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Feature Article
2023-01-01

Neom, The Crown Prince And Disruptive Innovation: The Collapse of Illusions?

2022 has seen the reputations of once high-flying titans of industry, media and politics left in tatters, as a veneer of carefully curated branding was stripped away to reveal the shaky foundation underlying the celebrity sizzle. Will Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, a self-proclaimed visionary and disruptor, suffer the same fate, or do his plans for a utopian future reveal an even more unsettling reality?

by Senior Analyst Talal Kapoor

Within the space of a year, some of the most influential (and controversial) figures of the last decade have taken a hard fall from grace. Having crafted an image calculated to suggest inevitable success through association, the reality has been less than inspiring. Having made fools of gullible investors in Silicon Valley, Elizabeth Holmes of Theranos was exposed as a fraud after the failure of her supposedly transformational medical technology, while Sam Bankman-Fried, only weeks ago the toast of both Silicon Valley and Washington, awaits trial on multiple counts after the unraveling of his crypto-currency enterprise FTX. Much as with Holmes, investors were so enthralled by the aura of eccentric brilliance he had consciously projected (famously playing a video game, dressed in shorts and a scruffy T-shirt, while on a conference call with a venture capital firm) that they were eager to throw vast sums into vaguely understood projects, won over by techno-babble and the excitement of getting in on the ground floor of a disruptive industry. In the case of Elon Musk, his very public mismanagement at the helm of Twitter has tarnished his cult-like reputation as a leader and a visionary (key investor al-Walid bin Talal had once lauded his "unique position" as the savior of the new acquisition, granting him almost superhuman status). In the world of politics, the star power of former president Donald Trump has almost faded from view in the aftermath of his disastrous involvement in US midterm elections and desultory campaign launch, while numerous celebrities in media and the arts now find themselves in legal jeopardy, targeted with lawsuits as statutes of limitations for sexual assault and abuse have been extended in many jurisdictions.

Unlike those who came crashing to earth, Muhammad bin Salman (known as MbS), crown prince and de facto ruler, is still riding high, though his aura has waxed and waned over time. Proud of his moniker as a "disruptor", MbS has overseen an unimaginable transformation in the Kingdom, and has designs on the future, aware that a petro-state such as Saudi cannot survive in the modern economy. Where once men and women dined separately, partitions dividing the restaurant, and a religious police enforced an austere version of Islam, now the country is home to dance music festivals and wrestling matches. But his most spectacular project, both in terms of scale and audacity, is the proposed scheme for Neom, which includes the futuristic LINE.

Neom (an amalgam of the Greek neo for "new" and mustaqbal, Arabic for "future"), will be a semi-autonomous state, encompassing 26,000 square km of desert. The LINE city is set to slice directly through the desert for 170 km, while new luxury resorts and tech industry centres fill out the enterprise. Marketed like a major studio blockbuster, Neom has enlisted prominent Hollywood visual specialists for public relations, and the materials showcase a staggeringly ambitious work (apparently already in progress). The most high profile aspect is the LINE, a series of hyper-connected, AI-enabled communities, envisioned as occupying a three-dimensional space, rather than sprawling horizontally. With these communities, tied together without the need for cars or roads, we are meant to "reimagine urban living". So-called smart city technologies are incorporated from the ground up, while the structures feature architectural designs by world-renowned firms such as Morphosis, Zaha Hadid, Mecanoo, Aedas, and UNStudio. The project is not without its detractors, however, who point out the human cost (local tribes are being forcibly evicted), environmental impact, and infrastructure challenges, which all seem to be glossed over. Critics have pointed out the absurd pretense that the LINE is an eco-friendly project, given the unprecedented scale of the industrial operations needed to build it, while others slam it as an "ecological and moral atrocity".

Related articles: Head of State: An Opportunistic Promotion?
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Past Feature Articles
Head of State: An Opportunistic Promotion?

The determination by the Biden administration that Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman should be granted sovereign immunity in a civil lawsuit effectively shields the Kingdom's de facto leader from any meaningful accountability. Was his sudden appointment to the role of prime minister simply a way for King Salman to begin devolving responsibility, or does the timing suggest that the decision was made to ward off legal challenges?

October Oil Surprise: Political Interference or Market Forces?

American outrage over the announcement of oil production cuts by OPEC+ shows the depth of the rift that has emerged between the US and Saudi Arabia. Is the crown prince, Muhammad bin Salman, using oil as a lever to interfere in American politics, or is energy policy motivated simply by financial interests?

Charles of Arabia: Royal Friend or Thorn in the Side?

With the sudden withdrawal of Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman from attendance at the funeral ceremony for Britain's Queen Elizabeth II, all eyes were on his last minute replacement - the relatively obscure Prince Turki bin Muhammad, grandson of a former king but unknown outside of Saudi Arabia. Was the choice of Turki intended to send a message regarding the Kingdom's relationship with the U.K.?

When Royals Hit The News: Guilty By Association?

Compared to the sensational story that a Saudi royal couple stood accused of modern-day slavery in the United States, the follow-up revelation that the case against them had entirely collapsed attracted almost no notice at all. In the headlong rush for clicks and views, does the media find the royal family an easy target for demonization?

Over A Barrel: Desperate Measures Or Realpolitik?

Although the stated intent of President Biden's trip to Saudi Arabia was to recalibrate his relations with Middle East leaders, especially Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, who he had until now refused to recognize, the meeting turned into a public relations disaster before it had even started. Did the crown prince come out ahead, his rule finally legitimized in the eyes of the world?

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