In 2017, Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler Mohammed bin Salman launched a construction project “so ambitious that it verges on the fantastical”, says Vivian Nereim in Bloomberg. It involves turning an inhospitable patch of Saudi desert the size of Belgium “into a high-tech city-region called Neom”, with a starting budget of $500bn. Initial concept art included “elevators that somehow fly through the sky, an urban spaceport, and buildings shaped like a double helix”.
Five years into development, progress is slow. An army of foreign consultants has been hired, housed in a residential camp which looks like “a cross between a Google campus and a minimum-security prison”. Offices are plastered with inspirational quotations from both MBS and Nelson Mandela. A pattern has emerged of expensive plans being drawn up then immediately cancelled: a $200bn “solar field” was shelved soon after being announced; the same happened with a proposed beachfront town modelled on the Côte d’Azur, which featured a seaside lined with crushed marble that “would shimmer in the sun like silver”.
Nevertheless, construction has begun on some projects, including a ski resort in the Neom region’s mountains which will require the removal of more than 20 million tons of rock. Then there’s the Line, a proposed “linear city” 100 miles long, which could cost $1trn to build. When I took a helicopter ride over the site, I saw toy-like construction vehicles churning the ground far below. “There was already a faint but unmistakable slash – one man’s will carved into the desert.”