The Dark Reality Behind Saudi Arabia’s Utopian Dreams

To the rest of the world, Saudi Arabia may look like a quasi-medieval kingdom where women still struggle for basic rights, where bearded clerics run the courts and where convicts are routinely beheaded by sword in public. But the Saudi monarchy — like its neighbors in Dubai and Abu Dhabi — has long cherished dreams of leapfrogging into a high-tech future. The last Saudi king created plans for six new cities in the desert, all billed as transformative steps toward a world beyond oil.

Now the Saudis have announced a fantasy that makes all their previous efforts look tame. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto ruler, released a short film in January outlining his plans for the Line, a postmodern ecotopia to be built on the kingdom’s northwest coast. It will be a narrow urban strip 106 miles long with no roads, no cars and no pollution. M.B.S., as the crown prince is known, plans to pour $500 billion into the Line and related projects, which is a lot of money even by Saudi standards. He calls the Line a “civilizational revolution” to be inhabited by one million people “from all over the world.” Why anyone would want to move there, and why a city should be shaped like a strand of capellini, is anyone’s guess.

To watch the crown prince’s promotional video is to be immersed in a distinctively Saudi form of arrogance, blending religious triumphalism and royal grandiosity. The film begins with a fast-moving montage of the 20th-century’s greatest scientific and technical breakthroughs, including an incongruous image of Saudi Arabia’s founding king — as if he’d been a Steve Jobs-style innovator rather than a camel​-riding desert warrior. Dates flash on the screen in a vintage font as we see images of the first commercial radio broadcast (1920), the first color TVs (1953), the first successful kidney transplant (1954), the first man on the moon (1969), the birth of the internet. After flicking past the glories of YouTube and virtual reality, the screen goes blank and the words appear, white on a black background: “What’s next?”

Cut to M.B.S. on a stage in his floor-length white gown. He delivers a brief TED-style talk, while behind him we see a topographic model of what looks like blackened lunar crust. A thin stream of glowing green fire cuts through it, and for a moment I almost expected Godzilla to appear and do battle with the prince. The Japanese film monster, born of post-World War II fear and excitement about the power of technology, would be oddly appropriate here. But no: That green beam is meant to represent the Line.

As M.B.S. conjures this brave new world — no journey will take more than 20 minutes! zero carbon emissions! — you get the sense that his chutzpah is nothing short of metaphysical. He appears to believe that nature itself is at his command. This shouldn’t be entirely surprising, because M.B.S. has been promoting equally outlandish ideas since 2017, when he first introduced Neom, the broader futurist development of which the Line forms a part. (The name is a portmanteau of Greek and Arabic words for “new” and “future.”) The Neom prospectus described “a new way of life from birth to death reaching genetic mutations to increase human strength and I.Q.,” according to a 2019 article in The Wall Street Journal. Cloud-seeding would bring rain to the desert. The project includes serious, realistic planning on desalination, alternative energy and desert agriculture, I was told by Ali Shihabi, a member of the Neom advisory board. But those ideas were overshadowed by wild-eyed talk of super-high-speed trains, robotic maids and beaches with glowing sand.

The hubris underlying these proposals, nourished by generations of yes men (including well-paid Western consultants), will be familiar to anyone who has spent time in Saudi Arabia. Still, you might have expected a bit more circumspection from M.B.S., at least right now. This is the man who stands accused of ordering the gruesome murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi journalist who was lured to the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in 2018, then strangled and dismembered with a bone saw by a team sent from Riyadh. Khashoggi dared to write mildly critical columns in The Washington Post. The details of his brutal killing shocked the world and made M.B.S. a pariah. He has condemned the murder and denies any role in it. (The C.I.A. begs to differ.)

Humility is not in M.B.S.’s genes, for better and worse. He continues to harass and jail his critics as if the Khashoggi murder never came to light. But his brashness has allowed him to hem in Saudi Arabia’s religious establishment, putting an end to the kingdom’s longtime promotion of poisonous Islamist doctrine. He is relaxing the rigid constraints on cultural life, and that has made him immensely popular, especially among the young.

M.B.S.’s bizarre promotional film is not just a reflection of his royal ambitions. His technophilia resonates with many young Saudis, and you can’t really blame them. Their own cities sprang up almost overnight from obscure patches of desert. Their grandparents watched in awe as black goo spurted up from the sand, instantly transforming one of the world’s poorest countries into one of its richest. Why shouldn’t they believe in flying taxis and artificial moons?

The last part of the Line video strikes a surprising note: images of congested urban highways and flyovers reminiscent of the dystopian 1982 film “Koyaanisqatsi,” which presented modernity as a betrayal of the Earth. The Line, according to the video, will save humanity from this nightmare, eliminating commutes and pollution and preserving 95 percent of the nature within its confines.

What the prince doesn’t say is that there are already thousands of people living in harmony with nature in the same area: a tribal community that has been there for centuries and is now being replaced by the project. One of these tribesmen made videos protesting the evictions — videos of a different sort, you might imagine, than the one M.B.S. has produced. He was shot dead last year in a confrontation with Saudi security forces.

Anyone who has spent time in Saudi Arabia’s existing cities can sympathize with the desire to start anew. They are dusty and ugly. Narrow-minded clerics preside over corrupt bureaucracies that are resistant to change. But the Saudi landscape is already dotted with failed or abandoned megaprojects. Some Saudis have responded to M.B.S.’s film with acid comments about the need to renovate the country’s existing towns and neighborhoods before throwing billions into another Xanadu. Jamal Khashoggi suggested as much in a column written with a co-author a few months before he was murdered.

After M.B.S. finishes his presentation, a warm female voice describes life in the Line. The urban dystopia recedes, and happier images parade before us: misty mountaintops, waves lapping a pristine coast.

The film’s final words, spoken as a multicultural parade of faces flickers across the screen, are deliciously preposterous: “A home to all of us — welcome to the Line.” As I heard it, I couldn’t help wondering about the woman who spoke those words. Would she even consider moving to a remote desert city, to be subject to 24/7 surveillance and the whims of a murderous prince? My guess is that she did what so many others who work for the Saudis have done: spoke her lines, picked up the check and fled.

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