Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s deals with China reveal the dark side of the city’s mega-plan

This image shows the design plans for “The Line,” part of the greater Saudi city of Neom, and a portrait of its mastermind, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Nicolas Asfouri-Pool/Getty Images. Neum

  • By 2040, Saudi Arabia aims to build a futuristic city in the desert called Neom.
  • It is part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s vision to modernize the country.
  • But analysts believe that Chinese technology could be used to put the population under complete surveillance.

Plans for Saudi Arabia’s trillion-dollar desert city of Neom are taking shape, and potential residents are being promised an experience like something out of a sci-fi movie.

The city will have a 100-mile “vertical sky scraper” running through its heart. Also known as “The Strip,” it will be carved into the desert in the arid northwest of the country.

It will also include glow-in-the-dark beaches, ski slopes, satellite, auto valet and flying taxis, according to to brochures and glossy public statements by its planners.

But behind this bizarre plan, hatched by the powerful Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, there is a much darker reality.

This publicity image shows a design for The Line, part of a massive Saudi desert city planned for Neom.
Neum

The crown prince has strengthened his ties with the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, who has agreed to provide powerful surveillance technology.

Gili Pullilani, a Harvard University fellow who researches China’s global ambitions, told Insider that Xi seeks to “normalize and seek to legitimize his vision of cyberspace led by a state and a controlled public.”

A report by the Washington Institute for Research found that China has already provided surveillance technology to create so-called “safe cities”, which operate on users’ data, in Egypt and Serbia.

It seems that Crown Prince Mohammed is keen to replicate these projects on a larger scale.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman announced a carbon-neutral city called “The Line” to be built in Neom, northwest of Saudi Arabia, January 10, 2021.
Bandar Al-Juloud/Courtesy of the Saudi Royal Court/Release via Reuters

What is NEOM?

NEOM, the so-called carbon-neutral city of the future, is a cornerstone of Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, trying to modernize the country and reduce its dependence on fossil fuels.

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“It’s a reminder for him to establish himself as a Saudi leader who modernized the country and ushered it into a new technological age,” said Marwa Fatafta, policy director at Berlin-based digital rights organization Access Now.

NEOM Executive Director, Giles Penderton, He told the Emirati newspaper, The National That the construction of the project was proceeding rapidly, and the city will accommodate nine million people by 2045.

According to the developer, NEOM will consist of 10 regions. One of the zones, known as the Line, is being marketed as a carbon-neutral zone, where residents’ data will be used to adjust services to their needs.

City planners say that current smart cities use about 10% of potential user data. According to their plans, NEOM, which is enabled by artificial intelligence, will use 90%.

James Sheres, a researcher at London’s Chatham House think tank, told Insider that the crown prince has ambitions for a city where services ranging from waste collection to health to train times are regulated by data from sources such as smartphones and monitoring technology.

“NEOM is designed to go beyond those [other smart cities]to start from the ground up in a way that is entirely designed to collect data and use that data for the purposes of the City.”

But some voices, including Fatafta, a digital rights advocate, warn that the futuristic, opulent vision in NEOM’s pamphlets hides a darker project in line with the crown prince’s authoritarian instincts.

She fears that “smart city” capabilities are not just a futuristic attraction, but could be deployed as an invasive surveillance tool by state security agencies.

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How is China involved?

Last December, Mohammed bin Salman welcomed Xi to Saudi Arabia for a lavish summit, where the leaders announced cooperation across a wide range of issues, Including monitoring technology.

It seemed to be the beginning of a fruitful partnership for Crown Prince Mohammed. Experts say he has found in Xi a leader who shares his conviction that technology can enable them to expand their economies while relinquishing any of their authoritarian control.

“We are not yet seeing the same degree of physical surveillance [in Saudi Arabia] We’ve seen in China, for example, but China is working with the Saudis and other Gulf states to start implementing that,” Annelle Sheline, a researcher at the Quincy Institute in Washington, D.C., told Insider.

“This is something the Chinese are selling to the Saudis and other Gulf countries,” she said.

Chinese President Xi Jinping holds talks with Saudi Crown Prince and Prime Minister Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud at the royal palace in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, December 8, 2022.
Yu Youwei/Xinhua via Getty Images

James, a researcher at Chatham House, said one of the forms this technology has taken is surveillance cameras linked to facial recognition technology that can be used to track a person’s movements in the past and in real time.

“It also poses a real risk to people’s privacy, particularly depending on how data is collected and stored,” he said.

Chinese technology provides the ability to correlate surveillance camera footage with other data sets about a person, including biometric information.

Another potential concern is cloud technology, specifically companies that store vast amounts of computer data. Chinese telecom giant Huawei already signed contracts with Saudi Arabia, including NEOM, James said there are huge questions about how much privacy protection the company will provide to users in the city.

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Huawei did not immediately respond to Insider’s request for comment on its role in NEOM. A NEOM spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment about concerns about surveillance in the city.

Saudi Arabia recently moved To strengthen data privacy laws, but organizations Including Human Rights Watch They warned that the laws are very weak.

How can Neom use monitoring?

While portraying himself as a reformer, the Saudi crown prince has brutalized critics and opponents of the Saudi government, including the 2018 killing and dismemberment of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi.

People hold posters depicting Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and light candles during a gathering outside the Consulate of Saudi Arabia in Istanbul, on October 25, 2018.
Yasin Akgül / Getty Images

As he sought to consolidate his power, he also strengthened his ability to police critics through technology and thus crush dissent.

The Saudi government used Israeli Pegasus spyware to monitor critics, and a Saudi agent infiltrated Twitter to steal personal data of users who used the platform to criticize the Saudi government.

The Saudi government recently launched a brutal crackdown on people who criticize the government doing so online by human rights groups.

Fatafta said that as he seeks to move the kingdom toward a high-tech future, opening it up to investment and innovation, the crown prince would be willing to give up any of his powers to police and crush dissent.

“They are being marketed as ‘green cities’ or ‘smart cities,’ as we call them observation cities,” Fatafta said of projects like NEOM.

“Because it is basically built on an architecture fueled by people’s personal data, and in a country like Saudi Arabia where there is no data protection or safeguards, no censorship, no accountability, no transparency, no separation of powers, and the fact that Mohammed bin Salman is already ruling the security services. It’s a scary idea.”

So far, the crown prince’s grand ambitions remain elusive, and it remains to be seen if the notoriously impulsive ruler will have the patience to see a project of this magnitude.

James said the city’s plans raised fundamental questions about how we want to live our lives.

“What kind of life do you want to live in a smart city?” Asked.

“If you want to live in a city where the true value of free speech, counter culture, and the expression and discussion of independent thought, this may not be the place you want to go.”

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