MbS wants robot dinosaurs, fake moon for planned Saudi futuristic city

MbS wants robot dinosaurs, fake moon for planned Saudi futuristic city
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman hopes to make his futuristic desert city Neom the 'most livable' city in the world. How will he do it?
6 min read
26 July, 2019
MbS has gone back to the future with his plans for Neom [Getty]

Bizarre details of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman's (MbS) plans for a futuristic desert city have been revealed - and the controversial de-facto leader's vision feels closer to science fiction than reality.

Ideas pitched to the crown prince, widely known as MbS, by consultants include flying taxis, robot maids and dinosaurs, and even a fake moon made with the help of NASA.

MbS announced the city called Neom - a portmanteau of the Greek word for "new" and the first letter of the Arabic word for "future" - two years ago as part of his flagship Vision 2030 scheme.

The 2030 plan aims to reduce the ultraconservative kingdom's dependency on oil, diversify its economy, and develop various sectors including tourism and entertainment.

Reforms of Saudi Arabia's strict social restrictions on women - for which now jailed activists campaigned for years - are also pinned to MbS' vision.

The most costly of the flagship Vision 2030 projects is Neom, at an initial estimated cost of $500 billion.

The city will be the centerpiece of the project - a city packed with factories, tech companies and resorts to make sure Saudis spend their money domestically rather than abroad.

MbS is also trying to lure international giants such as Amazon and Tesla to the city with incentives including free energy and subsidised labour.

The city will be built on Saudi Arabia's Red Sea coast in the northwestern Tabuk province, close to the kingdom's borders with Egypt and Jordan. It will also reportedly include the formerly Egyptian Tiran and Sanafir islands, as well as a southern portion of Egypt's Sinai peninsula. 

In order to achieve the first phase of his vision for a futuristic city to cover 10,000 square miles of what is now barren desert and empty, rocky coastline, MbS met with US consultancy firms Boston Consulting Group, McKinsey & Co. and Oliver Wyman.

The Wall Street Journal reviewed more than 2,000 pages of plans produced by the consultants, and the bizarre ideas MbS hopes to realise are closer to science fiction than everyday life in Saudi Arabia.

What are some of the bizarre plans for Neom?

Cloud seeding: Visitors to and residents of Neom need not worry about Saudi Arabia's notoriously arid desert climate. Consultants suggested that MbS could employ cloud seeding, a weather modification technology that has been used to increase rainfall in the UAE. The technology will give Neom a temperature "cooler than Dubai".

Robot maids: The Arab Gulf nations are already notorious for a luxurious lifestyle complete with household staff - usually workers imported from Asia under the controversial Kafala system. But residents of Neom will have the houses cleaned by robot maids instead.

Flying taxis: According to planning documents, driving in Neom will only be for fun, rather than for transportation ("e.g. driving a Ferrari along the coast with a nice view"). MbS could realise that by employing flying taxis.

Genetic engineering: MbS wants to employ scientists in state-of-the-art medical facilities to modify the human genome to make people stronger.

Dinosaur robots: Visitors to Neom could stroll around a Jurassic Park-style island populated by robot dinosaurs.

New moon: MbS wants a fleet of drones to create the illusion of a rising moon every night. Boston Consulting Group suggested partnering with NASA in order to make the world's largest fake moon. Other suggestions included live-streaming images from outer space on the "moon".

RoboWars: Robots feature again in Neom - this time in the ring, where they could participate in "robo-cage fights", one of many futuristic entertainment offerings.

Glow-in-the-dark sand: MbS has ordered engineers to make the sand of Neom's Silver Beach area "glow", but they are not yet sure how it can be accomplished safely.

Neom will be located in northwest Saudi Arabia at the kingdom's borders with Jordan and Egypt [Neom]

Dystopian vision?

Among the plans developed with consultants are more down-to-earth ideas, including making Neom the "most liveable city on earth" and a city with "zero work/stress-related diseases".

MbS also hopes to make the city-state's education system the leading one "on the planet" using innovations such as "hologram faculty".

But those utopian ideas are also contrasted with a dystopian vision of an advanced surveillance culture complete with cameras, drones and facial-recognition technology.

"This should be an automated city where we can watch everything, where a computer can notify crimes without having to report them or where all citizens can be tracked," Neom's board said.

The massive undertaking to build Neom also requires the forcible relocation of more than 20,000 people. That relocation could happen as soon as in three years time.

Advised by Boston Consulting Group to follow World Bank standards for forcible relocations, the Neom board agreed that some residents of the area - many of whose families have lived in the region for decades - could be retrained with the new skills necessary to contribute to MbS' futuristic vision.

Will Neom ever be built?

The US consulting firms declined to comment on the documents, which were completed before the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi last year.

However, the papers show that Neom's board adopted the consultants' recommendations.

Former Neom employees and people familiar with the project say they are not sure how much of the plan will come to fruition due to the sheer cost and massive technological limitations - with much of the required technology theoretic at this point in time. 

But MbS is reportedly extremely keen to push technology - and Saudi social norms - past the limits.

Foreign companies have historically avoided investing in Saudi cities due to the country's legal system, corruption, and strict laws banning alcohol and women being treated as "second-class citizens" who require a male guardian’s permission to travel.

All those restrictions could be thrown away and a new system built from scratch in Neom to "ensure the availability of best services without social limitations", MbS said at a Neom board meeting, effectively making the development an independent city-state.

People familiar with the project say residents and visitors may not have to face restrictions on alcohol and women's clothing mandated elsewhere in the kingdom.