A 160 km long skyscraper will be built in the heart of the city. Called “The Strip,” the building will be built in the desert northwest of the country.
In planners’ glossy brochures and public statements, we see glow-in-the-dark beaches, ski slopes, artificial moons, robot butlers and flying taxis. However, behind this grandiose plan hatched by Saudi Arabia’s influential Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, lies a much darker reality.
The crown prince has been strengthening his relationship with China’s President Xi Jinping, who has agreed to share advanced surveillance technology. Jili Bulelani, a Harvard University researcher who studies China’s global ambitions, told Insider that Xi is seeking to “normalize and legitimize his vision of a state-run cyberspace and surveillance society.”
According to a report by the Washington Institute think tank, China has already provided surveillance technology to build so-called “safe cities” in Egypt and Serbia Based on user data. Prince Mohammed seems poised to copy these efforts on a larger scale.
What is NEOM?
NEOM, dubbed the future zero-pollution city, is at the center of Saudi ruler Mohammed bin Salman’s efforts to modernize the country and reduce its dependence on fossil fuels.
“This is his ticket to history as the Saudi leader who modernized the country and brought it into a new technological era,” said Marwa Fatafta, policy manager at Access Now, a Berlin-based digital rights organization.
Giles Penderton, NEOM’s chief executive, told UAE-based The National newspaper that construction on the project is progressing rapidly and that the city’s population will reach nine million by 2045.
According to the developer, NEOM will consist of 10 parts. One of them, known as The Line, is being advertised as a zero carbon zone where residents’ data will be used to provide services tailored to their needs.
Urban planners say that current smart cities use 10 percent of the world’s electricity. Available User Data. According to their plans, NEOM, thanks to artificial intelligence, will use 90 percent.
James Shires, a researcher at London-based think tank Chatham House, told Insider that the prince has ambitions to create a city where services like garbage collection, sanitation and train times are managed by data from sources like smartphones and surveillance technology. .
“NEOM is designed to be ahead of other smart cities, fully designed to collect and use data,” he said.
However, some, including digital rights advocate Fatafta, caution The futuristic and extravagant vision presented in the NEOM brochures hides a dark agenda linked to Prince Mohammed’s authoritarian tendencies.
He fears that the capabilities of the “smart city” are not only a future attraction, but could be used as an invasive surveillance tool by state security services.
How involved is China in this?
Last December, the prince received Xi at a lavish summit in Saudi Arabia, where the leaders announced cooperation in a number of fields, including surveillance technology.
For Prince Mohammed, this seemed like the start of a fruitful partnership. In Xi, experts say, he has found a leader who shares his belief that technology can drive economic growth while maintaining authoritarian control.
“We haven’t seen the level of physical surveillance in Saudi Arabia that we see in China, for example, but China is working with the Saudis and other Gulf countries to start implementing it,” said Anelle Shelain, an analyst at the Quincy Institute. in Washington, told Insider.
“This is something the Chinese are selling to the Saudis and other Gulf countries,” he said.
James Shires pointed out that one form of this technology is surveillance cameras combined with facial recognition technology that can be used to track a person’s past and present movements. “This poses a real threat to people’s privacy, particularly in terms of how data is collected and stored,” he said.
Chinese technology makes it possible to combine recordings from surveillance cameras with other data sets about a given person, including biometric information.
Another potential problem is cloud technology, especially for companies that store large amounts of computer data. Chinese telecom giant Huawei has already signed deals with Saudi Arabia, including NEOM, and Shires reckons there are big questions about how much privacy protection the company will offer users in the city.
At the time of publication, Huawei had not responded to Insider’s request for comment on its role in NEOM. Similarly, a spokesperson for NEOM did not respond to a request for comment regarding the city’s surveillance concerns.
Saudi Arabia has recently taken steps to strengthen its data privacy laws, but organizations including Human Rights Watch have warned they are too weak.
How can NEOM monitoring be used?
Prince Mohammed, while portraying himself as a reformer, brutally dealt with critics and opponents of the Saudi government. In 2018, Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi was murdered and dismembered.
Seeking to consolidate his power, he sought to increase his ability to monitor dissidents through technology, thereby suppressing dissent.
The Saudi government used the Israeli Pegasus spyware to monitor its opponents, and a Saudi agent infiltrated Twitter to steal the personal information of users who used the platform to criticize the Saudi government.
The Saudi Arabian government recently launched a brutal crackdown on online critics of the government, which has been condemned by human rights groups.
“The prince wants to push the kingdom towards modern technology, opening it up to investment and innovation, but he doesn’t want to give up his powers of surveillance and suppression of dissent,” Fatafta said.
“They’re called eco-cities or smart cities, we call them monitoring cities,” Fatafta said of projects like NEOM.
“In a country like Saudi Arabia, based on personal data, with no data protection or safeguards, no controls, no accountability, no transparency, no separation of powers and a prince running the security agencies, it’s a terrible idea,” he said. was added.
So far, Prince Mohammed’s grand ambitions have not been realized, and it is unclear whether a ruler known for his impulsiveness will have the patience to complete such a grand project.
James Shires said the city’s plans raise fundamental questions about how we want to live. – What kind of life would you like to live in a smart city? – he asked.
“If you want to live in a city where you have freedom of speech, counterculture, freedom to express and debate, where the real value is, maybe this is not the place to go,” he said.
The above text is a reprint from the German/US edition of Insider, prepared entirely by local editorial staff.
Translation: Mateusz Albin
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