The world needs more ambitious ideas about building the city of the future

(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at:, or follow me on Twitter.

Of course, Saudi Arabia can only give us a dystopian vision of the future. While it is exciting to think what they could build, with all their billions, they are instead focused on building what you might expect: a playground for the rich, a city built on fossil fuel, with no acknowledgement of the climate crisis.

I will also say, my time among tech startups has meant I’ve spent endless hours with MBA bros, and “The Future Has A New Home” is actually a line I’ve heard used several times before.

“The future has a new home,” proclaims the website.

“It’s a virgin area that has a lot of beauty,” says the voice over a string section soundtrack as the promotional video tracks colour-tinted panoramic shots of picturesque desert expanses, and deep azure lagoons.

“Better humans, better society,” it boasts extravagantly.

The brainchild of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the new city state of Neom, named from a combination of the Greek word for “new” and the Arabic term for “future”, is intended to cover an area the size of Belgium at the far north of Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea coastline.

There has been no shortage of outlandish promises for the $500bn (£400bn) city-state. According to strategy documents leaked last year, the project may include a huge artificial moon, glow-in-the-dark beaches, flying drone-powered taxis, robotic butlers to clean the homes of residents and a Jurassic Park-style attraction featuring animatronic lizards.

Advertising materials stressed Neom will be built on “virgin” land, ready to be conquered with futuristic technology. “In 10 years from now we will be looking back and we will say we were the first ones to come here,” declares a Neom staff member featured in the video.

“We anticipated there might be problems, especially with as large of a land grab as Neom. It’s inevitable that there would be some kind of forced displacement happening,” says James Suzano, of the European-Saudi Organisation for Human Rights. “When the state has done this before, it was accompanied by human rights violations.”

The destruction of communities on the Neom site follows decades of tensions between the House of Saud and the tribes it has ruled over since the creation of the Saudi state in 1932. Exerting control over the land through construction projects or destruction of some heritage sites have marked this rule. In 2017, the UN condemned the kingdom’s forced demolition of the walled city of Awamia, in the eastern Qatif region, as violating human rights.

Karima Bennoune, the UN special rapporteur for cultural rights, said that “historic buildings have been irremediably burned down and damaged by the use of various weapons by the military, forcing residents out of their homes and of the neighbourhood, fleeing for their lives”.

A $10bn King Abdullah financial district in Riyadh, intended as a “special zone,” has sputtered since its inception in 2006, weathering construction delays and confusion over its purpose, even after government attempts at a relaunch in 2016. Critics of Neom say the project risks the same fate.