If two of the Middle East’s many autocrats have their way, it won’t be long before the region has two megacities arising out of sand and rock. One is Neom, Saudi Crown Price’s Muhammad Bin Salman’s $500 billion plan to build a metropolis of one million people in the kingdom's empty northwest desert. The other is the new, as yet unnamed capital of Egypt, which is budgeted at a more modest $60 billion but is projected to house some six million people.
If you believe everything touted on the two cities’ respective websites, you might want to move to one of them yourself. Both Neom (and its more recently announced sub-city called The Line) and Egypt’s New Administrative Capital bring together every imaginable forecast (and cliché) about the future, an alluring mix of smart technology that will make residents’ lives a computer-controlled paradise, and “green” features that will relieve them of guilt for their contribution to destroying the planet.
There will be, the websites project, not only be attractive, well-paying work opportunities, but shopping, schools, culture and entertainment, all provided by an efficient and well-meaning state. The descriptions of the cities also boast endless superlatives, mainly of the “biggest” sort. Thus, Egypt’s NAC will have a park bigger than Central Park in New York, the biggest cathedral in the Middle East and the world’s second-largest mosque. Crown Prince Mohammad vows that Neom will attract the “world’s greatest minds and best talents” to the world’s best-paying jobs in the world’s most livable city. The city itself will be the size of Belgium.
To be fair, both cities have an economic and/or demographic logic. Neom is part of Prince Mohammad’s vision of weaning Saudi Arabia off oil by turning his country into a center of high-technology and tourism. Egypt’s NAC is about alleviating some of the population pressure on Cairo, which is home to 19 million people, far more than it can cope with. Egypt’s notoriously sluggish bureaucracy may even become more productive in its new smart-city digs.
But neither city can escape the foul scent of megalomania. Neom is the crown prince’s pet project and the symbol of all that he personally hopes to accomplish in transforming Saudi Arabia. Even before there’s a city, there is reportedly already a royal palace or two on the site – a decidedly medieval start to the city of the future but one designed to ensure everyone knows Neom is the prince’s baby.
Egypt’s NAC features ministry buildings inspired by pyramids and a giant presidential compound. You can’t help but suspect that the city remains unnamed while President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi , its guiding force, waits for the moment when it can be appropriately named after himself. In any case, if there’s ever an Arab Spring 2.0, NAC will be a comfortable 45 kilometers from protesters in Cairo and equipped with 6,000 wireless security cameras in case any of them reach the new capital.
The deeper problem is that both cities represent an artificial effort to graft a 21-century high-tech city onto countries that haven’t succeeded in making the transition.
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In the case of Saudi Arabia, that is explicitly the model. The kingdom is rich, but that’s because of oil profits. The rest of the economy isn’t globally competitive or demonstrating much high-tech prowess. Neom is supposed to attract foreign talent by offering a more liberal environment than the rest of the kingdom with the hope that the expat entrepreneurialism and innovation will rub off on the locals.
Egypt has even bigger problems to deal with. It’s a poor country with a stunted private sector and is struggling even more than Saudi Arabia with the transition to the digital era. The NAC is supposed to be first and foremost a capital city employing bureaucrats, but it is also supposed to showcase what Egypt can be, given the clean slate of a city built from scratch.
In the 21st century, good PR is almost as important as actual achievement. Witness the United Arab Emirates’ Mars probe, which sought with a large degree of success to project the Emirates as an emerging science power before it’s got any emerging credentials to speak of.
But PR goes only so far. The reality, for what it’s worth, is that the history of the most ambitious pre-planned cities, especially ones that promise they can deliver the future today, isn’t very good. Cities are too complicated to be contained in the best-laid plans of autocrats and their consultants and planners, which in any case often go awry because predictions about the direction of technology almost always miss the mark.
As chaotic as it seems, organic growth works much better. You can build cities served by wifi-linked waste bins (NAC) and “ultra-high-speed transit” (Neom), but by themselves those features won’t create an entrepreneurial and innovative culture. That’s a process from the ground up, as evidenced by the fact that California’s Silicon Valley emerged from orange groves.