As the link between the alleged killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman grows stronger, leaders in many sectors, including in media and design, are distancing themselves from projects and conferences sponsored by the regime. This includes architects and design leaders on the advisory board of NEOM, a $500 billion megacity project announced last year at an international investment conference held in Riyadh, the Saudi Arabian capital city.
NEOM is envisioned as a “smart city” rising on 10,000 square miles of desert with a separate governance structure and ambitious energy, tech, and sustainability goals, part of a larger “Saudi Vision 2030” plan intended to help move the country away from its dependence on oil revenue. The development’s website advertises the city as one that “heralds the future of human civilization by offering its inhabitants an idyllic lifestyle set against a backdrop of a community founded on modern architecture, lush green spaces, quality of life…” and so on. The project posits modern architecture as a key part of what it means to live in the future.
On October 9, an official announcement named notable leaders in the field who would participate on NEOM’s advisory board. They included Sir Norman Foster, Carlo Ratti of MIT’s Senseable Cities Lab, IDEO president and CEO Tim Brown, Sidewalk Labs chairman and CEO Dan Doctoroff, and Travis Kalanick, former CEO of Uber. The initial list also included Jonathan Ive, Apple’s chief design officer, but his name was quietly removed from the initial list of 19 names soon after it was released. The announcement came a week after the October 2nd disappearance of Khashoggi, who was last seen entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, with numerous news outlets reporting that he had most likely been killed there by Saudi agents, which the Saudi government denies.
Since the initial announcement about the board, Doctoroff stated that his inclusion had been a mistake, and Brown also withdrew himself soon after. It appeared that Foster and Ratti were the few holdouts from the architecture world still left on the board. But today, Foster’s office told AN: “Earlier this week Lord Foster wrote to the head of the NEOM Advisory Board stating that whilst the situation remains unclear he has suspended his activities in respect of the Board.”
Ratti’s office offered this comment, “Both Carlo and our team are gravely concerned about the Khashoggi case. We are monitoring the situation closely as it develops hour by hour. We are waiting for the results of the U.S. investigation to evaluate the best course of action.”
With state department officials, major corporations, and media partners withdrawing from the conference where NEOM was announced last year and mounting global pressure to investigate what really happened to Khashoggi, it remains to be seen what impact this will have on any of the numerous deals and projects that have already been set into motion in Saudi Arabia. This not only includes massive undertakings like NEOM, but a range of built projects scheduled for completion later this year and the near future, including projects by SOM, Henning Larsen, and Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architects.