has seen the progress of construction in places such as Dubai and Qatar. If the lessons are learned, then they can be used as blueprints.”

But fellow GlobalData tech analyst Josh Hewer remains skeptical that the first stage of Neom can be completed by 2025. 

“As a future city focused on cutting edge technology Neom is a viable concept. But I don’t think it’s deliverable in a decade.”

John Rossant also remains to be convinced of Neom’s credentials. 

“I think it’s too soon to say whether this is a positive model of urbanization or not. New cities succeed when they grow on their own accord. Only time will tell whether Neom’s ideals, investment, and innovative intent can generate this kind of momentum.”

In any case, Saudi Arabia’s Neom project wants to push the boundaries of urban ambition.