Covid (Again?) + Last Week's Digest
Read Now

— Spectacles —

The news tells you what happened.
Spectacles explains why that matters for democracy.
Instantly receive our exclusive handbook on how to spot the biggest threats to democracy when you confirm your email!
Arabian Nights Under an Artificial Moon | Focus

From Disney World to the Saudi desert, the ultra-wealthy have long dreamed of being great founders. Some are more dangerous than others.

One hot day, Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) found himself wandering in the barren northwest corner of his Kingdom when he heard, from out of thin air, a voice whisper in his ear, “If you build it, they will come.” Or maybe that was Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams. Either way, that seems to be the kind of thinking behind MBS’s landmark project: NEOM, the microstate of the future.

It’s pronounced like The Matrix’s Neo, plus an ‘m,’ and if you say it fast enough, it almost sounds like a NASCAR whizzing past you at Talladega. Maybe there’s something truly special about gas-guzzling exhibitions of testosterone that only they—whether car racing or a petro-prince’s futuristic vanity project—can make such a unique noise.

Okay, so NEOM is billed as some microstate of the future, but what exactly does that mean? Essentially, it’s MBS’s attempt to build cities from scratch: an enormous planned development unbound by the old-fashioned path dependencies which have shaped the growth of just about every other city in the world. In the old world, you’re looking at very high density in city centers which developed long before cars. In the new world, like in America, you’re looking at enormous and unsustainable urban sprawl built for cars.

The plan, then, is to build for the present and the future. Marketing videos tout a total lack of surface roads and cars, a five minute walk for anything one might need, immense greenspace, and fantastical innovations in infrastructure and research. Of course, in Saudi Arabia’s northwest corner, greenspace is hard to come by, but surely the challenges of the location—allegedly chosen on a whim from a glance at Google Earth—can be ironed out. Probably. Maybe.

This 10,000 mi² microstate, about 1.2% of Saudi Arabia’s landmass, boasts two planned projects thus far: Oxagon and The Line. Oxagon is the most recently announced “region of NEOM,” an enormous port, logistics center, and industrial center on the shore of the Red Sea. The big catch, and what makes the project so futuristic, is that half of the octagon-shaped development will be floating on the water.

The automated port and logistics machinery will sit on solid ground, while scientists, researchers, innovators, and entrepreneurs will live and work on the world’s largest floating structure. In the words of NEOM’s probably very expensive marketing team, “This is the place where ideas can change the world.”

The other “region of NEOM” is perhaps a little less fantastical than building world-changing manufacturing facilities off the coast of a barren desert for no particular reason. The Line, you’ll no doubt be shocked to hear, is a city but this time built in a straight line across the desert. You might think I’m kidding, but I’m not.

The promise of The Line is a city of the future, where transportation and logistics take place underground, in tunnels, while the surface remains open. This allows for a “carefree urban environment” where everything you need is a five minute walk away, and travelling from end to end takes only 20 minutes. Of course, the website admits that the mountain range, “given its geology [sic], is likely to be the least populated” area, though it doesn’t admit that even the fastest passenger train in the world can’t travel at the necessary 510 km/h needed to make the 170 km journey in the time advertised. It’s worth mentioning that this all bears a stunning resemblance to Walt Disney’s original vision for EPCOT, the “Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow,” now found at Disney World in Orlando, Florida.

You might ask yourself what the point of all this could be. Sure, it may seem admirable to try to solve the hard problems cities are facing, and maybe it’s true “the contemporary city needs a full redesign,” to quote the slick promo videos. But why is a Saudi prince so concerned that he’ll spend as much as half-a-trillion dollars to do it?

There are a few explanations based either on the marketing materials or on basic assumptions about what goes on in the mind of a 36-year old man who’s never worked a day in his life and is personally wealthier than God. HBO’s hit show, Succession, has at least prepared us for that kind of speculation. Probably one or more of three motivations could be at work: humanitarian or ecological concern, economic worries about the petrostate’s future, or personal vanity.

Humanitarian concerns feature frequently in NEOM’s marketing, with bold claims that its different regions will provide unparalleled livability. Of course, “livability” can only go so far on its own terms. In the face of climate change and potential ecological end times, there must be some provision for sustainability, or Oxagon’s shoreside development and The Line may be swallowed by rising tides within decades.

To that end, claims of environmental friendliness pepper the promos for both “regions of NEOM,” although the advertisements are light on specifics. Oxagon is promised to be the place “where making the biggest impact on the world makes the smallest impact on the planet.” The Line will allegedly preserve 95% of local ecology.

But the bold claim that The Line will preserve local ecology belies some serious numeric gymnastics. The 170 km strip will impact 5% of the entire microstate’s ecology, not 5% of the area it’s built on. That’s hardly surprising or innovative. Indeed, within the “5%” of NEOM occupied by The Line, one assumes that intensive excavation and building would be a blight rather than a benefit to the local environment. Regardless, it’s hard to take the prince of a country like Saudi Arabia seriously, if he says his plan to help the climate is enormous new construction projects in the desert.

Maybe MBS is motivated by economic concerns for his Kingdom. After all, two scenarios are possible in the near future. Either temperatures keep rising uncontrollably, and already barely habitable regions like Saudi Arabia are in big trouble. Or we eliminate fossil fuels from our diets, and petrostates like Saudi Arabia are in big trouble. Either way, it’s not looking good for the House of Saud.

The Kingdom desperately needs to diversify its economy, and it seems this may be a real motivation for NEOM. Both “regions” are billed as future hubs for research and development and innovation in manufacturing, technology, medicine, media, tourism, energy, you name it. MBS and whoever in the Saudi government aligns with his vision clearly intend NEOM  to be the place where the next world-changing innovations take place. But there’s a problem here: an apparent belief—shared by some gung-ho venture capitalists—that somehow innovation can be bought.

The promo video for Oxagon begins with images of and references to the industrial revolution in textiles, the automotive assembly line, and the first computers. NEOM misses the key point that each of those transformative technologies came about through a great deal of trial, error, and luck. Saudi Arabia lacks the economic history (anything more diverse than single commodity export) or political structure (liberal democracy) conducive to the kind of private iterative advancement which has changed the world. Maybe MBS can draw the right people in, but there’s a whole lot of momentum (and good reason) producing and keeping innovative people in other places. That’s all not to mention it’s a ludicrous idea that this is somehow the most efficient way for Saudi Arabia to diversify and secure its future prosperity.

No, instead it seems much more believable that this young prince’s mind is merely filled with delusions of grandeur: in a word, hubris. NEOM’s roadmap is little more than a marketing brochure or campaign speech. The promised super high speed rail doesn’t exist. The challenge of building The Line’s infrastructure through a mountain range is barely mentioned. The difficulties of constructing a floating city on the Red Sea are hardly given a thought.

What’s more, leaked memos and reports from the McKinsey Consulting group, which is working with MBS on the project, reveal wilder dreams than you could imagine. The prince first planned an island of robot dinosaurs, a false moon made with thousands of drones, and flying cars, besides so many more absurdities. If that doesn’t convince you that this is just a stupidly rich guy with stupid ideas which are nicely filtered through consultants and marketing experts, well then I’ve got a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you.

Some people like to accuse Elon Musk—another unfathomably wealthy man with dreams of changing the world—of similar delusions, but I think there’s an important difference here. It’s unlikely, in my mind, that NEOM will ever amount to much more than a vanity project, because it’s not being developed in response to any demand. And yet, if it fails, nothing will happen, because MBS can do whatever he wants. Nobody can touch him. He’s a prince in an absolute monarchy with zero accountability whatsoever, either to subjects or consumers.

Elon Musk, on the other hand, works within a market environment. The development of motor, battery, and manufacturing technology which Tesla has achieved actually matters, because it had to. There was no princely throne in a petrostate for Musk to return to, if Tesla didn’t actually perform and respond to a real demand in ways that others weren’t. SpaceX is essentially the same story; its innovations in space flight, construction, and logistics have filled a vacuum nobody knew existed and dramatically reduced decades-standard costs. In turn, the company has found great success, because it can actually get contracts, because it actually does something that’s in demand, better than anyone else.

It’s unlikely that MBS with NEOM, insulated from the effects and demands of the market, without necessity’s hot breath down his neck, will approximate the successes of Musk with Tesla and SpaceX.

That’s not to say that delusion can’t capture the minds of entrepreneurs even in the free market. Take, for example,  the “seasteading” movement and one of its most well-known adherents, Peter Thiel. Seasteading is the idea that new states may be formed on artificial platforms at sea, beyond the laws and regulations of existing states, to create libertarian utopias. If you’ve ever played the video game Bioshock, you may be thinking of the slogan of Andrew Ryan’s undersea city, Rapture: “No Gods or Kings. Only Man.”

Thiel, the billionaire co-founder of PayPal (where he and Musk beefed about whether to use Microsoft or Linux software), was once an ardent seasteading supporter and libertarian. On Dave Rubin’s show, Thiel talks about the wonderment of being able to start a country or city from scratch: the romance of being a founder in today’s world where all the land is taken. For Thiel, seasteading promised innovation not unlike that envisioned by MBS at his own seastead, Oxagon, but also unparalleled liberty untrammeled by any state apparatus. The beauty of a thousand blooming states for him was the possibility of greater liberty through competition.

Seasteading, perhaps not so surprisingly, hasn’t worked out so well. With that movement largely becoming a thing of the past, so too has Thiel’s libertarianism. Instead, he was recently a keynote speaker at—and leading funder of—the National Conservatism conference down the street from Disney’s EPCOT, signalling his allegiance to a cadre of politicians, pundits, and moguls who are interested not in the founding of new cities or states but a new conservatism.

As it turns out, as Harry explains very well in an Insight from back when the conference was taking place, this new conservatism is not consonant with liberty as most understand it or Thiel used to. Instead, it’s an authoritarian program that envisions the state as the enforcer of strict moral codes. Of course, we shouldn’t be shocked that someone once obsessed with being a founder of some great new society from scratch has, upon the failure of that endeavor, turned his interest to something more accessible: being a part of the group that conquers the one we currently live in.

Maybe I’m wrong about NEOM. Hopefully Thiel is wrong about the presidential prospects of Josh Hawley, or the nationalist candidates for US Senate that he’s bankrolling in Arizona and Ohio. Regardless, it’s worth taking stock of these kinds of actors and their dreams and visions.

When Francis Fukuyama confidently declared the end of history at the closure of the Cold War, his statement was not final. In fact, he followed it with a discussion of megalathumia, or enormous ambition, warning that not everyone would accept the calm, stability, and prosperity of liberal democracy’s global triumph.

People like Donald Trump, whom Fukuyama actually discusses by name as an example, are not so easily satisfied, much like Alexander Hamilton, according to Lin Manuel Miranda. But unlike Hamilton’s time of revolution, today’s world doesn’t offer so many opportunities to people like him to do what he did. On the one hand, you can start massive companies and amass incredible fortunes and private power. Maybe you can even nudge the ship of state to and fro. But the world, thanks to liberal democracy, is much too ordered for people like Thiel to have their shot at being a great founder. Their ambition may be beyond anything our democracy can offer.

When it comes to the Saudi prince’s EPCOT, the damage it could do is not wildly greater than Disney’s. After all, Saudi Arabia is already an absolutist monarchy churning out oil that continues to burn the world. How much worse can it be, if he builds a big port and a half-cocked high-speed rail line?

But when it comes to the United States, where dreams of carving out a corner of the country to build a new utopia outside the confines of the law can’t be fulfilled, things can get a lot worse than they are. People like Thiel may seem like stammering messes on the stage, but with enough ambition, enough resources, and few personal reservations, they can pose real hazards for democracy: for them, the regime that will never be enough.

Subscribe to Spectacles

If you're interested in learning more about Thiel & co.'s National Conservatism, be sure to check out Harry's quick but deep explainer:

The Post-Liberal Roller Coaster | Insight
“National Conservatives” met next door to Disney World, but it’s no joke. What is this movement, and how is it a danger to democracy?


Join the conversation

Great! You’ve successfully signed up.
Welcome back! You've successfully signed in.
You've successfully subscribed to Spectacles Media.
Your link has expired.
Success! Check your email for magic link to sign-in.
Success! Your billing info has been updated.
Your billing was not updated.