Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. Take ‘The Line’—a megacity under construction with two parallel skyscrapers stretching 170 kilometers horizontally through the Arabian desert. Or ‘Hyperloop’—Elon Musk’s proposed high-speed transport system that will whisk passengers through vacuum-sealed tubes at 700 miles per hour. Dictators, entrepreneurs, and eccentrics are selling us dreams of a utopian future, where miraculous design and technology are used to build perfect cities. But as the saying goes, if it seems too good to be true, then it probably is.
In the 21st century, a new form of ‘pork barrel’ politics has arisen. The wide appeal of science fiction is being used to manipulate, distract, and oppress. Megaprojects like President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi’s new Egyptian capital offer simple solutions to complex problems. Plagued by over-ambition and under-execution, more than 65 percent of megaprojects fail. Even so, these multibillion-dollar fantasies serve political ends. Today figures like Elon Musk and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) use sci-fi megaprojects to promote self-serving political agendas and commercial interests.
According to McKinsey & Company, megaprojects are undertakings backed by governments or entrepreneurs with “bold ambitions.” This egomania is the core similarity connecting MBS and Elon Musk. Of course, there is no moral equivalence between the two men; the former is a brutal dictator, the latter a loudmouth executive. They represent profoundly different interests, but the comparison can help us understand megaprojects as the political and commercial instruments they are.
Since seizing power in 2017, MBS has uprooted Saudi Arabian society. Initially praised in the West for challenging religious influence and expanding women’s rights, he grew notorious as a butcher of Saudi journalists and Yemeni civilians. Like many autocrats, MBS wants to cement his legacy by erecting giant monuments in his name. His $500 billion pet-project, ‘Neom,’ will do just that, creating a new economic zone in the desert to challenge Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Projects like The Line, incorporated within Neom, will attract investment and tourism to help wean the Saudi economy off its dependence on oil exports while framing MBS as Saudi Arabia’s modernizer.
With an erratic public persona and diverse business ventures, Musk has always advocated for free enterprise, not government, as the driver of innovation. When plans for the California High Speed Rail (CHSR) were announced in 2013, he was quick to attack the idea and propose his own solution: the Hyperloop. Musk proposed shooting magnetically levitating pods down a vacuum-sealed tube at the speed of sound. He later admitted this was a ploy to get legislators to cancel CHSR, as a bullet train from Los Angeles to San Francisco would damage Tesla sales. This was a textbook example of gadgetbahn—a futuristic transport scheme based on implausible science. Moreover, it was a familiar story of the car lobby interfering with plans for public transport. It wasn’t until 2016 that Musk founded the Boring Company and began working in earnest on Hyperloop. In this way, MBS and Musk both leveraged their wealth and reputations as “visionaries” to fabricate public confidence in their own megaprojects. The common denominators are vanity and self-interest.
To get an expensive megaproject off the ground, you need to sell the idea. To that end, companies and governments systematically exaggerate the benefits and underestimate the costs associated with megaprojects. With The Line, Neom promised a “civilizational revolution” that would solve the myriad problems of urban sprawl and pollution—a noble goal. Instead of cars, there would be a high-speed transport system traveling the length of The Line in under 20 minutes—sound familiar? Like many millennials, the 37-year-old MBS loves sci-fi, particularly the ‘cyberpunk’ genre. He even brought on Hollywood designers and CGI artists from films like The Dark Knight and Guardians of the Galaxy to craft the futurist aesthetic of his new city. Neom’s promotional videos make for uneasy viewing, with CGI mirrors jutting through the desert and claustrophobic canyons complete with hanging gardens and flying robots. Far from a green urban oasis, The Line looks more like a petrodollar hellscape. Nonetheless, the glitzy marketing campaign gave the project viral reach, with the videos accruing almost 500 million views on YouTube. How and when this mammoth feat of human engineering would actually be built remained a mystery.
Similarly, Elon Musk made false promises about Hyperloop. He pledged to create a vacuum through hundreds of miles of tunnelway capable of dashing passengers from New York to Los Angeles in under 45 minutes. And it was going to be cheap. His initial cost estimate put the project at only $6 billion, compared to the monstrous $100+ billion price tag of CHSR. To this day, no one knows how he arrived at that number. But that never mattered. The Hyperloop concept had served its purpose: generate attention and grow the legend of Elon Musk the visionary at the expense of serious proposals for public infrastructure. As with The Line, Hyperloop served more as a marketing stunt intended to halt CHSR than a serious proposal.
Once they have gained popular acceptance, sci-fi proposals work to the political advantage of their patrons. Amid depleting oil reserves and a global push toward green energy, the Gulf States have been racing to find solutions. Neom is Saudi Arabia’s answer to the “economic miracles” of the UAE: Where oil production once represented 50 percent of Dubai’s GDP, it only accounts for 1 percent today. As part of his Vision 2030 plan, MBS plans to diversify the economy by boosting non-oil sectors like tourism, foreign investment, and technology. More broadly, Neom is an attempt to boost the Kingdom’s prestige and shed its negative image in the international community. Though The Line will probably never be built as envisioned, even a scaled-back version would act as a hotbed for testing technology and attracting investment.
Compared to MBS, Elon Musk made his Hyperloop project more replicable. With the ensuing media furor, Silicon Valley investors were quick to bankroll various Hyperloop start-ups; Richard Branson’s Virgin Hyperloop took the lead in 2020, conducting its first successful passenger test. But the Hyperloop idea has undergone massive changes since its inception almost ten years ago. Most companies have pivoted away from passenger to freight transportation as the safety, comfort, and viability of transporting people at 700 miles per hour is dubious at best. The Boring Company has only managed to produce the ‘Vegas Loop’—a tourist gimmick funneling cars through a short tunnel. And then there’s the cost. Unsurprisingly, Musk’s cost projections were wildly off-target, with studies now suggesting the project would demand $10 million to $20 million per mile of track. Musk’s false projection of costs and benefits represents a typical pitfall of megaprojects.
Neom is also facing major challenges in getting off the ground. The murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Kashoggi in 2018 spurred a mass exodus of consultants from the project, including lead architect Norman Foster. Inconveniently, it turns out the ‘blank’ swath of desert promised for the building site is inhabited by over 20,000 members of the Huwaitat tribe; the forced evictions have already begun, with Saudi security forces fatally shooting one man after an altercation. And those are just the human rights issues. The Line is facing major engineering challenges. The problem is that the project was conceived in terms of fantasy rather than construction. Logistics were given little to no thought at the conceptual stage. Andy Wirth, an American businessman who worked on Neom, told Bloomberg: “We were hanging buildings on the side of cliffs, and we didn’t even know the geology”. This demonstrates the giant rift between ambition and feasibility. What Neom will resemble once—if ever—complete remains unclear. For now, the hard launch has done what it was intended to do: get people talking.
Though profoundly different in their aims, methods, and outlooks, Elon Musk and Mohammed Bin Salman have leveraged their resources, positions, and personalities to propel their fantasies into public discussion. Their marketing stunts have served political and commercial agendas, distracting the public from real issues and wooing them with fake panaceas. These sci-fi megaprojects dish out false promises of ‘civilizational revolution’ to manipulate policymakers and investors, diverting resources away from more plausible alternatives like CHSR. Reckless megaprojects are a recurring feature of poor governance. Think back to when Kim Jong Un spent $750 million constructing a giant luxury hotel, while 60 percent of North Koreans lived below the poverty line. Conceptual flaws doom most megaprojects from their offset. Though they sometimes end up taking more realistic forms, it’s unlikely proposals like The Line and Hyperloop will ever fulfill their big promises. For this reason, we cannot be seduced by sci-fi fantasy and must work to direct public funds toward more practical solutions.