In 2017, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman announced the launch of the country’s futuristic and fully automated business zone, NEOM. This high-tech business center, which will be located in Tabuk province in the northwestern part of Saudi Arabia along the Red Sea coast, is to be created at a cost of 500 billion euros. US dollars (37.5 lakh INR crore). The region was selected because of its relatively mild climate. Most of Saudi Arabia has a desert climate with extremely oppressive daytime temperatures above 45 ° Celsius. The total area of the project is expected to be 26,500 square kilometers and will connect Jordan and Egypt via Saudi territory. The project should generate 380,000 jobs and contribute US $ 48 billion (INR 36,000 crore) to the kingdom’s GDP by 2030.
More recently, in January 2021, the Crown Prince also announced that, as part of the NEOM project, a zero carbon city called “ The Line ” would be set up. The Crown Prince described the city project as “civilizational plan which puts people first ”. “The Line” is designed as a linear city for one million people, 170 kilometers long, with a width that would be accessible on foot in five minutes. People from all over the world are expected to be drawn to the city’s excellent environment, state-of-the-art infrastructure and superior quality of life.
“The Line” is not designed to be a conventional city but a futuristic city. The usual amenities of a city, such as schools, hospitals and gardens, will be carefully designed according to the expected propensity of residents to provide superior education, health care and recreation. In addition, the city would position itself as a leading tourist destination. The Saudi administration is also seeking to dispel doubts about the governance model that “The Line” would follow. The entire NEOM area, including “The Line”, will be a free trade area with its own fiscal structure and an autonomous legal system.
The technological and environmental plans of the “Zero cars, zero streets and zero carbon emissions” the city attracted the most attention. The drawings in “The Line” show the city’s infrastructure and services organized in three layers. The top layer, above ground, will be a pedestrian layer. It will be supported by two underground layers. The one immediately below the ground will be the service layer of the physical infrastructure. And further below the service layer will be the backbone for transport. The promoters of the project said that “high-speed transport, utilities, digital infrastructure and logistics will be seamlessly integrated into dedicated spaces operating in an invisible layer along the line.” High-speed public transit is designed to reach people all over the city in 20 minutes. Alternatively, people could walk to the amenities in less than five minutes. Artificial intelligence will have an essential role in the city. “The Line” would be powered 100% by clean energy, making the city pollution-free, healthy and sustainable. The city would be entirely managed by smart city technologies. Robots will play a key role in the areas of security, logistics, home delivery and care provision.
It is estimated that the city’s infrastructure would cost between 100 and 200 billion US dollars (7.5 to 15 crore lakh INR). The investments are expected to come from the $ 500 billion allocated to NEOM, the Public Investment Fund (PIF), the Saudi sovereign wealth fund, and local and global investors over 10 years. Construction of the first phase of the project has already started. NEOM Bay, some resorts and luxury apartments have been completed. In 2019, NEOM Bay Airport was inaugurated. A huge palace complex for the king, prince and members of the Saudi royal family has also been created.
NEOM and ‘The Line’ are projects with a greater goal. As the world moves towards a non-oil future, Saudi Arabia, as the world’s largest oil producer, sees its economy threatened unless it finds other sources of wealth creation. Global trade and tourism would be the key areas of Saudi Arabia’s new economy. NEOM, supported by “The Line” as the first fully automated city, could become the world’s number one destination. In this, there are commonalities between Saudi Arabia and the others. Golf’s country. Bahrain (Economic Vision 2030), Oman (Vision 2040), Qatar (National Vision 2030), the United Arab Emirates (Vision 2021) and Saudi Arabia (Vision 2030) all seek to diversify their economies and reduce their dependence on oil.
NEOM and ‘The Line’ are projects with a greater goal. As the world moves towards a non-oil future, Saudi Arabia, as the world’s largest oil producer, sees its economy threatened unless it finds other sources of wealth creation. Global trade and tourism are said to be the key areas of Saudi Arabia’s new economy
Information on many areas relating to “The Line” is scarce. However, based on the material available, a broad assessment is possible. First, the history of megaprojects in Saudi Arabia has not been a happy one. “The Saudi landscape is already strewn with failures or abandoned megaprojects ”. In addition, such projects do not always go as planned. Adverse global economic downturns, cost overruns and reduced returns on investment are among the most common failures. Even if the observations quoted above are dismissed as speculation, the fact is that this urban enterprise incorporates some technologies that do not exist. Domestic robots, dinosaur robots and flying cars are still in the works. Neither high speed transits today capable of speeds of 512 kilometers per hour, which the city would need for an end-to-end journey in 20 minutes.
Moreover, whatever type of city one builds, the fundamental philosophy of a city must remain the same. The quality of a city depends on its economy, its environment and its equity. A city that overestimates one to the detriment of others becomes unbalanced and over time becomes unsustainable. The promoters of the project have spoken extensively about the economic, technological and environmental angles, but it is not known how fair the city would be and who could afford to live there.
NEOM and The Line, as mentioned earlier, would be governed by a different set of laws than in Saudi Arabia. But given the nature of Saudi politics, where some of the governance practices are among the most regressive, the most uncomfortable incongruities for residents can surface. Since the city is looking for people to settle down from the rest of the world, these concerns may not motivate people to settle. Saudi Arabia is not very kind to dissent; therefore, very few voices of disagreement from within the country emanated. Some have faintly sought to remind the Saudi administration that there is no point spending billions of dollars on a totally new venture when already existing Saudi cities were in disrepair and in need of repair.
The Saudi administration emphasizes its environmental concerns and plans to build a completely ecological city. As the Crown Prince said: “Why should we sacrifice nature for development? Why should seven million people die each year from pollution? Why should we lose a million people every year to traffic accidents? However, this does not appear to be practiced on the ground. The construction of the city cuts “through its surroundings, forcing its way through difficult terrain rather than embracing natural features such as the coast. “
Saudi administration also faces criticism over attempt to expel 20,000 men Howeitat Tribe of his secular homeland which is part of NEOM territory. The tribe resists expulsion. When the tribal chiefs protested, several members of the leadership found themselves behind bars. The most vocal critic of all, Alya Abutayah Alhwaiti, lost her life. The negative publicity was sought to be countered with a public relations exercise, devised by an American public relations company. However, much of the concern surrounding the project remains.