Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has announced plans to build a brand new 26,500 square kilometre megacity on the Red Sea Coast. The city is to be called "NOEM," which according to doscovernoem.com means "New Future."
The site's FAQ describes NOEM as an "independent special zone," which is promised to be governmentally, judicially, and culturally autonomous from Saudi Arabia. The city will run on renewable energy, namely solar and wind, while its position on the Red Sea will allegedly enable "70 percent of the world's population to reach it in under eight hours." Much of this will come via an ambitious bridge project which is to connect NOEM with Egypt and the rest of Africa.
The Saudi government is expected to stump up the first $US500 billion (AU$643 billion) to get construction moving, but a large percentage is hoped to come from international investors. And while the city's build timeline is ambiguous, the site promises that NOEM's "first phase" will be completed by 2025.
These announcements were made by the kingdom's 32-year-old prince at a Tuesday business conference in Riyadh. And while the plans are surprising, they're also in-line with his zeal for modernity. Since his 2015 rise to power, Mohammed bin Salman has been instrumental in privatising part of oil giant Saudi Aramco and rescinding the country's ban on female drivers. And in a timely interview with the Guardian, the prince has quashed any lingering ambiguity on his political agenda by describing Saudi conservatism as "not normal."
"What happened in the last 30 years is not Saudi Arabia," he told the publication. "What happened in the region in the last 30 years is not the Middle East. After the Iranian revolution in 1979, people wanted to copy this model in different countries, one of them is Saudi Arabia… Now is the time to get rid of it."
And one way to do that, apparently, is to build a new city. A city that really couldn't be spruiked with any more utopian hyperbole.
"NOEM is a new kind of tomorrow in the making," declares its website. "A new blueprint for sustainable life on a scale never seen before, where inventiveness shapes a new inspiring era for human civilization."
Scrolling through the site's autoplay videos, it seems NEOM will be a bit like Dubai, Beijing, and the American mid-west all rolled into one. Watch as white families do cartwheels through a landscape of sand dunes, and mostly white models peer through microscopes in a futuristic lab. There are no mosques. Only one person wears a hijab. This is a vision of Saudi Arabia that doesn't yet exist, but maybe that's the whole point.
Also this isn't the first time the country has committed itself to building a made-up city. Saudi Arabia currently has four other megacities on the go, including King Abdullah Economic City (KAEC), which is hoped to become "one of the world's largest ports." And while construction of KAEC is well underway, the global slump in oil prices and the kingdom's penchant for red tape has pushed the project well behind schedule.
Indeed, these are some of the issues the prince is hoping to stymie. Saudi Arabia has increasingly been trying to move away from its near total-dependence on crude oil. Privatising part of the state's oil conglomerate is part of that, but turning the country over to green power, tech innovation, and international tourism is ambitious to say the least.