This city of Tabuk lies to the west of the vast Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. To get to work in the morning it is about an hour’s drive for me, with just twenty minutes in the city. After that the buildings start to tail off until the desert begins in earnest.
First of all we drive across a border. “Toll road,” says Google Maps, but it’s wrong. It’s wrong about a lot around here but no surprises – this afternoon I was driving on a road when it just… ceased to be entirely and I was looking at a mesa and an improvised turning circle.
“Neom,” says the border. A compound word. “Neo” for “New”. “M” from “Mustaqbal” – “future”. Neom: A new future.
We are in this huge “Neom” area that has been allocated for one of the most ambitious projects I have ever heard of. An alleged $500 billion earmarked to build the sustainable automated city that those 1980’s picture books promised us we’d be living in by now. “Would you like your shirt pressed?” says robot Jeeves. “No thank you robot Jeeves, I shall be wearing this fluorescent pvc onesie.” Flying self driving cars. Big tall robot buildings. An artificial moon? Everything powered by renewable energy. A vision of clean sharp newtopia…?
By 2025 they aim to have a line of this incredible projected city built in this area, starting at the Red Sea and pulling into the desert, a new city – a new state – a new country perhaps? 26,500 square kilometres. Mountains and seas. Renewable energy purifying sea water. Maybe 1 million citizens? An airport, of course. Somewhere to park your flying car. And coral. The coral of The Red Sea bordering Neom has displayed unique resilience in the face of warming seawater. It has developed biological defences that have so far saved vast tracts of it in conditions that would bleach it anywhere else. Can we teach other corals…? Either way, look after it…
The Neom project – they are sponsoring football and other sports to get people to put it on their radar. They are working hard with the PR, as one must in this modern world. This race is all part of awareness raising – because as with so many huge projects, controversy is always on the heels. Gotta keep it spinning the right way. The sustainable angle of the Neom project – and with this desert wind and sun I can see why they thought of it – it aligns with the guys I’m working with here and what they’re doing.
The race is electric. Spec silhouette electric SUVs racing in remote parts of the world. All teams have one male and one female driver. This is racing in the now. They try to raise awareness of climate change as part of their brief. They are doing good and doing races at the same time. Big fast fun events in incredible places with an eye to the environment… The team I’m on the edge of is highly skilled in this sort of thing. They did it in Greenland for crying out loud. I was doing Willows or I could’ve made it out there. I wish I had. As it is I get to be in the sun in February, plugging into something unique and bizarre and interesting for the future of speed. It feels like a continuation of the legacy in some way. One of dad’s obituaries called him “the Godfather of speed”. I’m glad to be in a weird place surrounded by fast things. I feel closer to his memory.
Out there in the desert I found a perfectly round stone underfoot. A reminder of how time shifts everything. This desert was underwater in the late Cretaceous. Until maybe about 60 million years ago the oceans rolled and smoothed this round stone that I stood on. Then it lay there in the sand until just now when I put it in my pocket. There have been ice ages in the life of this stone. There have been times we have been cooked and burnt and poisoned. Our perspective is too shallow to really ever properly understand geological time, planetary time, time that is longer than our miniscule three score years and ten. There are inevitable shifts that our sustained neglect and selfish behaviours are catalysing. I’ve pocketed this sea forged desert stone to help me remember to be less of a selfish tit on a personal level. And to switch the fecking lights off…