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Saudi Arabia's Neom invests $1bn in metaverse

Executive says residents of futuristic city will be able to host 'holographic' parties, while brushing off competition with Dubai
The futuristic Saudi megacity Neom will be 33 times the size of New York City and include a 170km straight line city (AFP)

Neom Tech & Digital, a subsidiary of the $500bn signature Saudi megacity Neom, has rebranded itself as Tonomus as it ploughs cash into the metaverse and artificial intelligence (AI).

The company has invested $1bn in 2022 in AI projects that include a metaverse platform, in the hope that it will advance Tonomus’ goal of positioning Neom as the world’s first “cognitive community”.

Neom - a Saudi megacity under construction touted to be 33 times the size of New York City - will include a 170km straight line city, to be known as The Line, an eight-sided city that floats on water, and a ski resort with a folded vertical village, among other grandiose and architecturally challenging projects.

Joseph Bradley, the chief executive of Tonomus, said the company was working to integrate AI technology into The Line, which will have robots, holograms, mirrored facades and run 100 percent on renewable energy.

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"Neom is really becoming, in my opinion, the innovation engine for the GCC," Bradley told Reuters.

Bradley said the metaverse would allow people from across the globe to visit Neom virtually before investing in the city. Digital Twin technology is already being used in the construction of The Line, and will help improve the lifestyle of residents once the city is complete.

“So you own an apartment in Neom… and you decide that you are going to open up, you're gonna have a party… you can also decide to have folks come in virtually, holographically,” Bradley said.

Neom is at the centre of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s plans to diversify the Gulf kingdom's economy away from petrodollars and boost non-oil sectors such as tourism.

But the project has not come without controversy and internal strife. Saudi Arabia recently jailed 50 tribesmen for their refusal to be forcibly evicted from their lands, with two of the charged receiving lengthy sentences.

Saudi Arabia is not the first Gulf state looking to the metaverse to boost its appeal among investors and potential residents. Dubai announced a metaverse plan in July that aims to deliver 40,000 new jobs and $4bn to the city’s economy in five years.

Despite the competition, Bradley said he was optimistic about Neom’s prospects.

"I don't see us as having to catch up with anyone," Bradley said. "This is a fundamental shift in the game. You're not playing basketball anymore, you're playing a completely different game."

So far, very little construction has taken place for the project, but large sums have been paid to consultants.

Saudi authorities have sought to clear 170km of Tabuk province of its residents, many of whom belong to the Howeitat tribe.

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