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Saudi Arabia unveils design of car-free, futuristic megacity Neom

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman presents plans for parallel structures of mirror-encased skyscrapers 170 km long known collectively as The Line, in reimagination of urban life

By Robbie COREY-BOULET

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia (AFP) — A futuristic Saudi megacity is to feature two skyscrapers extending across a swath of desert and mountain terrain, according to the latest disclosures on the project by the kingdom’s de facto ruler.

The parallel structures of mirror-encased skyscrapers extending over 170 kilometers (more than 100 miles), known collectively as The Line, form the heart of the Red Sea megacity Neom, a plank of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s bid to diversify the Gulf state’s oil-dependent economy.

First announced in 2017, Neom has consistently raised eyebrows for proposed flourishes like flying taxis and robot maids, even as architects and economists have questioned its feasibility.

In a presentation Monday night, Prince Mohammed sketched out an even more ambitious vision, describing a car-free utopia that would become the planet’s most livable city “by far.”

Analysts noted, though, that plans for Neom have changed course over the years, fueling doubts about whether The Line will ever become reality.

Neom was once touted as a regional “Silicon Valley,” a biotech and digital hub spread over 26,500 square kilometers (10,000 square miles).

Now it’s a vehicle for reimagining urban life on a footprint of just 34 square kilometers, and addressing what Prince Mohammed describes as “livability and environmental crises.”

“The concept has morphed so much from its early conception that it’s sometimes hard to determine its direction: scaling down, scaling up, or making an aggressive turn sideways,” said Robert Mogielnicki of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.

Population boom

Officials had earlier said Neom’s population would top one million, but Prince Mohammed said the number would actually hit 1.2 million by 2030 before climbing to nine million by 2045.

The eye-popping total is part of a hoped-for nationwide population boom that Prince Mohammed said would be necessary to make Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest crude exporter, an economic powerhouse.

The goal for 2030 is to have 50 million people — half Saudis and half foreigners — living in the kingdom, up from roughly 34 million today.

By 2040 the target is 100 million people, he said.

“That’s the main purpose of building Neom, to raise the capacity of Saudi Arabia, get more citizens and more people in Saudi Arabia. And since we are doing it from nothing, why should we copy normal cities?”

The site will be powered by 100 percent renewable energy and feature “a year-round temperate micro-climate with natural ventilation,” a promotional video released Monday said.

Past environmental pledges by the kingdom, such as a vow to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2060, have sparked skepticism from environmentalists.

Neom is well-positioned to harness solar and wind energy, and plans are also afoot for the city to host the world’s largest green hydrogen plant, said Torbjorn Soltvedt of risk intelligence company Verisk Maplecroft.

“But the feasibility of Neom as a whole is still unclear given the unprecedented scale and cost of the project,” he said.

Finding funds

At just 200 meters (yards) wide, The Line is intended to be Saudi Arabia’s answer to unchecked and wasteful urban sprawl, layering homes, schools and parks on top of each other in what planners term “Zero Gravity Urbanism.”

Residents will have “all daily needs” reachable within a five-minute walk, while also having access to other perks like outdoor skiing facilities and “a high-speed rail with an end-to-end transit of 20 minutes,” according to a statement.

Though Neom will operate under its own founding law, which is still being prepared, Saudi officials say they have no plans to waive the kingdom’s alcohol ban.

An airport is already operational at Neom, and authorities announced in May it would begin receiving regular flights from Dubai, but it is unclear whether major construction of the megacity itself has commenced.

Neom said Tuesday it would create 380,000 jobs by the end of the decade “whilst providing the ultimate work-life balance.”

The “first phase” of the project, lasting until 2030, will cost 1.2 trillion Saudi riyals (roughly $319 billion), Prince Mohammed said.

Besides government subsidies, potential sources of funding include the private sector and an initial public offering for Neom expected in 2024, he said.

Securing the necessary financing remains a potential challenge, though the current climate is more favorable than during the coronavirus pandemic that lowered oil prices.

“But funding is only part of the equation… demand is harder to buy, especially when you’re asking people to be part of an experiment on living and working in the future,” Mogielnicki said.

Drone Footage Suggests That Construction Has Begun At ‘The Line,’ Saudi Arabia’s Futuristic Desert City

By Kaleena Fraga  | Checked By John Kuroski

Published November 8, 2022 Updated November 9, 2022

Although construction on "The Line" appears to have begun in the desert of Tabuk, some insist that this vertical megacity is too unrealistic to work.

In Saudi Arabia, the future has already begun. There, a project called NEOM has allegedly started construction on The Line, a self-contained megacity designed to stretch 1,600 feet tall, 650 feet wide, and 105 miles long.

According to Gizmodo, drone footage shot by the Saudi Arabian company Ot Sky, and posted by the architecture news outlet Dezeen on YouTube suggests that construction of The Line has begun in the desert near Tabuk, Saudi Arabia.

The minute-long video begins with the title “The Line Project: New Wonders For The World” and shows a flurry of trucks and construction workers in the desert as triumphant orchestral music plays.

As CNBC reports, The Line is one part of the greater NEOM initiative, which seeks to construct three futuristic “regions” in Saudi Arabia. In addition to The Line, which could someday house nine million residents, it has also planned a floating industrial complex called Oxagon and a “mountain-air” getaway called Trojena that will offer skiing, biking, water sports, and more.

“NEOM is a vision of what a new future might look like,” the company explains on its website, adding: “Simply put, NEOM will be a destination, a home for people who dream big and want to be part of building a new model for sustainable living, working, and prospering.”

CNBC reports that the $500 billion NEOM project is part of an initiative in Saudi Arabia called Vision 2030, which was designed to diversify the Saudi economy in order to lessen the country’s economic reliance on oil. But is NEOM realistically possible?

NEOM’s plausibility seems to depend on who you ask. According to The Guardian, Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, raved that the project is “a civilizational revolution that puts humans first, based on a radical change in urban planning.”

Likewise, NEOM project leaders are insistent that the project — though very ambitious — will be completed.

“I want to be clear about this — NEOM is a complex, bold, and highly ambitious undertaking and is most certainly not an easy one to deliver,” Antoni Vives, the chief urban planning officer at Neom, told CNBC. “But we are making strong progress, and it’s exciting to see the vision come to life.”

That said, the NEOM project has also faced plenty of critics. According to VICE, many experts have dismissed the NEOM project as unrealistic and unlivable. Specifically, many critics have expressed doubt that these megacities would be as sustainable as they claim.

“Utopian thinking is important; it helps us challenge the preconceptions in the built environment that have generated conventional outcomes which we know contribute to environmental degradation,” Philip Oldfield, the head of the built environment school at the University of New South Wales Sydney told Dezeen, as reported by VICE. “But I think the sustainability and liveability arguments [in relation to NEOM] are naive.”

Rowan Moore, The Guardian’s architecture correspondent, agrees.

“The Line raises doubts, urbanistically speaking,” Moore argued. “How can such a colossal project be in any sense sustainable, given that its construction would produce (according to one estimate) more than 1.8bn tonnes of carbon dioxide, which is equivalent to more than four years of the UK’s entire emissions?”

Moore took other issues with the project as well, adding: “What is the benefit of its height when there is so much desert in which it could spread out? What would actually be good about life in this deep narrow canyon, probably subjected to high levels of surveillance and control?”

Moore also pointed out that the NEOM project has resulted in human rights violations, as several members of the Huwaitat tribe were arrested for protesting their eviction from their homes to make way for the project, and sentenced to death.

Given the controversy — and the huge undertaking of building a megacity like The Line — many have professed doubt over whether or not it will ever come to fruition. For now, the world will have to wait and see.

Maybe NEOM will emerge as a series of futuristic cities in the next few years. Or maybe its grand dreams of places like The Line, Trojena, and Oxagon, will continue to exist only in the pages of science fiction novels.