By Michael Mogensen
“Stay tuned for news about the NEOM Advisory Board: a team of the world’s leading minds and experts, #TeamNEOM combining the best and brightest global experts to develop the future,” tweeted Neom recently. Neom, a planned mega-city, is a privatized semi-state scheduled to be built by Saudi Arabia in the sparsely inhabited northwest of the country, on the Gulf of Aqaba across from Egypt. Earlier in 2017, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman announced the proposed project at an investment conference in Riyadh attended by many of the world’s business elite, hungry for a potential share of the national oil company Saudi Aramco’s long sought-after IPO.
At that same conference, Sophia the robot was presented and the Crown Prince made her a Saudi citizen. This official act of granting citizenship to a robot set off a twitter storm questioning how a robot could be a citizen, particularly given her very gendered identity. Would a robot be subject to the same rules that govern humans in Saudi Arabia? Or would she be a harbinger of something new, where the traditionally conservative rules would be relaxed for those lucky enough to participate in this version of a future as envisioned by the Neom project?
According to the Crown Prince, Neom will be a “civilizational leap for humanity,” where robots outnumber humans and all will be connected through the Internet of Things. He went on to say:
“[w]e want the main robot and the first robot in Neom to be Neom itself. Robot number one. Everything will have a link to artificial intelligence, to the Internet of Things — everything…There, everything will be connected. So nobody can live in Neom without the Neom application we’ll have — or visit Neom.”
In the promotional videos available on YouTube, the project is called a “blank page” where humanity’s next chapter will be written and where we can “prepare for the next era of human progress.” Neom is planned to physically rise within 25,000 square kilometers, a space set apart from ordinary Saudi territory and with its own rules and regulations. By design, it is intended for the world’s elite.
I became interested in Neom while reading of a 13th Century Arab Persian explorer Zakariyah al Qazwini, one of only a handful of historical authors to write speculative fiction in Arabic. Al Qazwini led me to other works of Arabic speculative fiction including recent novels such as the Egyptian writer Ahmed Khaled Tawfik’s dystopian Utopia, the Iraqi speculative fiction anthology Iraq + 100 and the Saudi science fiction novel Hawjan, written by Ibraheem Abbas and Yasser Bahjatt. Although these narrative forms are popular throughout most of the world by comparison there is a dearth written in Arabic. As the Egyptian writer Omar Abdelaziz says, “a scientific novel which is connected with fantasy cannot fall on fertile ground in an environment of prepared answers and rejection of a culture of knowledge.”
I met the visual artist and designer Ahaad Alamoudi in London and we decided to collaborate together on a work that would in some way address the future in Saudi Arabia. Later in Jeddah, Ahaad and I developed the work as Neom was announced, and as Sophia the robot citizen was introduced. Our collaboration came about through a mutual interest in Neom and how it portrayed an imagined future in Saudi Arabia.
We decided to re-envision al Qazwini’s story Awaj bin Anfaq, of a man who falls to Earth from another world. Rather than ask to be invited into a new world determined by others,we would claim a stake in that world, on our terms. Using humor, irony, and self-parody to tell our story, we questioned Neom’s state within a state, and the ahistorical techno-utopian language used to describe it, ignoring the contradictions between a Silicon valley on steroids and the reality of Saudi Arabia today.
For the work, Ahaad and I created time and space travelers named NIUN I and NIUN II, and built a home for them to inhabit. We worked with a local builder and designed our home based on the shape of a rock we found in the desert. Our home served as a dwelling and a travel machine allowing us to navigate through time and all manner of space, what we refer to as “layers.” These “layers” also serve as a reference to the way that people fluidly navigate through varying restrictions on social space, through virtual space, and between the identities we try on in public and in private.
We set ourselves up as travelers, akin to the man who fell to Earth in al Qazwini’s tale. We created a short narrative film documenting our home, working with a local film crew. Intentionally, we never directly address who we are other than two beings named NIUN I and II, who have decided to homestead their future in the desert rather than allowing others to determine it for them.
Our work questions why should the future be determined by the “best and the brightest global experts”? Who are they and what agenda underlines their role in making the future?Does Neom serve Saudis (in all their complexity) and any perceived desire for change or does it reflect the desires and anxieties of an imagined global elite? Does Neom reflect ideas of progress, innovation and entrepreneurship that have more to do with the specific conditions that arose from a time and place in California rather than those of the Arabian peninsula – Where is the Arabian history of exploration and travel, where are the bodies that are missing from this narrative or vision of the future, often glaringly so – Who is being left out from Neom and the sanitized Gulf futurism that it represents?
NIUN is many things. It is a short film shot at our home in the desert, of two individuals who clumsily and naively believe in their right to the future, who take up the challenge to live it now. It is a series of talks or exhibitions given in Saudi Arabia, Europe and the US to date about the work and also how we conceived it. It is an evolving attempt to use creativity and immersive experience as a way for two people from different places and backgrounds to engage with a top down idea from the bottom up, and have fun doing it. And, it is a call for very different ideas of the future to be imagined, ones that rely less on corporatist and techno-positive narratives of progress and limitless growth, and instead use creativity to hint at different futures after all.
NIUN was shot in the desert outside of Jeddah by a Saudi film crew. It shows our homestead in the desert, and our stake in the future.