Plans for the trillion-dollar Saudi Arabian desert city of NEOM are taking shape, and prospective residents are being promised an experience like something from a sci-fi movie.
The city will have a 100 mile-long “vertical sky scraper” running through its heart. Also known as ‘The Strip,” it will be carved through the desert in the arid northwest of the country.
It will also feature glow-in-the-dark beaches, ski slopes, an artificial moon, robot butlers, and flying taxis, according to glossy brochures and public statements by its planners.
But behind the outlandish plan, developed by Saudi Arabia’s powerful crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, is a much darker reality.
The crown prince has been strengthening his ties with China’s leader, Xi Jinping, who has agreed to provide powerful surveillance technology.
Jili Bulelani, a Harvard University fellow who researches China’s global ambitions, told Insider, that Xi is seeking to “normalize and seek to legitimize its vision of a state-led cyberspace and surveilled public.”
China has already provided surveillance technology for the creation of so-called “safe cities”, run on user data, in Egypt and Serbia, report by the Washington Institute think tank found.
Crown Prince Mohammed appears keen to replicate those projects on a grander scale.
What is NEOM?
NEOM, the so-called zero-carbon city of the future, is the centerpiece of Saudi Arabian de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s attempt to modernize the country and reduce its reliance on fossil fuels.
“It’s a ticket for him to enshrine himself as the Saudi leader that modernized the country and usher it into a new technological era,” said Marwa Fatafta, a policy manager at Berlin-based digital rights organization Access Now.
NEOM’s executive director, Giles Penderton, told UAE-based newspaper The National that construction for the project was proceeding rapidly, and the city would house nine million residents by 2045.
According to the developer, NEOM will be made up of 10 regions. One region, known as the Line, is being marketed as a zero-carbon area, where residents’ data will be used to adjust services to their needs.
City planners say that current smart cities use around 10% of possible user data. Per their plans, NEOM, enabled by AI, will use 90%.
James Shires, a researcher at London’s Chatham House think tank, told Insider that the crown prince had ambitions for a city where services ranging from refuse collection, to health, to train times are regulated by data from sources such as smart phones and surveillance technology.
“NEOM is designed to leapfrog those [other smart cities], to begin from the ground up in sort of an entirely designed fashion to collect data and use that data for the purposes of the city,” he said.
But some voices, including Fatafta, the digital-rights advocate, are warning that the futuristic and luxurious vision in NEOM’s brochures conceals a darker project in line with Crown Prince Mohammed’s authoritarian instincts.
The “smart city” capabilities aren’t just a futuristic attraction, but could be deployed as a tool for invasive surveillance by state security services, she fears.
How is China involved?
Last December, MBS welcomed Xi to Saudi Arabia for a lavish summit, where the leaders announced cooperation across a broad range of issues, including surveillance tech.
It appeared to be the beginning of a fruitful partnership for Crown Prince Mohammed. In Xi, experts say, he found a leader who shares his conviction that technology can enable them to expand their economies while relinquishing none of their authoritarian control.
“We’re not yet seeing quite the same degree of sort of physical surveillance [in Saudi Arabia] as we’ve been seeing in China, for example, but China is working with the Saudis and other Gulf countries to start to implement that,” Annelle Sheline, a researcher with the Quincy Institute in Washington, DC, told Insider.
“That is something that Chinese are selling to the Saudis and other Gulf countries,” she said.
James, the Chatham House researcher, said that one form this technology took was surveillance cameras linked to facial-recognition technology that could be used to trace the past and real-time movements of a person.
“It also represents a real risk to people’s privacy, especially depending on how the data is collected and stored,” he said.
Chinese technology provides the capacity to link surveillance camera footage to other datasets about a person, including biometric information.
Another potential concern is cloud technology, specifically the companies that store huge amounts of computer data. Chinese telecoms giant Huawei has already signed contracts with Saudi Arabia, including in NEOM, and James said there were huge questions about how much privacy protection the firm would provide users in the city.
Huawei did not immediately reply to Insider’s request to comment on its role in NEOM. A spokesperson for NEOM did not return a request for comment on concerns about surveillance in the city.
Saudi Arabia has recently moved to strengthen its data-privacy laws, but organisations including Human Rights Watch have warned that the laws are too weak.
How could NEOM use surveillance?
While casting himself as a reformer, Crown Prince Mohammed has dealt brutally with critics and opponents of the Saudi government, including the 2018 murder and dismemberment of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi.
As he has sought to consolidate his power, he has also worked to enhance his capacity to monitor critics through technology and thereby crush dissent.
The Saudi government used the Israeli spyware Pegasus to monitor critics, and a Saudi agent infiltrated Twitter to steal the personal data of users who used the platform to criticise the Saudi government.
The Saudi government has recently launched a brutal crackdown on people criticizing the government online that has been denounced by human rights groups.
While he seeks to propel the kingdom towards a high-tech future, and open it up to investment and innovation, the crown prince will be willing to relinquish none of his powers to surveil and crush dissent, said Fatafta.
“They’re being marketed as ‘eco cities’ or ‘smart cities,’ we call them surveillance cities,” said Fatafta, of projects such as NEOM.
“Because essentially they’re built on an architecture that is fueled by people’s personal data, and in a country like Saudi Arabia where there is no data protection or safeguards, no oversight, no accountability, no transparency, no separations of powers, and the fact that MBS is actually ruling the security agencies. It is a scary idea.”
So far, Crown Prince Mohammed’s grandiose ambitions are far from being realized, and it remains to be seen whether a ruler known for impulsiveness will have the patience to see through a project of this magnitude.
James said the plans for the city raised fundamental questions about how we want to live our lives.
“Essentially what kind of life you want to lead in a smart city?” he asked.
“If you want to live in a city where the real value to freedom of expression, to counterculture, to expressing and discussing independent thought, then this might not be the place you want to go.”