Selling Utopia



Volume 8, Issue 04
February 24, 2023

Mohammed bin Salman (commonly referred to as MBS) unveiled his plans for his futuristic city of tomorrow Neom in 2017. In a conference room in Riyadh, he announced a budget set for $500 billion dollars and a completion date for 2030. He emphatically stated that Neom would become one of the most active urban centers in the world, with new smart technologies and cutting edge infrastructure employed to better run and regulate urban systems, alongside desalination plants and a fully renewable electric grid. The megaproject would house millions of people who would live in harmony with their environment. It would also become a central point of economic activity; a hub of innovation and entrepreneurship radiating out from its own established economic zone. And finally, a bold riposte to how we conceive typical world cities, Neom would not be horizontal, but rather a vertical metropolis more than 100 miles long, accompanied by two twin high-rises.

While the calls for a free-market ecotopia are ambitious, they are not entirely unusual within the scope of language used in design briefs for contemporary urban development. They are, however, only the foundation of the more ludacris and peculiar desires of the Crown Prince, whose foray into urban design would come to include calls for an artificial moon, a year-round ski resort, glow-in-the-dark beaches, a beach that would combine sand with crushed marble (since discarded), robotic butlers, and flying drone-powered taxis1 . The renderings that have accompanied such claims are as you might expect: hyperreal depictions of a future world that essentially look like promotional materials for large budget sci-fi films. MBS had in fact expressed his explicit interest in science fiction and utopia as a visual category, even going as far as hiring Hollywood production designers to consult for design briefs. An article published by Bloomberg last year revealed how he had told the designers that he liked the “cyberpunk aesthetic,” which sent his consultants on a long road of research into various sub-genres of sci-fi that could further inform Neom’s designs.

Utopia used as its own visual category has been seen before in previous smart city briefs, as explored by Molly Sauter in their analysis of Toronto’s now scrapped Sidewalk Labs2 . Relying on fantastical depictions of a future world, bursting with color, light and intricate details of the sublime are at the backbone of selling a modern smart city. The most important aspect of the brief is the projected image of themselves, which works to conceal the reality of a complete lack of planning utility or logic. Whilst fictional utopias are denuded of politics, Sauter argues that the crafting a depiction of a utopian society is a profoundly political act that creates the distance between anything that we know about our world and that which we could strive for. It is this exact distance that is an act of intentional political persuasion. The absurd ideas propelled by the hubris of MBS has certainly been an entertaining display of the scope of his imagination, but has hardly addressed the critical needs of Saudi nationals, nor has it provided any semblance of quality of life for its present denizens. Of course, we are talking about a world leader who will continue to fail at addressing the innumerable human rights violations and working conditions within Saudi Arabia. A world leader who ordered for the dismemberment of journalist Jamal Kashoggi inside the Turkish embassy in 20183 , and who waged a war in Yemen that caused to this day the largest humanitarian crisis on record4 . Ultimately, the prospect of a monarch with access to unthinkable amounts of sovereign wealth and the imagination of a preteen with an affinity for Marvel movies does make this dystopia a complex one.

  1. Michaelson, Ruth. “‘It’s being built on our blood’: the true cost of Saudi Arabia’s $500bn megacity”.” The Guardian, 4 May. 2020, neom ↩︎
  2. Sauter, Molly. “City Planning Heaven Sent.” e-flux Architecture, Feb. 2019, ↩︎
  3. Kirchgaessner, Stephanie. “US finds Saudi crown prince approved Khashoggi murder but does not sanction him.” The Guardian, 26 Feb. 2021, ↩︎
  4. ”Yemen war: Why is the world’s largest humanitarian crisis being ignored?” uploaded by Al Jazeera English, 28 Mar. 2022, ↩︎

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Volume 8, Issue 04
February 24, 2023