Saudi Arabia has announced it’s to build a new mega-city, rising out of the desert sands in the kingdom’s north, adorning the Red Sea coast.
The $500 billion project will cover 10,000 square miles and include an ambitious bridge, stretching across the Red Sea, connecting Saudi Arabia directly to Egypt.
But is such a project even possible?
If so, it’s time for PropTech to step up, but do so with real understanding.
Saudi Arabia’s young Crown Prince, having conjured a rapid rise to power, announced the plans for the city, to be called ‘Neom’, with a rare public appearance, calling it the start of a ‘new generation of cities’.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, at the tender age of thirty-two, is forcing great change upon his nation, most notably destroying the laws that forbid female drivers on the roads. He is doing so because the modernisation of Saudi Arabia is vital to its future.
The underground oil that has bought them such wealth is already running low and not far from running out. Preparing for the post-oil era is the Crown Prince’s primary focus.
In promotional videos and public announcements, the Prince has made clear that included in this plan for modernisation is an overhaul of societal values. He revealed that Neom will be an independent state, removed from any ‘existing governmental framework’.
As such, the strict Saudi Arabian laws, such as those which govern the rights of women, will not apply to this corner of country. Instead, it will replicate the liberal, tech driven West.
How do you build a mega smart-city?
When Google announced a 12-acre smart-city in Toronto, we all got rather excited. An entire city built with PropTech.
Yet, in the wake of this new announcement, Google’s city feels more like a hamlet, where everyone knows everyone and it’s impossible to get a little peace and quiet.
But is such a project even possible, regardless of how much money you throw at it?
Even if it is, the Prince and his government have a track record of being all talk, no trouser. Numerous impressive sounding projects have been slated and soon abandoned, usually when crude prices recover from a dip.
“Our Vision: Saudi Arabia..the heart of the Arab and Islamic worlds, the investment powerhouse, and the hub connecting three continents.”
So say the Saudi government about the kingdom’s Vision 2030, and they’re serious about it.
When the oil runs out, they need a strong and prosperous economy to take its place. So the drive to follow through on Neom is very real and as it stands today, the Saudi government has more than enough money to fund it.
PropTech will play a major role in this project; companies all over the world will be scrambling to win bids before you know it. And even though it sounds ambitious, why not take a moon shot?
PropTech hasn’t even started yet, the innovation that is to come will dwarf what has already been achieved.
The PropTech community should be thrilled. Projects like Neom will mean that innovation comes faster than predicted, because, if the Crown Prince wants to keep his word, such innovation becomes a necessity, and it needs to happen sooner rather than later.
Building a city to change the world
Perhaps more fascinating than how Neom will be built is the anticipation of how it will be lived in. Throwing cash around is one thing; societal transformation is another.
It’s easy for us in the West to look at this and see nothing but positive progression. It takes someone far more informed than I to discuss this properly, but the Crown Prince’s vision of a liberal state goes head to head with thousands of years of Saudi Arabian Islamic tradition.
To assume that the majority of Saudi citizens would welcome such change is to jump the gun. It is, however, true that change trickles down from the top.
When looked at next to the timeline of Saudi Arabian history, this pursuit of social change is somewhat ironic. Even Dubai remains an emirate, encouraging the Western traditions of consumerism and luxury while retaining some quite extreme Islamic social laws.
For Neom to take it one step further requires a level of societal change that has rarely been seen throughout history. The fact that responsibility for this change is placed upon a smart-city is fascinating.
I’m always churning on about how PropTech is part of a larger transformation, but I was never talking about anything of this scale or importance. The effect that Neom has on the world could be astonishing. PropTech needs to step up and play its role but, now more than ever, it needs to do so with an understanding that it’s suddenly become part of something much larger than itself.
As I type this now, my spellchecker keeps flagging the word ‘Neom’. I guess the question is, how long before it doesn’t?
Let’s not forget, there’s a good chance Neom won’t even get as far as having its foundations laid.
As the Crown Prince admits himself, “dreaming is easy, achieving is difficult”.