Monday, August 22, 2022

We live in an age of mad kings

“Let’s talk about something other than women driving. The NEOM project, the futuristic city that he (the crown prince) plans to invest half a trillion dollars in. What if it goes wrong? It could bankrupt the country.”
 Jamal Khashoggi, June 2017

 We've talked over the years about the damage done by futuristic bullshit, how it dumbs down the conversation, takes oxygen away from real innovation, forms the basis of bubbles and Ponzi schemes. These are not trivial things, but the stakes get much higher when a head of state buys into the bullshit, particularly if he happens to be a murderous sociopath.

From Scott Alexander:

You really want to watch this video. I had read a few other articles on Neom, thought I understood what level of craziness we were talking about here - but no, this is much, much crazier. I didn’t understand the full scale until they gave their proposed dimensions: a structure 500 meters tall, 200 meters wide, and (wait for it) 170 km long.

500 meters is about the height of One World Trade Center, the tallest building in the US. 170 km is about the east-west length of the Republic of Ireland. So the Saudis are going to build something . . . as tall as the World Trade Center . . . and . . . as long as . . . Ireland? That’s their plan? Yes, says the video, that is their plan.

Is this just some crazy attempt to build hype, like when Elon Musk says the next Tesla definitely will have full-self-driving ability? I don’t think so. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is obsessed with Neom and very vain; I don’t think he would deliberately promise impossible things knowing that he will be embarrassed later when they don’t work out (and he says it will be done by 2030, so we’ll know the results relatively soon). Also, the government has earmarked $500 billion to $1 trillion for the project - around the GDP of Sweden - which sounds kind of like being serious. Also, they’ve already started on important Saudi construction preliminaries, like murdering the people who previously lived in the area. Also, they’ve already set up on-site camps for the construction workers (source):


…the Bloomberg article offers some tantalizing clues:

Among the misdeeds most likely to anger Al-Nasr, the former employees say, was failing to spend enough money. Three of them described Al-Nasr keeping a diagram showing which department heads were disbursing less than their budgets allowed, which the ex-staff half-seriously referred to as a “wall of shame.”

Maybe if you demand grander and grander plans, and have a reputation for killing anyone who opposes you, then eventually you get a really grand plan and nobody has the guts to tell you that it’s impossible.


1 comment:

  1. Mark:

    I clicked over to Alexander's article and I didn't quite follow this part: "But in fact, this is the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, squandering public money. Not just renewable tax receipts, but the country’s accumulated oil windfall, just as the world tries to transition to renewable energy and the country risks never getting any oil windfall ever again. This is the money that should be going to the Saudi people having a future, and instead Mohammed bin Salman is spending it on playing some kind of demented desert version of SimCity . . ."

    I mean, sure, I'm with him on the wastefulness of the project. The part I don't get is when he says, "This is the money that should be going to the Saudi people." I thought the whole gimmick of Saudi Arabia is that they have a ton of oil, and the money all goes to the royal family. Which I guess is "the Saudi people," but still . . .

    Also, you have to check out the comments on that post. They're hilarious, going all-in on the whole Sim City thing.

    - Andrew