The Australians behind a Saudi bid to build a sci-fi city
“In Sydney the commute is shocking. The Line is life without traffic lights or cars, where everything is in your own little community and it’s green space, it’s community space, everything is powered by renewable energy,” says Stoner.
“There’s a cluster of industries which are all about innovation and about taking our society to the next level.”
“It’s a clean sheet, just starting to paint the canvas. It will attract the sorts of people who can live the dream, and that’s the sort of people that Neom wants.”
For Crown Prince Mohammed, widely known as MBS, Neom and The Line represent his vision of Saudi’s future: no longer economically fixated on fossil fuels, socially liberalised, and more attractive to global companies and expats than Dubai, Abu Dhabi or Doha.
Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. AP
“MBS wants people to connect him with this futuristic thinking and sustainability that is happening in America. He can see that Dubai has been very successful at this over the last 20 years, and he wonders why he can’t do that as well,” says Andrew Hammond, author of The Islamic Utopia: The Illusion of Reform in Saudi Arabia.
“He wants you to think of him as Mr Neom. He wants to be seen as a man of the future, to be linked in your mind with people like Elon Musk.”
And he’s in a hurry. The project is part of his Vision 2030, which means it has a deadline just nine years away. That’s a hugely ambitious timeline to build a city of 1 million people from scratch on virgin soil.
But one person who has confidence in the Saudis to pull this off is Andrew Liveris, the other Australian attached to the project.
The 67-year-old was until last year the CEO and chairman of US multinational Dow, and has a long and intimate history with the Kingdom and its royal family.
He had personal meetings with MBS during the formulation of Vision 2030, in which they discussed the role of the futuristic city that at that time had no name.
“He described it as bringing his country into the 21st century, and removing this dependency on oil and fossil fuels. I was struck by his energy, his passion, his intelligence,” Liveris recalls.
The Line will be made up of three layers, which will supposedly remove the need for cars.
“When the first phase of it is done by 2025, and we all get a chance to visit, I think you’ll see that the human ecosystem has been planned thoroughly so that it’s not some Orwellian white elephant – it really is a design to maximise human liveability and total respect for the human environment.”
Expansive vision … Andrew Liveris, former CEO and chairman of Dow. Louie Douvis
There are already press reports surfacing of issues with the construction. That brings to mind the stop-start work on other grand Saudi projects such as the Jeddah Tower, envisaged as the world’s first skyscraper to reach a height of 1 kilometre. The Wall Street Journal has reported that Neom has repeatedly shed senior staff.
Liveris says his work building petrochemical plants in Saudi Arabia, and the track record of companies such as Aramco – from where Neom’s CEO Nadhmi al-Nasr was hired – is solid evidence that the Saudis have the human capital and the resources to get Neom done.
But Lowy Institute research fellow Rodger Shanahan says the project will need a major influx of foreign investment; and he wonders if Western companies – which are MBS’s target audience for Vision 2030 – will hesitate.
“Lots will be put off by someone with the Khashoggi execution hanging over their head,” he says, referring to the state-sanctioned killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018.
“There are reputational issues for the companies that the Saudis are trying to court. There’s women’s place in Saudi society, the human rights issues. To shareholders in Western companies, it’s not good PR to be overly exposed to the Saudi market.”
And it’s not just the companies but the potential residents who may baulk at moving to a city in a country with Saudi Arabia’s degree of restrictions on women, alcohol and political life.
Liveris says the country is liberalising rapidly under MBS, and also notes that Neom will have its own “founding law” that will turn the city into a kind of regulatory enclave.
I actually use the Saudi example quite a lot in my meanderings around here in Australia.
— Andrew Stoner, former NSW deputy premier
“Look, this is still a place that will have to respect the rules and laws of the Kingdom,” he says. “But Neom’s founding law will obviously have to recognise that there is going to be conduct within Neom that has to be made compatible with its desire to have a diverse population.”
Former NSW MP Andrew Stoner says Australia could learn a lot from Saudi Arabia. James Brickwood
But if it has its own social and legal mores, will it have to be gated from the rest of Saudi society? And how will the more rigorously traditional elements of Saudi society respond?
“A 170 kilometre-long city is virtually impossible to provide security for. It’s only going to take one bomb to go off there to scare all the expats away,” Shanahan says.
He and Hammond are both sceptical that MBS’s desire to “build my pyramids”, as he reportedly put it last month, will be realised in quite the futuristic form now envisaged – but it’s so important to his political identity and vision that it won’t be abandoned either.
“It doesn’t have to succeed in the terms it is framed now – they can always reframe, they can shift what is a success and what isn’t,” Hammond says.
Neom itself has described the project’s ultimate direction as “flexible”.
Liveris says the doubters lack imagination. “I remember when Dubai was a sleepy little village,” he says. “This is not incremental remedy, this is a complete design for the future. You’ve got to think about it that way.”
And Stoner says his stint working with the Saudis has actually made him rethink what’s required in Australia, as the country stands on the brink of a leap towards a net zero carbon future – particularly the need for proper long-term policy planning, with private sector involvement.
“Our policies have, unfortunately in Western democracies, been episodic, based on electoral cycles,” he says.
“I actually use the Saudi example quite a lot in my meanderings around here in Australia. I say, look at Singapore, look at Taiwan, look at South Korea … look at these places that really had a vision to lift themselves into the 21st century and become G20 countries.
“Let’s stop being a pit, a mine, a quarry and a farm; let’s stop being just people who can develop property. Let’s put a top-down plan together: world-class infrastructure, world-class digital, world-class emissions and environmental management, and do that like we’re doing in Saudi Arabia.”
The Australians behind a Saudi bid to build a sci-fi city
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