NEOM'S the line sustainable city

Finding NEOM: The Futuristic Carbon Neutral City

8 mins

It’s a project so vast and ambitious you can see it from space. Saudi’s NEOM could become the blueprint for the future of mankind

It stretches across the landscape from the Red Sea cape of Ras Al-Sheikh Hameed, through the Median mountains towards the town of Tabuk. A literal line in the sand, 150kms long, visible by satellite from space.

This is the spine of what Saudi leader Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman hopes will become one of humanity’s biggest achievements; NEOM, a $500bn glittering engineering feat that could be straight from the pages of a science fiction novel.

In 2016 Saudi launched Vision 2030, a national transformation project of huge economic, social, and cultural changes. The programme’s goal is to prepare the country and its citizens for a post-fossil fuel world by diversifying its economy. 

Central to this is NEOM, a futuristic enterprise zone the size of Belgium filled with space-age developments with names that could come from the latest Disney Obi-Wan Kenobi series. These include Oxagon, a 7km floating centre for advanced industries, Sindalah, a leisure island, and Trojena, an ‘iconic’ mountain resort ‘offering unique human-centric experiences’ where the desert kingdom hopes to host the 2029 Asian Winter Games.

Walk The (NEOM) Line

Neon The Line in Saudi Arabia

The flagship of NEOM is The Line, a futuristic 100-mile-long carbon-neutral car-free city built in a straight line through desert and mountain and enclosed in mirrors which promotional material describes variously as a ‘new wonder for the world’, ‘the future of urban living’ and a ‘cognitive city’. 

It is designed to run on 100 per cent renewable energy. Within its walls health and wellbeing will be prioritised over transportation and infrastructure. It will house nine million people, be built on a footprint of just 34 sq km and residents will have access to all daily essentials within a five-minute walk. They will be whisked by high-speed rail end-to-end in 20 minutes.

Sadly, repeated requests for interviews with officials about the project by The Ethicalist were unanswered, but a few officials have given interviews. In early 2022 Ali Shihabi, a former banker who was on NEOM’s advisory board, told the BBC that The Line will be built in stages, block by block.

‘People say this is some crazy project that’s going to cost gazillions, but it’s going to be built module by module, in a manner that meets demand,’ he said, explaining that each square will be self-sufficient and contain amenities such as shops.

One project planner, Antoni Vives, recently revealed that it is expected that one million people will be living in The Line by the end of the decade.

Social media accounts and the NEOM website give tantalising updates. In one video for The Line, a theoretical physicist from the US, Professor Michio Kaku, meets three of the senior planners for the project and visits the NEOM visitor centre. He describes The Line as a template for the future. Viewers learn that The Line will be 100 per cent sustainable and powered by solar, wind and hydrogen power with 100 per cent sustainable water.

Automated City

Neom's Oxagon city will be sustainable
NEOM’s Oxagon is a 7km floating centre for advanced industries

Initially, the scale and ambition of NEOM was met with scepticism. A leaked 2,300-page confidential document prepared by consultants at Boston Consulting Group, McKinsey & Co. and Oliver Wyman and dated September 2018 ,offered a detailed look inside NEOM and described a world of flying taxis and robot cleaners, with crime kept in check through extensive CCTV monitoring. 

According to the documents the NEOM founding board described their plans for an ‘automated city where we watch everything’, ‘where a computer can notify crimes without having to report them or where all citizens can be tracked’. 

In an emailed statement NEOM Chief Executive, Nadhmi al Nasr wrote: ‘NEOM is all about things that are necessarily future-oriented and visionary, so we are talking about technology that is cutting edge and beyond—and in some cases still in development and maybe theoretical.’

The NEOM brand will encompass a creative zone to rival Hollywood, a tech zone akin to Silicon Valley and there are already training programmes to develop the skilled high-tech workers of the future

Today, massive construction is underway. A progress report video issued in Oct 2023 declared that NEOM is open for business and that it redefines ‘liveability and conservation, with environmental, social and governance at its heart’. Viewers are told that NEOM will be ‘a new economic model and a beacon of change’ that will ‘benefit generations to come’ and that ‘progress is rapid with best in the world talent onboarding every day’. 

The project already employs over 3,000 people and 60,000 construction workers. Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) bankrolls it and plans to invest $5.6bn to build ten residential communities for 95,000 people whose business interests will benefit from the ‘best international standards in relation to tax, the regulatory environment and commercial law’.

The sheer volume of world-beating environmental initiatives planned is head spinning. NEOM will include the world’s largest coral reef restoration project, the world’s most food self-sufficient city and the world’s largest green hydrogen processing plant. The NEOM brand will encompass a creative zone to rival Hollywood, a tech zone akin to Silicon Valley and there are already training programmes to develop the skilled high-tech workers of the future.

Parts of the project are slated for completion this year, but satellite imagery from January shows work on The Line still has a long way to go, although there is evidence of massive activity with hundreds of cement trucks lined up at vast cement depots and countless excavators, bulldozers and trucks crisscrossing the landscape.

There are now significant residential centres which have been built to house construction workers. These include dining halls, swimming pools, cricket pitches, padel (a kind of tennis) courts, Starbucks concessions, Pizza restaurants and mosques. Pictures posted by the workers who live there show comfortable, modest prefabricated barrack-style accommodation.

Neom's The Line Will be a sustainable city

The latest Google Map satellite imagery of the island resort of Sindalah, which is due to open within months, shows shells of buildings and what appears to be a hotel complex near completion, along with a row of large beachside villas. Construction vehicles and a helicopter are evident across the site. The only greenery at time of press was a golf course. Nevertheless, construction is moving ahead at pace. The recent video update says progress is ‘exponential’. 

The latest piece of the NEOM puzzle which was announced in December last year is Norlana, an ‘ultra-modern active lifestyle’ waterfront community on the Gulf of Aqaba coastline where ‘luxury’ is ‘fused with advanced technology’ to create a ‘cutting-edge place, centered around wellbeing and world-class sporting facilities’. It will consist of a community of 3,000 residents in 711 residential properties, including deluxe mansions, spacious apartments and beach villas. There will also be a 120-berth marina for superyachts.

‘Aligned with NEOM’s commitment to conservation, Norlana will complement its coastal location and be delivered innovatively and sustainably. With a focus on preserving the surrounding land and marine environments, Norlana will offer the pinnacle of ultra-luxury modern living through a harmonious blend of nature and technology,’ explains the promotional material.

In a recent update on progress of the Sindalah resort, Chief Urban Planning Officer Antoni Vives, said: ‘This will be the first physical project in NEOM that opens [expected to be early this year]. It will open to the public before the other regions – THE LINE, Trojena and Oxagon. Therefore, Sindalah will be a taste of what else is to come at NEOM, so it’s hugely important in the wider vision.’

Commitment To Sustainability

He reiterated the project’s commitment to sustainability. ‘We are very much enhancing the pristine environment that nature has gifted us,’ he said. ‘Everything is going to be built and managed to the highest environmental standards. We truly believe in sustainability at NEOM. That’s why we are adopting the circular economy across our projects. We will also in the future be using the green hydrogen plant in NEOM, which will be the biggest and cleanest on Earth, and we are developing solar and wind power. The clean energy strategy is firmly in place.’

His message to people who doubt the scale of the project is simple: Come and visit this sustainable city once it is open. ‘When they do, they will see with their own eyes how incredible it is in this part of the world,’ he says. ‘We will offer a great welcome and then they will truly understand what a beautiful place it is and how unique the experiences we offer will be.’

With the countdown to the opening of this first part of one of the world’s most ambitious projects seemingly just months away the world waits in anticipation to see what the potentially the future of urban planning holds. Only time will tell whether, as Vives says, it truly is a ‘festival of intelligence and determination’, and ‘a place for dreamers and doers’.

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