By Ty Joplin
Megacities have been a thing of dystopian fantasy for decades, but now one country wants to finally make one, because why not?
Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman announced at a tech conference in the hermit kingdom earlier this month that Saudi plans to build a futuristic megacity by 2025.
In what can be called ‘techwashing,’ this stunt is just one of a series of developments from Saudi where the Kingdom appears to be using its technological ambitions to gloss over its various human rights violations and oppression of its own population.
Called Neom, the city will be constructed from scratch near the Red Sea in northwest Saudi. The plan appears to pay for its construction by raking in billions from floating 5% of the national oil company, Saudi Aramco, on international stock exchanges in an Initial Public Offering (IPO).
Neom will reportedly be made to run off solar and wind power, will sprawl from Saudi into Jordan and even Egypt, will cost $500 billion to build and will apparently be populated mostly with robots.
Map showing the proposed location of Neom, courtesy of discoverneom.com
Saudi giving a robot citizenship for the first time now seems less like a PR stunt and more like a trial run for devising a new legal category for the robots they plan on making to service the megacity.
Bin Salman also mentioned that the city would, ideally, be privatized. “It’s as if you float the city of New York,” bin Salman told Reuters.
This would be the first time people could buy actual portions of cities and not just businesses within the cities, meaning at least theoretically, a city’s de facto leaders could be a CEO and an executive board rather than a democratically elected or appointed city council.
While Neom has been met with equal parts excitement and skepticism about it actually being built, the prevailing sentiment has revolved around how utterly ambitious the idea is, and how neat it would be if this city actually got built.
But there are many, many reasons to be fearful of this idea.
So far, little has been mentioned about how Saudi actually builds and maintains its cities. The country’s abysmal record on the treatment of migrant workers and relative silence on meaningful reform means this plan for a megacity will, if realized, be a mega-sized human rights crisis.
Approximately 33% of Saudi’s population are foreign workers, totalling about 10.7 million people. Of those, about seven million come from South Asian countries like India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka in addition to Yemen, Egypt, Sudan and Somalia–all countries that export massive amounts of workers as laborers around the world.
“They had absolutely nothing left,” a Human Rights Watch researcher told Vice in 2015, referring to migrant workers losing all their possessions when they have been detained by Saudi for being undocumented.
Saudi has carried out a prolonged deportation campaign since 2013, corralling thousands of workers into destitute camps for indefinite periods of time, until they are deported to their home countries which are often conflict zones.
Saudi also maintains a kafala, or sponsorship, system whereby migrant workers are legally tied to specific employers. The employers reportedly confiscate passports regularly–in effect controlling the movement of their workers, while also paying them irregularly and working them long hours with little breaks.
Since the massive decline in global oil prices in 2013, Saudi companies have struggled to stay afloat, often missing payments to their workers which drive the workers into financial desperation. These flailing companies then put their migrant workers in limbo where they are legally tied to a company who won’t pay them, and they face a choice: try to go home, fight the company legally, or wait to be paid–all options have their own perils and their respective success is far from guaranteed.
Because there has been no announcement to reforming the working conditions of its laborers, we can expect Saudi’s new megacity to be built with this type of exploitative labor.
If it does get built then, it has the potential to create a human rights crisis similar to the one being witnessed in Qatar. There migrant workers there are being abused en masse while they build football stadiums for the 2022 World Cup.
One remedy to mitigate worker abuse would be for potential investors to demand fair treatment and pay for workers building properties and sections of the city they may buy out.
But this depends on there being potential investors before the land is built upon, and can be spoiled by one corporation outbidding another by simply not demanding the same ethical treatment.
The megacity will not bring a plethora of new jobs to the country either: bin Salman made it a point to say the city will be mostly populated with robots who will perform the work of maintaining the city.
“We want the main robot and the first robot in Neom to be Neom, robot number one,” bin Salman told Bloomberg in hyping up the dystopian nightmare that is Neom.
Thus far, there has been no talk of new educational or vocational programs for Saudis who want to be part of their country’s megacity project. It just doesn’t seem like Saudi Arabia wants Saudis in this city.
Neom may sound exciting, but for its shiny promise of being a “civilizational leap for humanity,” it has all the signs of being a massively inhumane undertaking that will involve systematic and widespread violations of migrant workers’ rights.