From time immemorial, rulers have built new cities to satisfy everything from security to vanity. Some of those cities crumbled into obsolescence; others blossomed into capitals of legend. The recipe for success remains elusive, but that hasn’t stopped successive generations from trying. And if recent moves are any gauge, the 21st century will see a surge of new and often grandiose plans.
The most recent and among the highest profile comes from the deserts of the Middle East, where Saudi Arabia’s crown prince Mohammed bin Salman recently unveiled plans to spend upwards of $500 billion to construct his city of the future, Neom. Like rulers before him, bin Salman’s motives are a mix of vanity and pragmatism. Since the middle of the last century, Saudi Arabia has floated on a sea of oil, and the royal family has accumulated massive wealth. That formula worked for decades, but with a burgeoning population and the price of oil plateauing, the country is facing an uncertain future. Neighboring Dubai and other emirates have surged ahead with their own imagined metropolises, spending hundreds of billions for new towers, museums, reclaimed land, and planned communities. Many of those have drawn people, attention and business, although Masdar, a planned satellite of Abu Dhabi that was supposed to be an exemplar of a carbon-neutral future, has burned through billions with little to show.