Illustration: Two robots look at each other in Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia's new $500 billion city will be run by robots

It's hard to believe that just 100 years ago, human beings were still 70 years away from inventing the World Wide Web, still drilled into people's heads in order to "cure" their illnesses and believed that there was just one galaxy in the entire universe. Homo sapiens have been on planet earth for roughly 200,000 years, but most technological advancement has soared in the past few hundred alone, and it looks like it's only going to get better... or more terrifying, depending on how you view it.

This feeling of elation and dread was epitomised when the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, announced that his country would be building a futuristic $500 billion megacity which would be pretty much run by robots. Yep, that's right. The inevitable robot takeover is finally happening. Receiving the news, we had two choices: To think it was the coolest thing ever, or to freak the hell out.

Spanning across Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt, "Neom", the 26,500 square km city of the future, is expected to be populated by more robots than actual humans; a terrifying first step into an uncertain future for mankind.

While the prospect of a place controlled by technology has always been discussed, it's a strong likelihood that many of us didn't think we'd live to see the day it actually happened and will have nightmarish visions of I Robot come to life. However, when officials announced the colossal project back in October 2017, they presented the city's androids as the furthest thing away from something that would maim, murder and eventually enslave the human race. According to them, our new automated friends will instead act as an authoritative support system to help and care for people lucky enough to live in the megacity, which is set to dwarf New York 33 times over.

“We want the main robot and the first robot in Neom to be Neom, robot number one,” the crown prince said. “Everything will have a link with artificial intelligence, with the Internet of Things—everything... We will build the city from scratch, it will be drone-friendly and a centre for the development of robotics. We want to create something different. Neom is a place for dreamers who want to create something new in the world, something extraordinary.”

Marc Raibert, CEO of Boston Dynamics also highlighted the importance of the robots which will live in Neom, telling the conference: “Robots could perform a variety of functions – covering areas such as security, logistics, home deliveries and even looking after the elderly and infirm."


Although we were surprised, perhaps we shouldn't have been. The second-largest state in the Arab world had made its intention to become a world leader in technology clear when plans were announced to set up a $1 billion fund to invest in technology alongside Russia. Their dedication was even more evident when they became the first country in the world to grant a humanoid robot citizenship.

Sophia, a female robot allegedly modelled on Audrey Hepburn, was given Saudi Arabian citizenship on October 25 2017, but her new status prompted controversy and provoked some uncomfortable questions. Could Sophia marry and vote? Could she own property and have it stolen from her? Would damaging her be considered assault and shutting her down be murder? Yet, Sophia's existence also prompts questions about the machines that will reside in the new $500 billion supercity. Will the robots residing in Neom have citizenship too? No one knows.

However, the city of Neom is about far more than just a few robots. Powered entirely by regenerative energy, the city will be governed by its own laws and is intended to showcase Saudi Arabia's newfound modernity. Critics have claimed that the Saudi state is keen to shed their traditional image in favour of being seen as a "pioneering and thriving model of excellence in various and important areas of life".

Starry-eyed planners have heralded Neom as a future business hub that will focus on industries including energy and water, biotechnology, food, advanced manufacturing and entertainment. Their enthusiasm for advancement highlights the fact that the kingdom desperately needs to be liberated from its dependence on oil exports.

It's no secret that the economy has struggled to overcome low prices in recent years and Prince Mohammed has launched a series of economic and social reforms - such as allowing women to drive and opening cinemas for the first time in 35 years - in order to make Saudi Arabia a place where other businesses can thrive. In addition, the country is set to pump almost $3 billion into its entertainment industry and is investing in a tourism project that consists of 100 miles of sandy coastline and a lagoon with 50 islands, in an attempt to draw tourists in.

Crown prince of Saudi Arabia Credit: Getty

If they do manage to pull Neom off, Saudi Arabia will no doubt become figureheads in the technology industry, as well as several other industries. "All services and processes in NEOM will be 100% fully automated, with the goal of becoming the most efficient destination in the world," the Saudi Arabia Public Investment Fund said in a statement.

With the monarchy planning to complete the first phase of Neom by 2025, the computerised fantasy is nigh. But onlookers are bound to ask, is this gloriously futuristic megacity a realistic goal, or an unfeasible daydream? Or simply an Orwellian nightmare come to life?

And if the thought of such a place scares you, Mohammed bin Salman says that you can step aside. "We try to work only with the dreamers," the young crown prince told crowds gathered in Riyadh. "This place is not for conventional people or companies."


Featured illustration by Egarcigu