What is Neom, this megalopolis in the Saudi desert?

Currently under construction, this megalopolis will include a smart city whose plans have just been unveiled. This project is however the subject of controversies which, in addition to technical obstacles, could prevent it from reaching its objective of 2030.

Enabling city dwellers to have a better quality of life in futuristic cities from 2030. This is the ambition of several people, like the billionaire Marc Lore with Telosa or the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed ben Salmane, with its megalopolis called Neom, located in the northwest of the country, in the middle of the desert. Announced in 2017, this project, with a budget of 500 billion dollars, is part of the Saudi government’s Vision 2030 plan aimed at bringing the country out of its dependence on oil by diversifying its economy.

Made up of several cities, including the industrial city Oxagon and the global mountain tourism destination Trojena, this megalopolis recently made headlines when the crown prince unveiled plans for The Line, his smart city (smart city in French), which should accommodate 1.5 million people around 2030 and 9 million by 2045.

A smart city with an atypical design

Announced in 2021, The Line is described as a “civilizational revolution that puts people first, offering an unprecedented urban living experience while preserving the surrounding nature”. Running on 100% renewable energy, it would be built around humans, prioritizing people’s health and well-being over transport and infrastructure. Concretely, the city would produce zero emissions by being free of cars and roads. And these would be absent from the smart city for good reason: it was designed to be convenient and walkable, residents should have access to all facilities within a five minute walk. A public transport network would also allow them to move from one end of the city to the other in 20 minutes.

The Line is surprising with its atypical design. It will indeed be a linear city measuring only 200 meters wide and 170 kilometers long. All covered with two huge mirrors 500 meters high. The idea is to vertically superimpose all the “city functions” while allowing inhabitants to move in three dimensions (up, down or across). It is thanks to this superposition of houses, schools, public parks and other places that the inhabitants could access all the facilities in less than five minutes.

A hard-to-achieve construction goal

The Line would thus be unique in the world, but Saudi Arabia still has to succeed in building this smart city by 2030. Many obstacles stand in the way of this objective. According to information from wall street journal, a first impact study carried out in early 2021 indicated that the construction of this smart city could take 50 years, being done in stages. The urban planners behind its design must also resolve several questions such as the management of The Line’s intersection with the migration corridors of millions of birds. Added to this is the problem of the shade created by the city walls, the lack of sun can be detrimental to health, according to documents consulted by the American daily.

In addition to The Line, problems are also present at the level of the megalopolis. Neom could indeed have an artificial moon, flying taxis or even domestic robots to clean houses, but most of these technologies do not yet exist or will not necessarily be ready by the end of the decade.

A controversial project

The project is also far from enchanting all Saudis, quite the contrary. The construction of Neom in northwestern Saudi Arabia is forcing nearly 20,000 members of the Howeitat tribe to leave the territory they have occupied for centuries. The latter protested against their scheduled expulsion, refusing offers of compensation from the authorities. This even led to the death of one of them, Abdul Rahim al-Huwaiti, in April 2020. He was killed by police officers who came to arrest him at his home following a video in which he explained that the police tried to deport him.

Another problem that could slow down the development of the project: the managerial culture which, according to wall street journal, belittles expats, makes unrealistic demands and turns a blind eye to discrimination. This caused many recruits to flee the project: dozens of expatriate executives out of the 1,500 employees have reportedly resigned or been fired. Some would even have preferred to lose annual contracts of more than $500,000 rather than work under the CEO of the project.

Neom is thus the subject of controversy, which has cost it partnerships, like the one with the developer of League of Legends, Riot Games. While it was supposed to be a main partner of the European esports championship of League of Legends in 2020, the American company ended the collaboration a day after announcing it after criticism linked to the Huwaitat’s forced eviction and human rights violations in Saudi Arabia. So many problems that rather make believe that the futuristic megalopolis will not be ready by 2030.

What is Neom, this megalopolis in the Saudi desert?