Could this be the key to a better world?
A megacity run entirely on renewable energy. Rules of gender segregation do not apply. Vertical farms and solar-powered greenhouses. The possibility of drones, robotics, free hi-speed internet and unimaginably advanced AI. This is not a drill. This project that looks like the clichéd utopia from one of those many post-apocalyptic novels might just become an economic reality. Or at least that’s what the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia thinks.
On Oct 24th, 2017, the Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman announced a plan to create a 10,000-square mile city from scratch that will become a world class tourist destination. They’re quite serious about this because it is a $500 billion-dollar project that will be financially backed by the Public Investment Fund (PIF), the country’s sovereign health fund, which was established to invest in shifting the country away from reliance on oil.
This will be called the NEOM zone and will extend from north-west Saudi Arabia towards Egypt and Jordan. It is a sandy, deserted area on the coast of the Red Sea and near maritime trade routes on the Suez Canal. It has a temperate Mediterranean climate and lush beaches and coral reefs of luxury-resort potential. As of now, there is barely anything there and the entire city will be built from the ground-up, bit by bit. If the ambition isn’t enough for you yet, they also plan to build a bridge that connects the city to Egypt, over the Red Sea.
The Crown Prince considers it a “civilizational leap for humanity” and has projected it as the beginning of the future. This is part of ‘Vision 2030’, the plan proposed by him to save Saudi Arabia from its “addiction to oil”. It has particular targets and plans to create new sectors of employment and change focus from oil. This is poised to happen alongwith dynamic cultural changes, like more rights for women and a move towards a more moderate Islam.
The fall in oil prices shocked the country, which had to borrow foreign money to take care of the record deficit. This created an urgent need for the securement of a safe future in a world that might run out of oil. The NEOM project will create employment for the country and create a new economic zone that will encourage tourism, industry, finance and entertainment, solving the country’s oil dependence.
It is roughly modelled on a ‘free zone’ concept and it will be free from tariffs and will have its own laws and regulations separate from the rest of the nation and outside traditional Saudi constraints. It wants to “create enough wealth to avoid the risk of social unrest” in this restructuring of their economy. This is essentially a shortcut to create a small pocket economy that is more efficient as reforming the larger one will take a lot more time. It remains to be seen whether this ‘paradise island’ can be isolated from the country’s inefficiency which is the question raised by James Dorsey, a Middle East specialist at Nanyang Technological University. Will the benefits expand? Will the cultural reforms spread? Or will it remain a small bubble without effect on the rest of society?
Now, here’s another picture closer to home. Completely wi-fi enabled campus. State-of-the-art library. Biometric recognition and online learning portals. Attempts at gender equality and representation. Unconventionally late curfew, equal for all (Stop complaining, do you even know of any other colleges in India?). Residential learning and close interaction with faculty and hundreds of other learning opportunities. An ideal education environment. In a valley, far away from the hustle bustle and realities of the city. Without daily first-hand reminders of poverty, pollution and discrimination. An island. Sound familiar? How different is FLAME University from the NEOM project, really?
There are discussions about us living in our own sweet bubble and the implications of that. How do we transfer the benefits of our ideal environment to the actual outside world? Can we be isolated from the rest of the country’s inefficient education system or job market? What happens when we will have to leave our bubbles? For the FLAME University student and for Saudi Arabia, time will tell.
Author: Gopika Kumaran