One day last September, a curious email arrived in Chris Hables Gray’s inbox. An author and self-described anarchist, feminist, and revolutionary, Gray fits right into Santa Cruz, Calif., where he lives. He’s written extensively about genetic engineering and the inevitable rise of cyborgs, attending protests in between for causes such as Black Lives Matter.
While Gray had taken some consulting gigs over the years, he’d never received an offer like this one. The first shock was the money: significantly more than he’d earned from all but one of his books. The second was the task: researching the aesthetics of seminal works of science fiction such as Blade Runner. The biggest surprise, however, was the ultimate client: Mohammed bin Salman, the 36-year-old crown prince of Saudi Arabia.
MBS, as he’s known abroad, was in the early stages of one of the largest and most difficult construction projects in history, which involves turning an expanse of desert the size of Belgium into a high-tech city-region called Neom. Starting with a budget of $500 billion, MBS bills Neom as a showpiece that will transform Saudi Arabia’s economy and serve as a testbed for technologies that could revolutionize daily life. And as Gray’s proposed assignment suggested, the crown prince’s vision bears little resemblance to the cities of today. Intrigued, Gray took the job. “If I can be honest with how I see the world, I’ll pretty much put my work out to anyone,” he says.
Gray had signed on to a city-building exercise so ambitious that it verges on the fantastical. An internal Neom “style catalog” viewed by Bloomberg Businessweek includes elevators that somehow fly through the sky, an urban spaceport, and buildings shaped like a double helix, a falcon’s outstretched wings, and a flower in bloom. The chosen site in Saudi Arabia’s far northwest, stretching from the sun-scorched Red Sea coast into craggy mountain badlands, has summer temperatures over 100F and almost no fresh water. Yet, according to MBS and his advisers, it will soon be home to millions of people who’ll live in harmony with the environment, relying on desalination plants and a fully renewable electric grid. They’ll benefit from cutting-edge infrastructure and a regulatory system designed expressly to foster new ideas—as long as those ideas don’t include challenging the authority of MBS. There may even be booze. Neom appears to be one of the crown prince’s highest priorities, and the Saudi state is devoting immense resources to making it a reality.
Yet five years into its development, bringing Neom out of the realm of science fiction is proving a formidable challenge, even for a near-absolute ruler with access to a $620 billion sovereign wealth fund. According to more than 25 current and former employees interviewed for this story, as well as 2,700 pages of internal documents, the project has been plagued by setbacks, many stemming from the difficulty of implementing MBS’s grandiose, ever-changing ideas—and of telling a prince who’s overseen the imprisonment of many of his own family members that his desires can’t be met.
Efforts to relocate the indigenous residents of the Neom site, who’ve lived there for generations, have been turbulent, devolving on one occasion into a gun battle. Dozens of key staff have quit, complaining of a toxic work environment and a culture of wild overspending with few results. And along the way, Neom has become something of a full-employment guarantee for international architects, futurists, and even Hollywood production designers, each taking a cut of Saudi Arabia’s petroleum riches in exchange for work that some strongly suspect will never be used. Few are willing to speak on the record, citing nondisclosure agreements or fear of retribution; at least one former employee who criticized the project was jailed in Saudi Arabia. (He’s since been released.)
It would be unfair to entirely dismiss Neom as an autocrat’s folly. Parts of the plan, such as a $5 billion facility to produce hydrogen for fuel-cell vehicles and other uses, are rooted in current economic realities, and building a global hub almost from scratch isn’t without precedent in the region; even 30 years ago, most of Dubai was empty sand. Since he became Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler in 2017, MBS has demonstrated a talent for imposing dramatic change, doing away with large swaths of the religious restrictions that used to bind every aspect of daily life. Women are pouring into the workforce, and teenagers are able to dance at sold-out music festivals—events that were previously unimaginable.
Nonetheless, the chaotic trajectory of Neom so far suggests that MBS’s urban dream may never be delivered. The same is true of his broader plans for economic transformation. In the crown prince’s telling, Saudi Arabia will soon be a center of innovation and entrepreneurship, free of the corruption and religious extremism that have long held it back. But to his critics, this promised future is a veneer, a layer of technological gloss over a core of repression, kleptocracy, and—above all—indefinite one-man rule.
“I was not alone in realizing that it was spurious at best,” Andy Wirth, an American hospitality executive who worked on Neom in 2020, says of the project. “The complete absence of being tethered to reality, objectively, is what was demonstrated there.”