One day last September, a curious email arrived in Chris Hables Gray’s inbox. An author and self-described anarchist, feminist, and revolutionary, Gray fits right into Santa Cruz, Calif., where he lives. He’s written extensively about genetic engineering and the inevitable rise of cyborgs, attending protests in between for causes such as Black Lives Matter.
While Gray had taken some consulting gigs over the years, he’d never received an offer like this one. The first shock was the money: significantly more than he’d earned from all but one of his books. The second was the task: researching the aesthetics of seminal works of science fiction such as Blade Runner. The biggest surprise, however, was the ultimate client: Mohammed bin Salman, the 36-year-old crown prince of Saudi Arabia.
MBS, as he’s known abroad, was in the early stages of one of the largest and most difficult construction projects in history, which involves turning an expanse of desert the size of Belgium into a high-tech city-region called Neom. Starting with a budget of $500 billion, MBS bills Neom as a showpiece that will transform Saudi Arabia’s economy and serve as a testbed for technologies that could revolutionize daily life. And as Gray’s proposed assignment suggested, the crown prince’s vision bears little resemblance to the cities of today. Intrigued, Gray took the job. “If I can be honest with how I see the world, I’ll pretty much put my work out to anyone,” he says.
Gray had signed on to a city-building exercise so ambitious that it verges on the fantastical. An internal Neom “style catalog” viewed by Bloomberg Businessweek includes elevators that somehow fly through the sky, an urban spaceport, and buildings shaped like a double helix, a falcon’s outstretched wings, and a flower in bloom. The chosen site in Saudi Arabia’s far northwest, stretching from the sun-scorched Red Sea coast into craggy mountain badlands, has summer temperatures over 100F and almost no fresh water.