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Still from NEOM’s promotional video.

Norman Foster Withdraws from $500 Billion Saudi Megacity over Journalist’s Murder

The British architect Norman Foster, the founder of Foster+Partners, is stepping away from the advisory board of the $500 billion Saudi megacity project NEOM amid the growing diplomatic crisis over missing dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi. After weeks of denying its involvement, Saudi Arabia finally admitted that Khashoggi, a former Washington Post columnist who disappeared after visiting the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2, was killed in a “rogue operation.”

Conceived as a “smart city,” NEOM is being billed as a fully automated independent city that will be built over ten thousand square miles of desert on the coast of the Red Sea. The initiative is part of Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 plan to move the country away from its dependence on oil. When the project was launched, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said: “Future technologies form the cornerstone for NEOM’s development: Disruptive solutions for transportation from automated driving to passenger drones, new ways of growing and processing food, healthcare centered around the patient for their holistic well-being, wireless high speed internet as a free good called ‘digital air,’ free world-class continuous online education, full scale e-governance putting city services at your fingertips, building codes that make net-zero carbon houses the standard, a city layout that encourages walking and bicycling and all solely powered by renewable energy just to name a few.”

NEOM released a list of the project’s advisers in an official announcement made on October 9. Shortly after, Foster wrote to the board to inform them that he has “suspended his activities” with the project. Other figures included on the list of nineteen advisers are Carlo Ratti of MIT’s Senseable Cities Lab, IDEO president and CEO Tim Brown, Sidewalk Labs chairman and CEO Dan Doctoroff, former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, and Apple chief design officer Jonathan Ive. Apple has since called Ive’s inclusion on the list a mistake. Doctoroff also said the same. A spokesperson for Ratti said the following about his participation on the board: “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 US investigation to evaluate the best course of action.”

A number of cultural institutions and other organizations have also been reconsidering their ties to Saudi Arabia as details regarding Khashoggi’s death have come to light. Both the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Brooklyn Museum have decided to no longer accept funding from the country and Saudi-backed organizations in an act of solidarity with the international community and those outraged by the human rights abuses committed by Saudi Arabia.

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