Will Saudi's smart city turn into a claustrophobic surveillance state?

When Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman unveiled a $500 billion project of a world where humans, robots, and AI co-exist, many began to wonder if we are heading toward a utopian or dystopian future.

Sixty years ago, The Jetsons cartoon series envisioned a utopian smart city that was set 100 years in the future. At the time, a society obsessed with technology, gadgets, and smart homes was nothing but pure wonder and whimsy.

But today, the convergence of emerging technologies such as edge computing, IoT, and 5G is beginning to bring the concept of smart cities to life. However, as sci-fi meets reality, there is mounting concern around increasing the size of the threat landscape and the price tag that will come with progress. But despite these reservations, there is also an awareness that something needs to change.

Although our newsfeeds are filled with scary stories about environmental crises, human-AI collaboration enables the world to think differently and create innovative solutions. For example, Neom combines emerging technologies with the brightest minds in architecture, engineering, and construction to build a sustainable alternative to traditional cities.

The futuristic and bold vision of a 100-mile-long mirrored skyscraper megacity in the middle of the desert free from cars, streets, and carbon emissions is undoubtedly exploring the art of the possible. But at just 200 meters wide, it could be a little too claustrophobic for some of its projected 9 million citizens.

The project is promoted as a carbon neutral, nature positive, and sustainable development. Running on 100% renewable energy. The romantic concept explores a different way of living where we prioritize health and well-being over transportation and infrastructure. According to documents leaked in 2019, the worlds of sci-fi and reality are set to collide in Neom, where a new world of robot maids, dinosaur robots, a giant artificial moon, and glow-in-the-dark beaches will deliver the wow factor to residents.

Crypto bros expecting to party in the ultimate tech hub will be disappointed to hear that Saudi officials have no plans to waive the kingdom's alcohol ban. Although "The Line" project is being promoted as a civilizational revolution that puts humans first, the one aspect missing from artistic impressions is people.

Critics weigh in

Critics have dismissed plans as nothing but an imaginary concept or vanity project that could lead us to sleepwalk into a surveillance state or leave citizens feeling trapped between two giant walls. Environmentalists have also questioned the massive carbon footprint around the project's construction and the impacts of bird migration or the free movement of sand, which is critical to desert habitats.

The concept of a brave new utopian world where humans, robots, and AI co-exist might sound appealing, but how many old traditions will sneak into Neom? For example, will we still see a class system with the wealthiest residents at the top in suites and the poorest at the bottom in a modern equivalent of the steerage of third-class passengers on the ill-fated Titanic? Without proper thought about the implications of these creations, the owners could unwittingly create nothing but a high-tech upgrade of a medieval street.


Despite the beautiful architectural feat of engineering and science on display, sci-fans will highlight comparisons of Mega-City One, the fictional city in the Judge Dredd comics, or the dystopian future depicted in High-Rise by J.G. Ballard. In fact, the promotional videos are also reminiscent of the opening of every science fiction movie before things go horribly wrong.

Neom: stuck behind the walls?

Before we get too carried away, it's still unclear whether the scale and scope of this ambitious vision for the future can ever be realized. The first hotels are scheduled to open by 2024, and the megastructure will not be able to greet the first five million visitors until 2030.

There is a strong argument that locking ourselves away in a confined 200 meters wide fake world between two 500-meter-high walls in the middle of the desert is the modern equivalent of burying our hands in the sand. Instead of divorcing ourselves from the landscape in a bid to save the planet, maybe we should be exploring how we can better reacquaint ourselves with the natural world to protect our future.

Life is not as simple as having all daily needs reachable within a five-minute walk. Although it initially sounds cool, happiness is not achieved by getting to the top of a mountain in a flying car. It's in the climb itself. For these reasons alone, we can safely predict that future residents of Neom will eventually surrender to their curious human instincts and wonder what exists beyond the 500-meter-high walls.

Neom sounds like it will be an intriguing and exciting place to visit but a little too fake and claustrophobic to live in. Whether Saudi's new smart city is destined to become a utopia or dystopia will ultimately come down to a subjective opinion. So, the big question is, will you join the revolution in urban living, or do you prefer to live in a city without walls?