In October 2017, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia announced plans to build the ultimate branded city: NEOM, a non-existent desert city, which already has an eye-catching logo and a compelling promise.[i] But could such a barren land develop a soul? Or does NEOM already have a genius loci? If so, how can it be discovered and what would it say about the city’s future? This essay aims to answer those questions.
NEOM is a coined word, meaning new future. It derives from the Greek neo, meaning new, and the Arabic mostaqbal, meaning future.[ii] That’s an apt name, which captures the city’s promise: A new future on earth like nothing on earth.
As the world’s first independent special zone, it spans Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan, while spreading over 26,500 square kilometres (roughly the size of Israel or 33 times the size of New York.) It will, supposedly, attract $500 billion of investment. And since it is an entirely new and purpose-built land, NEOM will operate under its own rules.[iii]
The city claims to be the world’s most ambitious project.[iv] The myth that fuels that ambition, however, is neither unique nor special. Behind the project NEOM lie two eternal yearnings: to find Arcadia and to build Utopia.[v] Without understanding those two archetypes, one cannot fully grasp NEOM.
Arcadia is a found paradise. It is not an actual place, but a state of mind. The Abrahamic faiths associate paradise with the Garden of Eden. In Tibetan mythology, Shangri-La is synonymous with any earthly paradise. The deep metaphor of connection -and disconnection- are the catalysts of the Arcadia archetype.[vi]
On the one hand, it symbolizes our deep longing to feel in harmony with oneself, not unlike a baby connected to his/her mother in the womb. On the other hand, it also denotes detaching from the realities of this world. Connection -and disconnection- are precisely the two things NEOM the Arcadia promises.
When the human mind projects innocence and innocent intentions to the land, the Arcadia archetype takes over. California, and more specifically Los Angeles, are arguably the best-known examples. Since its earliest days, the City of Angels has always acted like a magnet, attracting fortune hunters. From the miners of the Gold Rush Era to the small-town folks of the modern era, whoever sought riches or fame, consistently perceived Los Angeles as a paradisiacal land.
Like every other archetype, Arcadia, too, has its shadow side. According to the historian Sir John Mahaffy, Arcadia is “a land of rustic simplicity and plenty, which satisfies the ambition of untutored hearts, and where ambition and its crimes were unknown.”
Put another way; the Arcadia archetype is the psychic state of not-knowing. “My mom always said life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get,” says Forest Gump, who embodies the innocent living in Arcadia. He meets Elvis Presley, fights in Vietnam War, takes part in the Ping-Pong Diplomacy, all the while without being aware of anything.
According to the legendary psychologist, James Hillman innocence begets violence, and the Natural Born Killers are the secret companions of Forrest Gumps, for they are both unreflecting.[vii] The seeds of unintentional crime grow in Utopia, the second archetype of NEOM.
If the deep metaphor of connection fuels the longing for Arcadia, then the fantasy of control powers Utopia. That, by the way, is a coined Latin word, meaning literally nowhere. Back in the 16th century Thomas More used it to describe an imaginary island enjoying the utmost perfection in legal, social, and political systems.
Though NEOM is not an island, it fits perfectly with More’s description. Here is an excerpt from the city’s website[viii]:
(…) with a regulatory framework designed to adopt world-class investment laws that support the livelihoods of residents and the development of targeted economic sectors. The special zone will also adopt an autonomous judicial system subject to independent regulations and legislation, which will be drafted by investors in accordance with international best practice. (…) Social norms in Neom will adopt leading practices to improve standards of livability for its residents and visitors.
Behind NEOM the Utopia lies the belief that land is an empty space (not a place), inviting to be developed. Suitably, if you look at the satellite pictures of the place, you would see nothing but straight lines, the beau idéal of the human mind.
Through developing land, the creator’s ambition gushes forth, eventually granting him immortality.
NEOM is the brainchild of the crown prince Muhammad bin Salman. One wonders what would happen to the utopic creation in the absence of the protection of its creator. The chances are the future of K.A.E.C., which was the vision of the late King Abdullah, will determine the fate of NEOM.
As a Utopia, too, NEOM is neither unique nor special. Scientists who theorize terraforming Mars live the Utopia archetype in its trance form. Why would we need to create a habitable planet? The answer lies in the shadow of Utopia.
According to science writer Tim De Chant, if everyone on the planet consumed as much as the average Chinese citizen, 1.1 Earths would be needed to sustain them. How about we were all to live like an American or Emirati? An astonishing 4.1 and 5.4 Earths would be required respectively (and possibly even more!) [ix]
Hillman once said, “The only one God left that is truly universal, omnipresent, omnipotent, observed faithfully in thought and action, joining all human kind in daily acts of devotion: The Economy. That’s the God we nourish with actual human blood.”[x]
The extent of the environmental damage caused to Earth by humans for the sake of economy is beyond comprehension. Every time Utopia arises, so do overdevelopment, overpopulation, and overconsumption.
NEOM – beacon of hope?
NEOM is marketed to be the beacon of hope. “Energy is to come entirely from renewable sources, thanks to an abundance of sun and wind,” says the Economist.[xi] “NEOM scientists will pioneer the future of energy production, use and storage – for water, gas, oil, solar, wind, algae… and whole new kinds of energy the world has yet to hear of,” says the official brochure.
Sadly, the project that is envisioned to cure the humanity’s plague, is actually rooted in the plague.
The developers promote NEOM as “an entire new land, purpose-built for a new way of living.” However, no matter how distant and desolate it is, the land is never void of soul.
Carl Jung popularized the ancient Spartan proverb: “Summoned or not summoned, God will be present.” And to find the genius loci of NEOM one has to look no further than the eternal narrative of Arcadia and Utopia. They often don’t end well.
[v] City and Psyche: An Exploration into the Archetype of City, a dissertation submitted by Paul F. Jones to PACifica GRADUATE INSTITUTE
[vi] Marketing Metaphoria: What Deep Metaphors Reveal About the Minds of Consumers by Gerald Zaltman, Lindsay H. Zaltman
[vii] The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and Calling by James Hillman
[x] Hillman, J. (1994). Once more into the fray. Spring: A Journal of Archetype and Culture, 56, 1-18.
About the author
Günter Soydanbay is a passionate place branding strategist and an insightful thinker, who has years of experience working with cities and countries. Holding a B.Sc. in Psychology, his thinking is heavily influenced by depth psychology. He also has an MBA degree from McGill University with a concentration in Strategic Management.