The Line: New Mega City Project in Saudi Arabia

It is supposed to stretch through the Saudi Arabian desert like a linear oasis. “The Line” is the first step in Saudi Arabia’s futuristic development project called “NEOM”. But the utopian planned ribbon city has already claimed its first victims. 

“The contemporary city needs a complete redesign,” says the voice from offstage. “What if we got rid of cars? If we got rid of roads and built around nature instead of over it?” continues the recently released announcement video for “The Line”. The proposed solution to these and other questions raised in the video is then exactly what the name promises: a ribbon city.

No cars, no roads, no carbon emissions. Housing, nature, supermarket, workplace – all within five minutes walking distance. These are the vision cornerstones of a future city of millions called “The Line”. It was presented by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the country’s de facto ruler. Living up to the name, the city is to stretch over 170 kilometres like a dead straight line through Tabuk Province in northwest Saudi Arabia.

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The Line is to cost up to 200 billion US dollars. The city is part of a development project called “NEOM”, for which a total of 500 billion dollars is to be invested. Neom is to cover an area of 26 500 square kilometres. By comparison, the whole of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania covers just over 23,000 square kilometres. The city area of Berlin would fit into Neon almost 30 times over.

It is a gigantic project in many respects, not only financially and geographically. Saudi Arabia wants to and must make the transition away from oil if it does not want to be left behind economically in the future.

Oil made rich overnight

When black gold first gushed from the desert floor of the Arabian Peninsula in the late 1930s, it transformed Saudi Arabia from one of the poorest countries in the world to one of the richest virtually overnight. The oil revenues allowed the country to build up a huge sovereign wealth fund. This fund is now worth about half a trillion dollars and is expected to more than double in the next few years. This money is now to be used to lift the Saudi Arabian economy onto an oil-free foundation.

People are squinting a little enviously at Dubai. The neighbouring city to the east was also plucked from the otherwise unproductive desert soil, made rich by oil and is in the process of successfully transforming its economic income. Even if some may see the city as an insubstantial display of almost obscene financial wealth, Dubai has achieved what Saudi Arabia would like to achieve: it has become a tourist magnet and attracts more foreign currency to the United Emirates with foreign investors.

The Line as a city concept of the future

The Line, then: a city within Neom, like a line without a central city core, consisting of “city modules” strung together, within which all the needs of daily life can be met by a maximum five-minute walk from the place of residence. Above-ground traffic is limited to pedestrians and cyclists, while a high-speed underground railway will allow the 170 kilometres between the city’s end points to be covered within 20 minutes. Also underground will be a metro for shorter distances and a transport solution for freight. The aim is to save 30 per cent of the infrastructure costs of a conventional city and to cover 100 per cent of the city’s energy needs from renewable sources. Artificial intelligence will monitor the behaviour of citizens in the city and improve the quality of life through data and predictive modelling.

More distant visions of the future might include taxi drones, robotic valets, phosphorescent sandy beaches, a park with robotic dinosaurs, an artificial moon rising over the city every night, or even medical facilities designed to use genetic engineering to “make people stronger”.

The ribbon city: a hitherto unsuccessful urban planning concept

The ribbon city concept is not a groundbreaking innovation. It is attributed to the Spaniard Arturio Soria y Mata and is his attempt to counter the problems brought about by industrialisation and the ensuing rush to urban development in the late 19th century. As with the garden city concepts that emerged in England around the same time, the aim was to promote residential quality in particular by keeping commuting distances short, providing convenient access to services and making recreational areas quickly accessible.

However, there are only a few actually realised ribbon towns. The concept was partially implemented in Volgograd and Magnitogorsk, for example, by Russian urban planner Nikolai Alexandrovich Miljutin. Brasília, the capital of Brazil founded in 1960, was also planned as a ribbon city. Here, however, gradually rising prices in the ribbon sector caused the emergence of numerous satellite cities around the central area.

However, a ribbon city has not yet been planned on such a large scale and as consistently as in The Line. It is also to be expected that urban development will be implemented more rigorously in a monarchy like Saudi Arabia than is possible in a democracy.

Legal and social special zone Neom

Neom is to operate independently of Saudi Arabia’s state framework legislation, be able to enact its own tax laws and have an autonomous judicial system. Among other things, the special administration will even ensure that the residents of The Linke are allowed to sell and consume alcohol – a concession to a more Western lifestyle of the expected investors in the monarchy, which is otherwise strictly oriented towards a conservative Wahabist interpretation of Islam.

It is also noticeable that in the presentation videos, women are often depicted in a way that is unusual by Saudi Arabian standards. They play sports in Western clothes and many of them do not wear a head veil, while they work side by side, apparently as equals, with men. If Neom lives up to the claims shown, it would be a massive change in the way women live in a country where they are subject to dress codes in public or cannot make legal transactions without the consent of a male guardian.

Not only sunny sides to the project

For all its sparkling vision, the project also faces criticism. Up to 20 000 people, members of the Bedouin tribe of Howeitat, currently live in the future urban area of The Line and have to leave their homes. Those who oppose the project cannot hope for a long trial, as the example of Abdul Rahman al-Hwaiti shows. The farmer, whose home village of Al-Khuraybah stands in the way of The Line’s plans, refused to give up his land and was shot dead by Saudi special forces shortly afterwards.

Or else Alya al-Hwaiti. According to a report in German magazine Der Spiegel, the Saudi Arabian activist has been receiving death threats in her London exile since she began reporting critically on the Neom project. She suspects that the threats originate from the entourage of Crown Prince bin Salman. In London, she could face the same fate as Jamal Khashoggi. He – a journalist and one of the crown prince’s most high-profile critics – was murdered in 2018 during an operation apparently ordered by the crown prince himself in the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul.

Neom and The Line – full of vision, little concrete

Neom brims with ambitious visions and perhaps some of these visions fall by the wayside. This would not be unusual, considering that there have always been plans for mega-cities in Saudi Arabia. In the recent past, there were plans for no less than six cities, of which only the King Abdullah Economic City is currently being realised.

Of great importance would be the social dimension that Neom would have in its current planning through the legal special zone. By turning away from the conservative Sharia legal system, the project could serve as an example for strengthening human rights in the country, which still suffer from serious problems today.

However, there is still no information from the Saudi side on how exactly The Line is to become so sustainable, efficient and environmentally friendly. In fact, concrete details are lacking at every turn.

Interested in other mega projects? Click here to get to know Jernbanebyen – the new mega project in Copenhagen by COBE architects.