The new Saudi city exerting a gravitational force on global morality
Probably everyone has something that they know they should think about but just can’t face engaging with because everything about it is too appalling for words. For me right now, that thing is Neom’s The Line, the city-to-be that will cut through the desert of Saudi Arabia like something about to be destroyed by Klingons in a Star Trek movie.
Work has already begun, judging by the long straight trench being excavated in the desert, so those of us who hoped this was just some peculiar joke have been disappointed.
Neom is the quintessence of one of those architectural dreams that no actual architect would dream of living in. Also, as dreams go, it seems to have appeared after eating far too much cheese. Why, for example, are hipsters in hiking boots and wooly hats having a picnic (with a mini-gas stove but no cooking equipment) on a balcony? Why are two guys randomly DJing next to a waterfall? How will they make the trees grow upside-down? Just looking at the website is enough to make me turn to something less dreadful, like cleaning the toilet, but look we must, not least so we can learn why this monstrosity is called Neom.
The “Neo” bit is from the Greek word for new (why it needs to be in Greek though remains unexplained), and it has been combined with M for obvious reasons: “It is the first letter of the Arabic word for future (mustaqbal) and also the first letter of the name of HRH Prince “Mohammed” bin Salman.” MBS is not the first ruler to claim immortality by naming a geographical feature after himself, though he will presumably be hoping to do better in that respect than Nursultan Nazarbayev, whose capital bore his name for even less time than Cecil Rhodes’ countries did.
- “The Line will tackle the challenges facing humanity in urban life today and will shine a light on alternative ways to live. We cannot ignore the livability and environmental crises facing our world’s cities, and NEOM is at the forefront of delivering new and imaginative solutions to address these issues,” said MBS, who I’ve never previously thought of as the kind of guy who’d use the word “livability,” but the Neom website said he did so he must have done.
There are so many directions I could go in here, not least how anyone could claim it is sustainable to build a new city in the desert considering the climatic stress currently faced by the earth? How much concrete will have to be poured to build a 105-mile city that will be taller than the Empire State Building? How much drilling and blasting will be required? How does a five-star hotel in a hot air balloon even work, and will people really pay $7,900 a night for it?
But the thing I want to focus on is the awesome gravitational force exerted by vast wealth on presumably nice people’s morals, of which this is perhaps the purest example I’ve ever seen. And the wealth here is vast, with an estimated budget of $500 billion. After Jamal Khashoggi was murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, several of Neom’s main Western backers disassociated themselves from it, but it takes more than dismembering a dissident to keep architects away from this much money, or indeed international sporting organizations.
- “Growing up I never believed I would ski in my homeland,” said Fayik Abdi, the first Saudi athlete to participate at the Winter Olympics, in a press release announcing that Neom will host the Asian winter games in 2029. “Now I’m looking forward to the Asian Winter Games at home.”
Neom’s soon-to-be-built winter sports resort — called Trojena, though I can’t figure out why — is being designed by architectural firms from all over the West. Outside of the skiing season, which is already brief but will soon be briefer still if temperatures keep rising the way they are, it will also host yoga retreats, food festivals, winter fashion week, art fairs and other similar cultural events that require a degree of freedom that I for one don’t immediately associate with Saudi Arabia, rather like the woman in this video who doesn’t have to cover her hair (a feature of much of the Neom publicity materials). In fact, it’s hard to imagine anyone could contemplate going on a wellness retreat in this place.
- “Saudi Arabia’s Specialized Criminal Court has sentenced to death three members of the Huwaitat tribe whose family, along with several others, have been forcibly evicted and displaced to make way for the Neom megaproject being pursued by the Saudi authorities,” reported ALQST last month.
- “Ibrahim al-Huwaiti was one of the delegations of local residents who in 2020 met the official commission charged with securing government title to the lands required for the Neom project. Ataullah al-Huwaiti was also seen in several video clips talking about the misery his family and all the other displaced residents were facing as a result of the decision to evict them.”
Human rights groups have previously asked Western companies involved in the project to condemn the Saudi government’s approach, but with no effect obviously.
- “Neom is not, it is true, atomic obliteration, or anything remotely like it. But it has already brought death, and in carving a line through a living, breathing community, all of those complicit in its design and construction are already destroyers of worlds,” wrote Adam Greenfield in this powerfully-argued column.
If there is any hope here, I find it in Lazika, a new Georgian city announced in 2011. Lazika was admittedly smaller than Neom — a mere half-million people, compared to nine million — but it had similarly bold claims being made for it, similarly edgy architectural designs and land expropriated in a similarly callous way. I visited it a decade or so ago, at which point it consisted of a couple of concrete slabs, some destroyed marshland and a few signs. Then the government changed, and that’s how it stayed.
The point of cities is that they’re messy and human and unpredictable, and there’s a reason why they gave us the word “citizen.” If you try and plan every aspect of one, even if you’re as rich as MBS, you will end up bumping into the fact that people are ornery, clever and stubborn; and they mess up architects’ neat drawings with the complexities of their lives, and long may they continue to do so.
In the West, democracy is in the rudest health that money can buy. The U.S. elections have attracted expenditure of $16.7 billion — that’s just over three percent of a Neom — which is the most ever spent on a midterm election, just like the last ones were, as well as the ones before that.
- “Outside groups spent about $1.9 billion to influence federal elections through October 31, blowing past the 2018 midterm outside spending record of $1.6 billion, adjusted for inflation.”
Meanwhile in the U.K., the local democratic folkways are going just as strong. Outgoing prime ministers — of whom Britain has had an unusually large number of late — get to appoint members of the House of Lords as a weird act of compensation for the fact they’re not in charge anymore. The upper house of parliament used to only include ancient aristocratic families until that was deemed undemocratic so now it’s packed with friends of the prime minister instead. It now has more than 800 members, of whom the only elected ones are the 92 remaining hereditary members elected by other hereditary members, which makes no sense.
Thanks to the political pile-up, Boris Johnson’s resignation honors list is only now being published, and it includes four members of the House of Commons. Technically, they should resign their seats but that would cause by-elections, which the Conservatives would lose, so they’re just going to take a rain check and become lords/ladies at some point in the future.
- “What a shameful list of bootlickers, bimbos and tropical island holiday facilitators who between them can be proud to have pushed trust in politics to an extreme low during their tenures and offered very little in return to the British people,” an unnamed Tory MP told Sky News.
Something is rotten in the mother of parliaments, and we haven’t even got to Liz Truss’ resignation honors list yet. People are talking about reform of the House of Lords, but then people are always talking about reform of the House of Lords.
WHAT I’M READING
Sorry it’s a short newsletter today. I’m in Vancouver and running around more than somewhat. But the long flight (and subsequent jetlagged early mornings) did mean I got to listen to the entirety of Ben Macintyre’s SAS Rogue Heroes which was great fun. The BBC has recently made a drama series out of it, which was daft but enjoyable.
I also really appreciated this article in the Financial Times about “Hotel Qatar,” and how people who are rich enough to pay the entrance fee can avoid Qatar’s restrictions on booze, sex and fun by going to expensive hotels, which seemed a nice metaphor for quite a lot of how the world works. I’m more than a little torn about the upcoming World Cup in Qatar, to be honest. Wales hasn’t qualified for the finals since 1958, two decades before I was born, and I’d like to see them do well.
However, this tournament sums up everything that’s wrong with international sports in one overpriced package. Even Sepp Blatter thinks it was a mistake to award the tournament to Qatar, and he wasn’t talking about LGBTQ rights, exploitation of migrant workers, or rampant corruption. So I suspect I’ll try to pretend the tournament isn’t happening, but it’s not going to be easy, particularly if Wales make it out of the group stages.