In the same way that people roll their eyes at big oil’s carbon-neutral pledges, a “sustainable” Silicon Valley in the middle of the Saudi Arabian desert seems like a stretch for the world’s second-largest oil producer.
While we’d all like to believe that the biggest greenhouse gas contributors will start to really care at some point, it appears that Saudi Arabia’s futuristic vision might be more smoke and mirrors than they let on.
In 2016, the Saudi Arabian government, headed by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, released the Saudi Vision 2030 Plan. Aiming to revitalize the country’s economy, Vision 2030 includes plans for NEOM, a “sustainable” mega-city with hopes of becoming a tourist hub. The name NEOM combines the Greek word for “new” and Arabic for “future”, painting the picture of a utopian sci-fi society at the center of human civilization.
The Line, a subsidiary project of NEOM, is an ambitious build that brings together forward-thinking concepts in urban planning. Here, we’ll discuss the key features of The Line, but also analyze how this city with good intentions is much darker in reality.
Joseph Bradley, the head of technology and digital endeavors, describes the project below:
“NEOM is not about building a smart city, it is about building the first cognitive city, where world-class technology is fueled with data and intelligence to interact seamlessly with its population.”
NEOM itself is split into individually outrageous and wildly expensive projects, such as the octagonal industrial city of “Oxagon.” However, by far the most ambitious yet supposedly environmentally-focused project in this plan is a 170 km linear city fittingly called “The Line.”
The Line boasts a number of utopian features: it’s projected to be powered by 100% clean energy, carless, and integrated with nature, with daily operations coordinated by artificial intelligence. It will house 1 million people and 380,000 “jobs of the future.” The city is structured as individual nodes, or modules, along the central transportation “spine”, with each having its own residents, businesses, and natural spaces.
A defining positive feature of The Line is its ability to function without cars thanks to high-speed rail and walkable orientation. One fallacy of modern cities is the drift away from human-centered design; cities like Los Angeles that are traffic- and crime-riddled appear more catered to cars and skyscrapers than to people.
By getting rid of vehicle infrastructure (no more 8-lane freeways!), there’s more space for nature and amenities, which is why The Line’s website claims everything a resident might need is within a 5-minute walking distance. In the event that leaving the area might be necessary, the maximum commute time between nodes is 20 minutes.
Walkability has benefits for humans and the environment. Studies have shown that individuals in walkable cities are healthier, with lower rates of obesity and heart disease than those living in less walkable cities. Eliminating cars from the city eliminates vehicle emissions, reducing the impact on the planet and human health. To learn more about walkability and its benefits, check out our article on Transit-Oriented Development.
For all the benefits of walkability, there exists the question of equity. How does this city accommodate people with mobility issues or individuals at the extremes of the age spectrum who can’t feasibly walk everywhere they need to go? It doesn’t, but The Line isn’t for those people. The city targets a specific demographic of people who can advance the Kingdom’s success, becoming “a hub for innovation where global business and emerging players can research, incubate and commercialize groundbreaking technologies to accelerate human progress.”
In a press briefing at the beginning of 2021, The Crown Prince provided background on the necessity of sustainable cities:
“By 2050, one billion people will have to relocate due to rising CO2 emissions and sea levels. 90% of people breathe polluted air. Why should we sacrifice nature for the sake of development? Why should seven million people die every year because of pollution?”
It’s these questions that pushed The Line’s concept design over into carbon neutrality. Saudi Arabia claims The Line will be powered by 100% renewable energy, but not much information has been offered up about how this will actually be accomplished. In 2021, NEOM’s head of energy reported that the city will function on a hydrogen-based economy to produce clean fertilizers along with chemical and oil alternatives. Saudi Arabia has supported this claim with a $5 billion joint venture with industrial gas company Air Products to produce 4GW of renewable energy by 2025. However, these 4GW have not yet been seen, and NEOM currently fuels a 574-MW power plant with natural gas.
Claims of solar and wind power are also floating around the internet, but given that the project has already broken ground in the absence of renewable energy, it appears that Saudi Arabia is continuing to rely on its massive fossil fuel reserves. The Line has already broken one of its most important promises, and only time will tell if the city will become more sustainable in the coming years.
The artificial intelligence aspect of The Line is one of the most ambiguous. The Prince’s press briefing claims that 90% of the available data in the city will be used to improve infrastructure functioning, instead of the 1% utilized in other smart cities. This will reportedly be done by implementing 5G, satellite, fiber, and wireless capabilities into the city’s infrastructure. What this would actually look like for residents and visitors is unclear, and a perusal of the project’s technology sector website doesn’t yield much substance. Questions of privacy, reliability, and responsibility arise when considering an entire city controlled by artificial intelligence.
One concern with a development like this that spans four unique ecologies (coast, coastal desert, mountain, and the upper valley) is that the natural landscape will inevitably be sacrificed during construction. However, while building a whole city at once is a rare and overwhelming opportunity, Chief Environmental Officer Dr. Marshall says that this will actually provide the chance to prioritize regenerative development at all stages. Regenerative development means going beyond minimizing the footprint of a project to actually make the landscape better than it was before.
Unfortunately, this may be too idealistic of a dream. The Line claims to preserve 95% of the nature within NEOM to give residents an experience that’s integrated with nature, but the Crown Prince’s press release fails to mention the tribal communities being displaced by this mega-project.
In late September, the al-Huwaitat tribe begged the United Nations to investigate abuses by Saudi Arabian authorities after the tribe refused to relocate so NEOM could be built. One outspoken activist from the tribe, Abdul Rahim al-Huwaiti, was killed by Saudi security forces after vowing to defy the government’s eviction order. A dozen other tribe members have been arrested after criticizing the Saudi government.
The Line is an ambitious project that brings together forward-thinking concepts in urban planning. Considered out of context, it’s a brilliant idea. However, the unrealistic utopian claims paired with the inhumane and inequitable treatment of tribal communities makes this city a hypocrisy parading as a saving grace.
So, what do you think? Do you find The Line intriguing? What do you think about this city as a model for future urban living? Let us know in the comments.