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NEOM: An Urban Air Mobility Utopia or a Dystopian City Blueprint of the Future?

When Sau­di Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman announced plans for the ulti­mate futur­is­tic city called NEOM at the Future Invest­ment Ini­tia­tive Con­fer­ence in Riyadh, Sau­di Ara­bia in Octo­ber 2017, the world was agog.

The ambi­tion is immense. The finan­cial costs extra­or­di­nary. A brand new city con­struct­ed in the desert area of Tabuk Province in north­west­ern Sau­di Ara­bia cov­er­ing a site of 10,200 sq. miles or a sim­i­lar size to Mass­a­chu­setts, where costs of USD500 bil­lion+ are being bandied around like Monop­oly mon­ey.

The Crown Prince explained this new city “would oper­ate inde­pen­dent­ly from the exist­ing gov­ern­men­tal frame­work with its own tax and labour laws and an autonomous judi­cial sys­tem.” The idea was cre­at­ed for the Sau­di Vision 2030, a plan to reduce the country’s depen­dence on oil, diver­si­fy its econ­o­my, and devel­op pub­lic ser­vice sec­tors.

NEOM aims to tick every green sus­tain­able box from ener­gy pow­ered by wind and solar to trans­port sys­tems geared around elec­tric urban air mobil­i­ty (UAM), along­side a high-speed rail-link called THE SPINE which will tra­verse the area in just 20 min­utes, as well as robots employed for ser­vice duties. There will be no streets or road vehi­cles.

This is a vision con­trived from sci­ence fic­tion films like Bladerun­ner, The Fifth Ele­ment and Minor­i­ty Report. The dif­fer­ence being NEOM is an actu­al real­i­ty, where the first phase of the project, set to cost USD319 bil­lion, is sched­uled for com­ple­tion by 2030. This is to be part­ly financed through a stock mar­ket flota­tion expect­ed next year with the remain­der com­ing from the King­dom’s own cap­i­tal wealth under the guise of a Pub­lic Invest­ment Fund.

Even the name NEOM is con­trived. The first three let­ters form the Ancient Greek pre­fix νέο or Neo mean­ing “new” and the M is rep­re­sen­ta­tive of both the first let­ter of the Sau­di Crown Prince’s name as well as the first of the Ara­bic word for “future.”

Under­stand­ably, the nascent eVTOL and drone indus­tries are lick­ing their lips at the prospect of being at the van­guard of the city’s UAM. Already, lead­ing com­pa­nies are jock­ey­ing for posi­tion in the Mid­dle East region to take advan­tage of the poten­tial rich­es on offer.

At present, Volo­copter has pole posi­tion. Back in Novem­ber, the com­pa­ny raised an addi­tion­al USD182 mil­lion in a sec­ond sign­ing of its Series E fund­ing round. A major­i­ty — USD175 mil­lion — came from the finan­cial cof­fers of NEOM itself. In fact, the col­lab­o­ra­tion began a year pre­vi­ous­ly with the com­mon goal of inte­grat­ing Volocopter’s Voloc­i­ty air taxi and Volo­Drone into the futur­is­tic city’s air mobil­i­ty sys­tems.

Nadh­mi Al-Nasr, CEO at Neom, and Chris­t­ian Bauer, chief com­mer­cial offi­cer at Volo­copter, signs a joint ven­ture agree­ment to intro­duce eVTOL flight oper­a­tions in Neom (Image: Volo­copter)

While this places the eVTOL com­pe­ti­tion on the back foot, news broke in Feb­ru­ary that Joby Avi­a­tion had joined the ambi­tious UAM vision of Dubai, the cap­i­tal of UAE, along­side ver­ti­port con­struc­tor Sky­ports, with this city’s inten­tion of expand­ing its trans­port sys­tems to include fly­ing taxis. A closed pre­sen­ta­tion from Dubai’s Roads and Trans­port Author­i­ty (RTA) and Sky­ports Infra­struc­ture offered a vision of four con­struct­ed ver­ti­port sites locat­ed near Dubai Inter­na­tion­al Air­port, Palm Jumeirah, Dubai Down­town and Dubai Mari­na, where Joby would be the pri­ma­ry fly­ing taxi com­pa­ny.

Dun­can Walk­er, CEO of Sky­ports, com­ment­ed, “The appetite for tech­nol­o­gy inno­va­tion and infra­struc­ture expan­sion in Dubai makes it a huge­ly promis­ing envi­ron­ment for the launch of advanced air mobil­i­ty. We’re excit­ed to con­tin­ue work­ing with the RTA to make our joint vision of an inte­grat­ed ver­ti­port net­work a real­i­ty in 2026.”

Dubai is a three hour flight from NEOM.

Then there is Ger­man-based Lil­i­um who back in Octo­ber signed a Mem­o­ran­dum of Under­stand­ing (MOU) with Saudia Air­lines to pur­chase 100 of its eVTOL Jets as well as sup­port cer­ti­fi­ca­tion and ser­vices across the area. Saudia is the first air­line in the MENA (Mid­dle East and North Africa) region to invest in sus­tain­able air mobil­i­ty.

Oth­er eVTOL com­pa­nies with a foot in the Mid­dle East door include Eve Air Mobil­i­ty after a signed Let­ter of Intent (LOI) with heli­copter and busi­ness jet oper­a­tor Fal­con Avi­a­tion in Decem­ber. The com­pa­ny intends to pur­chase 35 of Eve’s air­craft to launch eVTOL ser­vices in the Gulf region from 2026.

Abu Dhabi-based Fal­con is plan­ning to oper­ate the eVTOLs, ini­tial­ly, from its exist­ing heli­port at Atlantis the Palm, from where it offers tourists a bird’s‑eye view of Dubai. In 2021, the heli­port was used by 45,000 pas­sen­gers tak­ing sight­see­ing rides from the island site. Two years ear­li­er, Fal­con announced plans, in part­ner­ship with heli­copter mak­er Leonar­do, to devel­op ver­ti­ports around the region.

No doubt oth­er com­pa­nies like EHang, Aut­oFlight and XPeng will be knock­ing on NEOM’s door to be a part of its impend­ing trans­port rev­o­lu­tion. The future is bright. The future is UAM.

But it is not all plain fly­ing.

NEOM crit­ics are sharp­en­ing their key­boards. For exam­ple, businessinsider.com pub­lished a fea­ture this week with the head­ing “The Sau­di crown prince wants to build a tril­lion-dol­lar utopia in the desert. His deals with Chi­na reveal a dark­er vision.”

Jour­nal­ist Tom Porter, hints at a poten­tial Orwellian dystopia when he points out that the Sau­di Crown Prince has hand­ed over the sur­veil­lance, mon­i­tor­ing and gen­er­al polic­ing for NEOM to Chi­na. Both coun­tries rep­re­sent author­i­tar­i­an regimes, where height­ened sur­veil­lance of its peo­ple brought about by improv­ing tech­nolo­gies is becom­ing an inte­gral part of their ruler­ship.

Porter writes, “The Crown Prince has been strength­en­ing his ties with Chi­na’s leader, Xi Jin­ping, who has agreed to pro­vide pow­er­ful sur­veil­lance tech­nol­o­gy. Bule­lani Jili, a Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty fel­low who research­es Chi­na’s glob­al ambi­tions, told Insid­er that Xi is seek­ing to “nor­malise and seek to legit­imise its vision of a state-led cyber­space and sur­veilled pub­lic.”

He con­tin­ues, “Chi­na has already pro­vid­ed sur­veil­lance tech­nol­o­gy for the cre­ation of so-called “safe cities”, run on user data, in Egypt and Ser­bia, a report by the Wash­ing­ton Insti­tute think tank found. Crown Prince Mohammed appears keen to repli­cate those projects on a grander scale.”

This view is backed by Vin­cent Mosco, a researcher on social impacts of tech­nol­o­gy who has stat­ed, “These sur­veil­lance con­cerns are jus­ti­fied. NEOM, in effect, is a sur­veil­lance city”, lead­ing to the ques­tion: ‘Will it become a Dystopi­an City Blue­print of the Future?’

What is The Line?

One extra­or­di­nary planned fea­ture of NEOM is called The Line. A prop­er­ty con­struc­tion 170 kilo­me­tres long locat­ed between the Red Sea and the city of Tabuk with a foot­print of just 34 sq. km. It con­sists of a mir­ror glass facade build­ing with an out­door space in between with a height of 500 metres and 200 metres wide. As the first res­i­dents are expect­ed to move in dur­ing 2024, the first build­ing phase should be com­plete by 2030. Even­tu­al­ly, up to 9 mil­lion peo­ple will inhab­it the con­struc­tion by 2040 with an aver­age pop­u­la­tion den­si­ty of 260,000 peo­ple per square kilo­me­tre. For com­par­i­son, Lon­don has a sim­i­lar num­ber of occu­pants spread over 1,500 sq. km, rep­re­sent­ing 5,725 peo­ple per square km. 

The Line will con­sist of con­nect­ed com­mu­ni­ties called mod­ules. The total struc­ture is to have 135 mod­ules, each 800 metres in length. An image of a gar­gan­tu­an chick­en coop for humans comes to mind. Con­struc­tion began in Octo­ber, main­ly via Chi­nese engi­neer­ing exper­tise, where exca­va­tion works are present­ly tak­ing place by over 2,000 labour­ers along the entire length of the project.

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Mean­while, it is of no sur­prise to learn that The Line is being designed with the aid of arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence (AI). The build­ing incor­po­rates facil­i­ties such as pow­er, waste, water, health­care, trans­port and secu­ri­ty, and more unusu­al, per­son­al data is to be used as a form of finan­cial cur­ren­cy. This will be col­lect­ed from the res­i­dents’ smart­phones and their homes, as well as from facial recog­ni­tion cam­eras and mul­ti­ple oth­er sen­sors placed around the city. Peo­ple are to be paid, lit­er­al­ly, for hand­ing over their data.

Media web­site news18.com quot­ed Mar­wa Fatafta, a region­al pol­i­cy man­ag­er at Access Now, a dig­i­tal rights organ­i­sa­tion, who said, “Using mon­ey as an incen­tive is a ter­ri­ble idea; it dis­torts the right of peo­ple to freely con­sent, and nor­malis­es the prac­tice of sell­ing per­son­al data for prof­it. It sounds like a pri­va­cy dis­as­ter wait­ing to hap­pen.”

Also, there is talk of employ­ing drones to be the city’s “eyes in the sky”, to mon­i­tor the inhab­i­tants as they go about every day life. A reminder of the videos tak­en in Chi­na dur­ing the Covid-19 lock­down, where offi­cious orders ema­nat­ing from drones were barked by police at those who dared to step out­side their homes.

“The Line of Light” Viewed From The Air (cred­it: NEOM)

NEOM also boasts a host of oth­er facil­i­ties includ­ing Oxagon (a float­ing indus­tri­al com­plex shaped like an octa­gon); Tro­je­na (a major out­door ski­ing des­ti­na­tion that will host the Asian 2029 Win­ter Games with an arti­fi­cial lake and plen­ty of arti­fi­cial snow); Sin­dalah (a lux­u­ry resort com­plex off the city coast); Neom Bay Air­port; and a man-made agri­cul­ture region in the desert cov­er­ing more than 16,000 acres that relies heav­i­ly on genet­i­cal­ly engi­neered crops. Even cre­at­ing an arti­fi­cial moon for the night sky is being dis­cussed.

Mean­while, as The Line is to be 170 kilo­me­tres long with no streets or cars, the empha­sis on UAM is impor­tant, so as to offer inhab­i­tants the abil­i­ty to quick­ly and eas­i­ly trav­el around the city com­plex, where the need for ver­ti­ports and drone hubs is essen­tial. At present, there is lit­tle infor­ma­tion on the sub­ject. Ques­tion: Which com­pa­nies will be con­struct­ing these hubs; how many will there be; and what might they look like?

This also applies to drones. Which man­u­fac­tur­ers will be cho­sen; how many craft are to be flown around NEOM; and for what pur­pose? We should know a lot more by 2024.

For more infor­ma­tion


(Top image: NEOM)

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