The Line, Saudi Arabia

Is the futuristic smart city causing more harm than good?

Headlining Saudi Arabia‚Äôs Vision 2023 project, work has commenced on the construction of a linear smart city known as ‚ÄėThe Line‚Äô. Spanning a 170km stretch across the desert in the north-western corner of the country, its mirrored wall exterior extending up 500m, the city is planned to eventually house 9 million people. The residents of ‘the Line’ will live in a year-round controlled environment alongside artificial intelligence and abundant modern technology designed to improve their quality of life.¬†

This futuristic city will be without cars or roads and their associated emissions, instead prioritising health and wellbeing over infrastructure. It is claimed transport in ‘the Line’ will have zero pollution or wait time, with the promised high speed rail making it possible to travel the entire length of the city in just 20 minutes. Necessary facilities will be within a five minute walk of all residents. With the project promising to run on 100% renewable energy, the radical approach to reducing Saudi‚Äôs carbon footprint has been met with conflicting views. Issues over both environmental impacts and human rights have caused controversy and the project, if it is even possible to complete, is set to face many challenges along the way.¬†

the project is set to face many challenges along the way.

Vision 2023 is part of Saudi’s effort to transform the country both economically and socially, moving away from an oil dependent economy and following in the footsteps of other countries in the region such as Qatar and the UAE. The project will create around 380,000 jobs and is estimated to cost around 1.2 trillion riyals (the equivalent to 254 billion pounds).

HRH Mohammed bin Salman, Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia announced the design of The Line in July 2022 as part of a project known as NEOM. NEOM will be a smart megacity in Saudi‚Äôs Tabuk province and is being advertised as a city of ‚Äėunparalleled social and economic experimentation‚Äô. The project is to be funded by the Saudi government and Public Investment Fund along with outside companies and investors. However, building an entire new city may prove to be more of an issue than it is a solution to diversifying Saudi‚Äôs economy and addressing environmental concerns.¬†

a city of ‘unparalleled social and economic experimentation’

‘The Line’ will consist of diverse, open spaces and be built on multiple levels with public parks, businesses, schools and housing, following a new concept known as zero gravity urbanism. Residents will be able to move through the space in three dimensions, creating a much higher density city, allowing the rest of the landscape to remain pristine and untouched and avoiding urban sprawl. The city itself will have a population density of 260,000 people per square kilometre, ten times that of Mumbai, which is currently one of the densest populated cities in the world. ¬†

Whilst the aims of the city include no pollution, zero stress related disease, and an increase in disposable income to promote better mental health, multiple issues have come to light about the reality of the project. The environmental sustainability of the building process has been brought into question as more information about the ambition and complexity of the project has been released. The material needed for the structure to withstand wind strength could use up to 1.8 billion tonnes of embodied carbon according to Philip Oldfield from the built environment school at the University of New South Wales. This exceeds the annual emissions of most European countries and, despite the emission free end goal, is by no means climate friendly or acting to reduce Saudi’s carbon footprint. Further to this, the end structure itself will act as a giant mirrored barrier across the middle of the desert, potentially impacting migration paths of numerous bird species and causing a danger to the native animal populations. 

multiple issues have come to light about the reality of the project.

The environmental impacts of the construction process, however, are not the only cause for concern. The Tabuk region that will be home to the new city of NEOM has been inhabited for centuries by the Huwaitat tribe. The tribe is now being forcibly evicted from their homes to make space for the construction, causing the unwilling relocation of over 20,000 people. Whilst forced relocation for public projects is not uncommon in the nation, speaking out against the process is not advised and human rights concerns have been brought into question after the recent death of tribal activist Abdulrahim al-Huwaiti who was protesting the development.  

With residents set to start moving in in 2024, an incredibly optimistic goal for such a futuristic design, the city will operate under Islamic Shariah law like the rest of the nation. Cameras and computers will be set around the automated city, able to track citizens and notify the government of any crimes. The city’s judges will report directly to the King. The opaqueness of the legal system is discouraging investment from foreign companies and former NEOM employees have said that financial issues, along with technological concerns, may stand in the way of these ambitious, futuristic plans becoming a reality. 

Photo by Aleksandar Pasaric.

Image Description: a city partially covered with clouds.