Saudi Arabia’s crown prince Mohammed bin Salman wants to build cities of the future in the middle of the desert — NEOM — with a ski resort called Trojena, a floating city called Oxagon, and a city built in a straight line called The Line. But the supposed motivations don’t add up. Rather than practical concerns, it seems MBS is animated by a desire to be a great founding figure: a motive shared by American billionaire Peter Thiel. Thiel, who first dreamed of libertarian utopias on the ocean — seasteading — has since redirected his interest and energy toward supporting National Conservatism: a far-right, anti-democratic political movement embraced by Josh Hawley and Thiel’s client-candidates J.D. Vance and Blake Masters. This dual-story reveals just how dangerous unlimited ambition can be when up against the limits placed by liberal democracy.
Imagine yourself in a city nestled between two enormous mirrored walls, stretching as far as the eye can see. Not just a home, it’s a futuristic work of art.
Now, maybe that sounds like an absurd fantasy to most people, and, if we’re being honest here, it is. But in the mind of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Muhammed bin Salman, it’s very, very real.
It’s NEOM: MBS’ planned “city of the future,” which promises to blend sustainability, technology, and efficiency to produce urban environments unlike your wildest dreams.
But MBS isn’t the only man with grand designs to revolutionize how we live. Just a few years ago, tech billionaire Peter Thiel was hawking the concept of “sea-steading,” building paradise cities on the ocean, free from intrusive and abusive government.
Now, it might seem weird to compare these two guys—the crown prince and this titan of Silicon Valley. But the comparison is intriguing, alarming, and reveals some vital lessons about the dangers of certain kinds of ambition.
So, just what is it that these guys want? And why is it dangerous?
Chapter I: What is NEOM?
NEOM. NEOM. NEOM. It sounds almost like [a NASCAR whizzing past at Talladega]. But what is NEOM, besides a gas-guzzling exhibition of testosterone?
Well, it’s the microstate of the future carved from Saudi Arabia’s northwest corner, right here. And it’s got a few regions (so far). [map]
In the mountains you’ve got [Trojena]. It’s basically the ski and party town of the future, like a Saudi Arabian Aspen or Davos (they know their audience), designed to be a mecca for music festivals and multi-millionaires.
On the coast you’ve got Oxagon. [Oxagon.] Oxagon — the port of the future featuring a revolutionary AI-powered harbor on the coastline, while floating out on the water — yes that’s right — will be a technology and research hub, where the world’s next big ideas will emerge…apparently. Somehow.
And over here, you’ve got the star of the show, THE LINE. A city, but in a straight line. 170km long, traversable end-to-end via underground rail in only 20 minutes, with anything you could need available within a 5-minute walk, thanks to the EPCOT-style network of subterranean tunnels full of robotic delivery vehicles.
But that was crazy. For starters, no high speed rail that fast even exists.
So they went back to the drawing board and came up with…THE LINE (2.0). Same promises, including future train, except now the robots fly, and there are 1500-foot-tall mirror-finish walls along the entire length. For some reason. It’s an improvement.
That’s the answer to “what is NEOM?”
But why is NEOM?
Chapter II: But...Why?
There are a few explanations based either on the marketing materials or on basic assumptions about what goes on in the mind of a 37 year old man who’s never worked a day in his life and is personally wealthier than God.
Either MBS is worried about the environment, his petrostate’s economic future, or it’s all vanity.
The first explanation is the most generous, and the one the PR team pushes. THE LINE will be carbon neutral. OXAGON will be a hub for marine biology research. It goes on. But come on, this is Saudi Arabia we’re talking about here!
If there’s one thing that always trumps the environment in Riyadh, it’s the bottom line. And MBS should be concerned about the future of his oil-based economy. But it seems somewhat ludicrous that building a floating city, a very long, very tall city, and an AI-powered ski resort is the smartest way to diversify and adapt.
That leaves, you guessed it, vanity — and the shoe fits. The name NEOM comes from neo meaning new and M for Mohammed. Sorry, Mohammed bin Salman.
According to leaked documents from consultants MBS hired, the location was picked from a glance at Google earth, and the original plan for NEOM involved an island of robot dinosaurs.
Yep. This is pure hubris, merely filtered through expensive consultants and PR experts.
Chapter III: Atlantis At Last
Ok, so NEOM is a vanity project, but this kind of thing is only a problem for petrostates where the price of telling the absolutist prince “no” is a swift sword to the neck, right?
Well, yes and no. Yes, because basically the whole point of liberal democracy is to offer the ambitious chances at political power and riches, while placing a strict cap on just how ambitious they can be.
Think Mark Cuban, a guy who’s made his billions, bought a sports team, and is content playing within the rules.
["Will you run for President one day?"
But no system is perfect. And one American found his way to an idea not at all unlike MBS’ Oxagon.
That’s Peter Thiel, who co-founded PayPal with Elon Musk, invested early in Facebook, and started a bunch of companies named after stuff from Lord of the Rings. In the late 2000s he was a big fan of sea-steading.
[THIEL: "The question of whether seasteading is...desirable or possible...in my mind, is not even relevant. It is absolutely necessary."]
Why seasteading, you ask?
Well, back then Thiel was a libertarian and a skeptic of democracy who thought welfare spending and women voting were roadblocks to freedom. If you could found a city outside the greedy modern state, humanity could achieve new heights of liberty and innovation.
Unfortunately for Thiel, however, his Bioshock-esque libertarian utopia failed to materialize. You see, building cities in the middle of the ocean is actually really difficult, really expensive, and just all around not super feasible. And like NEOM, it was an exercise in vanity, nominally aimed at economic efficiency but in reality the product of unlimited ambition.
Chapter IV: Change of Plans
With the failure of seasteading, Thiel underwent a crucial epiphany.
If the state couldn’t be avoided, Thiel would have to gain control of it.
But what to do with that power?
You would think Thiel might use it as a libertarian: downsizing government and deregulating the economy.
But Thiel’s outlook changed.
Motivated by the same core idea that fueled his skepticism of democracy before—that the masses couldn’t be trusted—he’s aligned himself with National Conservatism: a movement not unlike Viktor Orbán’s agenda, covered in the last video: using policy to promote traditional family values, curb LGBT rights, punish overly-woke corporations, and slash immigration.
As with Viktor Orbán’s implementation in Hungary, National Conservatism involves curtailing democracy, given its limited popularity and paternalistic attitude that leaders must save the people from themselves.
Thiel has funded the movement lavishly.
In Ohio and Arizona, he bankrolled Senate candidates—and former employees—J.D. Vance and Blake Masters with $25 million, as they declared their belief that the 2020 election was stolen.
In essence, Thiel wants to be some kind of great founding figure, and he now sees his best shot in attaching himself to the movement which sought to overturn the last election and wouldn’t mind overturning American democracy more broadly.
Chapter V: Chipping Away
Ambition is typically thought of as a lust for power.
But both these men want more than power—after all, between the crown prince and billionaire, they already have plenty.
They want to be remembered. To live forever.
It’s no coincidence NEOM is named after MBS, nor is it a coincidence that Thiel has spent millions funding anti-aging research and signed himself up to be frozen when he dies, in hopes that in the future he might be reanimated.
For NEOM’s part, it’s unlikely MBS will find what he craves.
Like seasteading, building such grandiose structures in the desert is a battle of man versus nature, in which there’s little chance of prevailing.
But Thiel’s new ambitions—his anti-democratic attempts to position himself as the patron of a future Ceasar—may well succeed, as Viktor Orbán has,because Thiel’s is a battle of man versus man.
Liberal democracy places a limit on ambition,and that’s a thing we should be thankful for.
But it’s only as strong as the people who support it, and if men as powerful as Thiel commit themselves fully to breaking that limit, it’s unclear how well—or how long—it will hold.
00:00 — “NEOM | THE LINE - New Wonders for the World” via NEOM
00:08 — “NEOM | What is THE LINE?” via NEOM
00:17 — “This is TROJENA - The Mountains of NEOM,” via NEOM
00:43 — “Launch Announcement of THE LINE,” via NEOM
00:49 — “TSI Conference 2009 - Peter Thiel,” via The Seasteading Institute
00:53 — “Seasteading! What About Waves?” via the Seasteading Institute
01:27 — “This is Nascar! Nascar Sound” via Xyoma
01:35 — “About” via NEOM
01:46 — “This is TROJENA - The Mountains of NEOM,” via NEOM
02:02 — “What is OXAGON?” via NEOM
02:26 — “Launch Announcement of THE LINE,” via NEOM
02:53 — “NEOM | What is THE LINE?” via NEOM
03:34 — “NEOM | What is THE LINE?” via NEOM
03:41 — “What is OXAGON?” via NEOM
03:58 — “Saudi Export Data,” via the Observatory of Economic Complexity
04:21 — “About” via NEOM
04:31 — “A Prince’s $500 Billion Desert Dream: Flying Cars, Robot Dinosaurs and a Giant Artificial Moon,” via the Wall Street Journal
05:25 — “Mark Cuban and Daymond John Take a Lie Detector Test | Vanity Fair,” via Vanity Fair
05:36 — “Trump, Gawker, and Leaving Silicon Valley | Peter Thiel | TECH | Rubin Report,” via The Rubin Report
05:52 — “Does Palantir See Too Much?” via the New York Times
05:52 — “Facebook Billionaire Peter Thiel Raises New Venture Fund To Invest In His ‘Utopia’,” via Business Insider
05:52 — Mithril Capital via Mithril
06:06 — “TSI Conference 2009 - Peter Thiel,” via The Seasteading Institute
06:21 — “The Education of a Libertarian,” via Cato Unbound
07:37 — “Peter Thiel | Nationalism Breaks the Dogma Machine | National Conservatism Conference II,” via the National Conservatism Conference
07:45 — “National Conservatism: A Statement of Principles,” via The Edmund Burke Foundation
08:24 — “Vance spouts Trump talking points on 2020 election loss,” via the Tribune Chronicle
09:09 — “Peter Thiel’s quest to find the key to eternal life,” via The Washington Post
09:10 — “Peter Thiel: the billionaire tech entrepreneur on a mission to cheat death,” via TheTelegraph