Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Photo: Amr Nabil (AP)

Sounds like notorious human rights abuser Saudi Arabia’s plan to build a massive new city of the future on the border with Egypt and Jordan is going just swell: According to a report this week in the Wall Street Journal, consultants hired to work on the Neom project built a list of ridiculous recommendations including “hologram faculty” in schools, “cloud seeding”-induced artificial rain, “a Jurassic Park-style island of robot reptiles,” robot maids, “robo-cage fight” entertainment, and “flying taxis” that will totally replace ground-based transportation. More ominously, the plans call for total surveillance of residents with drones and facial recognition gear and the forcible relocation of over 20,000 people.

The Journal obtained 2,300 pages of documents prepped by Boston Consulting Group, McKinsey & Co. and Oliver Wyman for the country’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS)—the same MBS who reportedly ordered the kidnapping and brutal murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi and whose military has been accused of atrocities in Yemen. The crown prince is the de facto ruler of the kingdom on a day-to-day basis, including its security and intelligence apparatus, and has been trying to sell himself as a reformer interested in diversifying Saudi Arabia’s mostly energy-dependent economy.

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(Saudi sources told the Journal the proposals were made before the Khashoggi killing, for all that’s worth.)

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According to the Journal, a source said MBS came up with the idea for Neom four years ago when he was “mulling how to overhaul the economy” and “pulled up a map of his country on Google Earth and saw its northwest quadrant was a blank slate.” The rest of the piece is just as unflattering. In addition to plans for a “giant artificial moon” developed in partnership with NASA, the aforementioned robot maids and dinosaurs, and a “project to modify the human genome to make people stronger,” the Journal wrote that the prince “wants a beach that glows in the dark, like the face of a watch.” (The moon might be made of fleets of drones but engineers have no idea how to create the glow-in-the-dark beach, the paper noted.)

MBS also reportedly became “frustrated” when advised to develop a road plan for the city, the Journal wrote. A person who reviewed minutes of a meeting between the prince and a deputy for former Arconic Inc. CEO Klaus Kleinfeld, who was brought on to plan a mega-bridge between Neom and Egypt across the Red Sea but has since left the project amid ballooning cost estimates of $125 billion, said the prince responded by saying, “I don’t want any roads or pavements. We are going to have flying cars in 2030!”

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OK.

The Journal also reported that MBS sought to make Neom nominally independent because of problems in Saudi Arabia including an “opaque legal system,” bans on alcohol, sweeping restrictions on the rights of women, and corruption. MBS came to the conclusion these problems are “so entrenched that it was easier to develop a new city than to change existing ones,” the Journal wrote, which is quite an insight into his leadership capabilities. Par for the course, parts of the Neom plans that don’t require suspension of disbelief sound alarmingly dystopian:

Tasked by the crown prince, known as MBS, to help turn his imaginary city into a reality, the consultants created an expensive mix of science fiction and corporate buzzwords interrupted by uncomfortable realities: Local tribes would be forcibly relocated. A court system developed by law firm Latham & Watkins and labeled “independent” would have judges reporting directly to the king, and operating under Shariah law, or Islamic jurisprudence.

“This should be an automated city where we can watch everything,” Neom’s MBS-led founding board said, according to the documents—a city “where a computer can notify crimes without having to report them or where all citizens can be tracked.”... To keep Neom safe, cameras, drones and facial-recognition technology will let Saudi intelligence services track everyone. “Everything can be recorded,” the founding board declared.

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Other ironclad ideas in the documents including achieving a goal of “zero work/stress-related diseases” by luring companies like Amazon to set up shop.

According to the Journal, the Kingdom has borrowed funds from abroad to finance the first stages of the city’s construction and Saudi officials have questioned whether it “pays Western consultants more than they’re worth.” (In a statement to the paper, Neom said “The involvement of consultants has been productive and valuable.”) Additionally, the paper reported that Saudi officials have solicited investments in the project as a precondition for obtaining contracts, with one person involved in the process becoming “concerned about whether the proposals were unethical.”

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In the statement to the Journal, Neom wrote that “Relocating residents in the interest of public works projects is not uncommon in the Kingdom” and that those who “gain the skills necessary to be part of the Neom vision” may be eligible to stay. A resident in the region told the paper, “You are dismembering an entire society. For us, it’s like death.”

[Wall Street Journal]

 

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