Neom is the name of the urban development project that has perhaps become the most frequently discussed undertaking of its kind worldwide. The reason may well be that this gigantic, arguably megalomaniac “desert city spaceship” boasting the dimensions of Albania (roughly 26,500 square kilometers/10,231 square miles) that by 2030 is supposed to have landed in the middle of sand, rock and mountains in northwestern Saudi Arabia on the Red Sea coast is rather reminiscent of a science fiction movie. The megaproject that targets a fundamental renewal of the Saudi economy was initiated by the controversial Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman. The idea behind his life work is to abandon oil and to embrace the future. Can such a project be successful? And if so, on what terms?
What is Neom?
The construction of an airport back in 2015 marked the unofficial launch of Neom that went largely unnoticed by the global public. An unpaved military airstrip was transformed into an international airport. The “Neom Bay Airport” in the northwestern region of Saudi Arabia serves as a logistical hub for flying materials, machines, and workers to Neom, which is divided into four subprojects: Sindalah, Trojena, Oxagon and the most commonly known part, The Line.
Sindalah: An island as a luxury destination in the Red Sea.
Trojena: The mountains of Neom, where the creation of ski slopes and hiking trails is planned.
Oxagon: Located halfway offshore, this area is planned to become home to Neom’s industry.
The Line: The central project, a linear city measuring 170 kilometers (106 miles) in length and only 200 meters (656.2 feet) in width, surrounded by mirrored walls that are 500 meters (1,640 feet) tall: The Line lies in the desert like a vertical skyscraper. The linear city connects the Saudi Arabian desert with the Straits of Tiran in the northern part of the Red Sea. The location is strategically attractive. Across from it, on the opposite side of the coast, is Sharm el Sheik, one of the most important and high-revenue tourist resorts in the Middle East, just a few hours away from Europe by plane and located in Egypt, a political ally. This is where Saudi Arabia, by forging links with Egypt not just figuratively but also architecturally, wants to establish a closer connection to the West and demonstrate its fitness for the future around the world.
Facts about The Line
is supposed to become home to one million residents by 2030, a number planned to increase to nine million by 2045 following several expansion phases.
380,000 forward-thinking jobs
are planned to be created by The Line.
is supposed to be energy self-sufficient and carbon-neutral.
Energy supply from 100% renewable sources
will be ensured by solar and wind power systems.
is planned to have no automobiles and roads.
A hyperloop high-speed train
is supposed to travel between both ends in 20 minutes. That calls for a speed of more than 500 km/h (310.7 mph).
All shops and services
are supposed to be accessible within five minutes.
As a smart city,
Neom is intended to capture data about all processes and to enhance infrastructural efficiency by means of artificial intelligence.
is supposed to have a dedicated, more liberal legal system.
is planned to attract up to five million tourists to the country.
Estimated investment so far:
approx. 500 billion U.S. dollars.
Why The Line is not a never-never land:
“Neom and the linear city ‘The Line’ are more than mere PR. They’re realistic because the Crown Prince is driving the country’s transformation,” says a person who knows what he’s talking about. Professor Rainer Schmidt, a town and country planner from Munich, used to teach at the universities of Beijing and Berkeley, and planned and implemented numerous large-scale urban and landscaping projects, including some in the Arabian world. He’s been familiar with the region, the project plans, the developments, and the decision-making structures on the Arabian Peninsula for decades. He knows that Neom and The Line are not utopian delusions of grandeur but the beginning of necessary social and economic change in the region – for a prospect of life without oil and with more personal freedom, as Rainer Schmidt says: “The people there are raising their voice.”
Schmidt, who refers to “being marginally involved in the project,” rates Neom as “absolutely feasible” also in terms of technology. In view of local conditions, he even considers the monumental, futuristic architecture to make sense, as shown by history: “In the old days, a typical Arabian city in the desert also used to be surrounded by walls as protection against sand storms and heat. Behind the wall it was always cool. The same happens at Neom. In addition, the southward orientation of the façade will enable large-scale use of photovoltaics,” explains Schmidt, who considers high-speed trains traveling at more than 500 km/h (310.7 mph) to be realistic: “Technologically, that’s no doubt feasible.”
Sebastian Sons is an expert on Saudi Arabia at CARPO (Center for Applied Research in Partnership with the Orient). He knows that “Saudi Arabia has been undergoing fundamental social change for years.” For him, too, the Saudi Arabian urban utopias are “a signal to us, to the West, to portray Saudi Arabia as something that it never before has been perceived as, that is as a country striving to enter modernity.” The royal family, he says, is striving to make the impossible possible and to demonstrate that to the whole world. “Construction has already begun, so it’s irrelevant whether The Line will ultimately look exactly the way it does in the visualizations. If only half of what’s planned will become a reality, that will mark a milestone for the country. It’s all about the narrative that Saudi Arabia is the future place to be for international companies. The idea is to create a gold-rush mood.”
With Neom, the royal family with its ruler, Mohammad bin Salman, not only set an important example externally but also internally, says Sons. “70 percent of the Saudi population are younger than 30. Unemployment among youth is at around 20 percent. That’s a huge problem for the ruling family. The main goal of Vision 2030 is the creation of jobs for young, local workers. Only then does the construction of Neom make sense for the Crown Prince.”
What is a linear city?
The Spaniard Arturo Soria y Mata developed the idea of a linear city at the end of the 19th century in response to problems caused by the rapid urban development during the period of industrialization. Soria y Mata’s idea was to “ruralize the city and urbanize the countryside.” His first linear city was meant to interlink the satellite towns around Madrid. The Ciudad Lineal in the east of Madrid with a length of 5.2 kilometers (3.2 miles) was a section that became a reality. Volgograd is another example of a linear city created from scratch, or Shenzhen in China that as an elongated free trade zone was planned as a linear agglomeration. Due to their topographies, Jena and Wuppertal are German linear cities; the latter boasting a suspension railway that was a technological innovation in its day. “A linear city has the advantage of providing quick access to the countryside from any location. On the downside are long distances that make neighborhood life and communication more difficult. However, technologies like the hyperloop increasingly mitigate those issues,” says Professor Rainer Schmidt.
Why The Line provokes criticism:
Sustainability: Although 100 percent of the energy supply to the linear city is supposed to come from renewable sources Amandus Samsøe Sattler, President of the German Sustainability Council (DGNB), criticizes that “The Line has absolutely nothing to do with sustainability.” The skyscraper slabs that due to the perfectly straight concept would also have to be built through massifs could not be erected in climate-neutral ways with any currently known technology. Philip Oldfield, a professor of architecture in Sydney, estimates the toxic emissions created by the project to amount to at least 1.8 billion metric tons (1.9 million short tons) of CO₂. Professor Rainer Schmidt comments on that by saying that, “Looking strictly at the process of construction, the project in the desert is certainly not sustainable, but compared to other cities in the region it is when you assess ongoing operations.”
Resources: Experts warn against waste. An area of 170 kilometers (106 miles) with green plants in the middle of the desert seems inefficient in view of extremely scare water resources. What’s more, no ray of light would ever reach the ground in the narrow canyon, resulting in massive energy consumption for artificial lighting, air conditioning and infrastructure. A scientific paper by the University of Heidelberg has projected that solar modules would have to be erected in an area the size of Slovakia for energy supply to Neom. Rainer Schmidt counters that point by reporting about the success of a forested park in Riyadh he’d planned: “With efficient irrigation systems, with water and soil treatment – for instance, by enhancing soil with bacteria – sustainable greening of the desert is possible.” Plus, he refers to the afforestation project of the Sahara that not only is feasible but even sensible and necessary for environmental reasons in order to increase the water storage capacity of the soil and to prevent the spread of the desert. Water management and greening of dry regions could in the long run enable the necessary water supply and high-yield local farming in growing urban areas in Africa and the Arabian region, according to Schmidt. Critics on the other hand fear that exactly the opposite is true: The Line might tap into the valuable ground water reservoir that was formed some 25,000 years ago when the Arabian Peninsula was still a green savannah and is among the largest ones on Earth. The entire region, especially Jordan, benefits from this non-renewable resource.
Liberalization: Irrespective of environmental considerations, the question arises whether The Line will be able to attract enough people and investors from all over the world in the first place. After all, the Saudi Arabian legal system, and the degree of freedom for ethnic or other minorities, critics and women clearly differ from those of democratically ruled countries from which many of the investors, guests and future residents might hail. And they are essential, as Rainer Schmidt points out: “It’s unrealistic to finance the project strictly by earnings from the petroleum sector.” So, will the project boost social change in Saudi Arabia, in terms of democracy and a pluralistic and liberal society? Sebastian Sons responds to that, “Yes, but there are limits. By opening the country, the Crown Prince no doubt wants to send an international message indicating a certain social liberalization in order to attract investors. In addition, bin Salman promises modernity to his own, younger population, albeit that has its limits and the limits are where the conservative clergy, the religious scholars, are massively affected, because Saudi Arabia is based on a very conservative and strict interpretation of Islam, which cannot be upended just like that. Those who believe that trade will lead to transformation so that democratic structures will evolve in Saudi Arabia are wrong. That’s not going to happen.” Ultimately, Sons believes that the outcome will be a free trade zone with a separate legal status for Neom and The Line: “However, the difference between that freedom and the one in the rest of the country must not become too big or else it would entail potential for criticism.”
Human rights: Saudi Arabia is an autocratic country. Mohammed bin Salman is apparently following through with his vision of a megacity against any resistance. Bedouins in the desert regions complain about evictions and arrests. A report by London-based NGO Alqst points out violence against the Howaitat tribe living in the area where the construction of Neom was most recently launched. The Human Rights Council of the United Nations recently issued a declaration denouncing the planned execution of three individuals who allegedly expressed opposition to the Neom megaproject in Saudi Arabia.
Finally, there’s the exciting question of who’s supposed to be living in The Line. Sebastian Sons clarifies that by saying that “Only one thing is for certain, it won’t be social housing.”
Short distances are gaining ground
The reconstruction of Europe after the Second World War inspired planners as a major opportunity for change: As more and more people became motorized, cities were planned in more spacious style, and seemingly efficiently and functionally divided into spheres of living, working, shopping and transportation. However, many of the satellite districts that emerged in the process proved neither pedestrian-friendly nor vibrant and atmospheric. Because these suburbs with their mono-structures had little capacity for change they were highly crisis-prone when confronted with changing social and economic developments and turned into socially deprived neighborhoods. In many areas, the anticipated efficiency of functional division was thrown into reverse.
Since the middle of the nineteen-nineties, if not earlier, the mixed, concentrated city has been the ideal again – in Paris, for instance. Its mayor, Ann Hidalgo, proclaimed the “city of the 15 minutes”: Similar to the plan in The Line, all things of everyday life – including work – are supposed to be accessible on foot or by bike within a few minutes in Paris’ neighborhoods. The coronavirus elevated the idea of self-sufficient sub-centers onto the desks of urban planners, where people’s homes turn into safe havens and life is supposed to take place within immediate proximity. But critics of such decentralized concepts have been raising their hands as well. The journalist Alice Delaleu, for instance, wrote in the "Chroniques d’architecture" online magazine: “By creating the ‘city of the 15 minutes’ Paris is building new walls and descending into egoism,” particularly with regard to segregating poorer neighborhoods on the outskirts. Other critics fear that less mobile segments of the population such as senior citizens or people with disabilities will be disadvantaged.