Saudi Arabia's mega-project: a 170km line city through the desert
A car-free, carbon-free city the size of Belgium, built in a straight line through a remote part of Saudi Arabia is MBS's grand plan. Will it succeed? The FT's Andrew England explores the crown prince's pet project
Written by Andrew England. Produced by Tom Hannen. Additional graphics by Steve Bernard.
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This is the Line. A fantastical $200bn megaproject that is supposed to rise from the Saudi desert. Its backers say it represents the future of modern living. The sceptics see an overly ambitious vanity project inspired by a brash young autocrat that risks becoming the oil-rich Gulf's next white elephant. Championed by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom's de facto leader, the plan is at the heart of his Neom project.
The goal is to build a futuristic car-free, carbon-free city of one million people beginning at the Red Sea coast following a narrow 170km line up through rugged mountains. Nothing so audacious has ever made it beyond an architect's draft. The infrastructure alone is expected to cost $100bn to $200bn, with designs from underground, hydrogen-fueled automated transport system.
It has raised eyebrows, caused us to sort of giggle a little bit thinking, you know, is this actually going to happen?
Unfortunately, you know we've got the Dubai bug, really, and we have this problem of highlighting futuristic video clips with hyperbolic language that sometimes get misunderstood.
Can you tell us about the Neom project?
Neom is a sustainable city, and that will change the future of Saudi Arabia.
Look, I think you have to go beyond the glitz and the futuristic videos and the hyperbolic language that comes from western consultants. And I think what Neom has failed to explain properly is that there is substance below this.
We've tried to examine what exactly is the substance beyond the PR hype about invisible technology generating carefree and open urban space. The problem is there's very little public information about the project beyond the glitzy YouTube video which has popped up on TVs around the world as part of a global advertising campaign. A few things you should know about Saudi Arabia.
First, it has no running rivers, but vast oil reserves that have enabled it to become the world's top crude exporter. Now, Prince Mohammed, known as MBS, is determined to use the nation's petrodollar wealth to back his grandiose plans to modernise the conservative kingdom and end its addiction to oil. Back in June 2017, King Salman shook up Saudi Arabia's succession order by naming Prince Mohammed, his favourite son, heir apparent to the throne.
Four months later, MBS unveiled Neom, which is being overseen by the Public Investment Fund, or the PIF, the sovereign wealth fund the crown prince chairs. This is a $500bn megaproject supposed to cover 26,000 square kilometres from the western coast and stretching up to the borders of Egypt and Jordan.
Unlike the densely populated districts of Jeddah, Riyadh, and Dammam, the Neom region contains no major urban centres. And more than three years after Neom's launch, the 170-kilometre Line project was announced as its first major development.
This month, the bulldozers moved in to begin laying the groundwork for the first phase of the futuristic city. Neom declined to be interviewed or provide a map of where exactly the Line will be. Using the latest satellite imagery, you can see how vast and empty the site currently is. It's not clear whether these settlements are part of building work on the Line. So how far has the project progressed?
It's virgin territory. It's a beautiful coast. There are some government buildings that have been built. There's a camp that's been built for the Neom management and team. Bechtel has mobilised now to start, and you will start to see a dome being built there for the desalination plant.
There's been a lot of touristic activity down there already. So not much, but actually not nothing either has been built. I mean, it is a busy place. But it will take a number of years for this to show up on the ground in anything really substantive.
But this isn't the first time that Saudi Arabia has tried to build new cities in the desert. In the mid-2000s, the authorities launched plans for six new economic cities with the same lofty aspirations as Neom - to diversify the economy, attract foreign investment, and create jobs for young Saudis. That project was less ambitious, the estimated price tag $120bn for the six was far more modest in comparison. But only one made it off the drawing board, the King Abdullah Economic City, and cynics will tell you that only succeeded because it carried the then monarch's name.
The track record of new cities, not only in the Gulf, but around the world is fairly discouraging. I think what's going to be a bit different in Neom is the level of political commitment, and the need to make it a success in some way because it's so high profile. What that means in practise is not necessarily that billions or tens of billions of foreign investments are going to come streaming in, but that the government and the PIF in particular are going to invest quite heavily into it.
And there will be, to be fair, some parts of the project that are more feasible than others. So there are some fairly conventional dimensions of sectoral diversification. Some of the tourism could probably work, because it's a beautiful natural environment, at least for domestic tourism. Some of the renewables investment could work, some of the manufacturing stuff, some of the agro industry could work, if only for sort of food security reasons there's a good case to be made for domestic agricultural investment. I mean, flying cars, and glowing sands, and artificial moons are on a different level.
Political commitment can have all sorts of connotations in the MBS era. The millennial prince has shaken up the kingdom in an unprecedented fashion in the few years since his rapid rise to power.
He has upended decades of more consensual rule within the al Saud monarchy, riding roughshod over royal rivals and crushing all forms of critical debate. The CIA has reportedly concluded that as the kingdom's day-to-day leader, he must have authorised the operation in which Saudi agents murdered Jamal Khashoggi and dismembered his body. Female activists who campaigned for women to be allowed to drive were jailed, including Loujain al-Hathloul, whose family allege she was tortured.
In Neom, security forces shot dead Abdul Raheem al-Huwaiti after he refused to be evicted from his property to make way for the project. The authorities said al-Huwaiti was armed and shot first and insisted those being relocated are fully compensated, but activists saw it as another sinister act associated with MBS's reign.
There was an iron fist against not like one tribe or another, but actually against everybody, including royals, and princes, businessmen and businesswomen, liberals, feminists, intellectuals, economists, even poets. And I have seen and documented firsthand a lot of people who were arrested just because they tweeted. And I know people who were arrested because they tweeted about people who were arrested over a tweet.
So there was even a series of arrests just because one tweet, one word, or one comment, one post on social media. Saudi Arabia has never been democratic, but there was some kind of what Jamal Khashoggi used to call the checks and balances within the royal system, where there were multiple branches within the royal family that counter balance each other, making the Saudi government less unstable, let's call it.
But with the crown prince and this centralised kind of power, he has now every power on his hand. He can do everything unchecked. He's uncontrollable.
The crackdowns have taken place as the crown prince's supporters have trumpeted economic and social reforms that he has spearheaded. In recent years, the feared religious police have been largely muzzled, and the decades-old ban on women driving has been lifted. Cinemas have opened and courts have issued landmark rulings asserting women's rights to live independently and travel without the approval of their male guardians.
Despite Khashoggi's brutal murder and other abuses, a host of global music stars including Mariah Carey, Enrique Iglesias, and Sean Paul have flocked to the kingdom to perform at massive state-sponsored music festivals.
When Saddam Hussein was confronted about his behaviour on an issue, he said he will change and he introduced reforms. When Bashar al-Assad took power a few years later he said he will change the system of Syria, and he introduced reforms. And let's remember, Muammer Gaddafi, just right before the revolution, he said he will be the reformer, and he introduced reforms. And multiple dictatorships around the world have used that line of reforms, but no reform will ever take place if the population is excluded.
But MBS's changes have been embraced by many among the kingdom's youthful population, and the crown prince's loyalists insist that his iron fist approach was needed to bring radical change to such a conservative nation.
Change is bloody. It's difficult. Now you can pick particular cases in the past few years in Saudi Arabia. Obviously, the Khashoggi case was a tragedy. You know, the arrest of the woman also is unfortunate, but so you can look at the micro and feel very uncomfortable.
But when you look at the macro, in context of historical development, you could not have opened the political space. There are a lot of structural problems that you needed really a big dose of testosterone to address, and a baseball bat.
And he has done that. Now as he made his mistakes? Of course he's made his mistakes, he's human. He's not a prophet, and you can't choreograph this perfectly. And I'm sure if he could play back the tape there are a lot of things that he would have done differently.
It is the Line, perhaps more than any other project, that represents MBS's vision of the future, crafted with the aid of an army of highly paid western consultants.
Neom in a way is the closest to an attempt to build a new Saudi Arabia. To start with no constraints, to get rid of all of the old administration, of all the bureaucracy, and paperwork, and operate independently of the established business and merchant class, of which there's quite a bit of distrust in the ruling circle, currently.
But is this really what Saudi Arabia needs?
I mean, there's a very lively also very private debate about that in Saudi Arabia. And some Saudis apparently have called the tripled VAT that was introduced in summer 2020 as a Neom tax. Soon if that circulates widely, that's not very good PR.
But any whispered criticism won't stop MBS forging ahead. Just as Napoleon III instructed Baron Haussman to demolish medieval parts of Paris in the 1800s and build the wide avenues and parks the French capital is famed for, the Line is very much the crown prince's pet project.
Even with Haussman in Paris, it was actually Napoleon III. It was his vision and Haussman was the sort of implementer of this kind of vision. So with the Line project, it's probably coming from Prince Salman thinking actually, this is what I want to develop and create, and then bring kind of architects, developers, planners on board to sort of fulfil my vision.
I think the role of the architect or the planner can be to have these sort of quite bold, radical visions, these big ideas of how cities could change, how people can live differently. But a lot of them are these kind of propositions, and influence the way things are planned on the ground. But this sort of grand sort of top-down vision and implementing that can be quite contentious, can be quite difficult.
And this idea that you're building on nothing is never quite true. So this idea that you're building on kind of virgin land, as it's been described, you could question actually, firstly, there's a very complicated context of mountains of what is the actual ground look like? But also, there are people living there. There are different communities living there.
Would you like to live in the Line?
I don't think I would.
For me, the kind of, I mean, the focus on lifestyle I find really, really one-dimensional. I found it not really sort of, for me, what makes cities exciting is living with lots of different people from different socioeconomic backgrounds, from different cultures, and learning from one another.
Do you envision yourself living in the Line? Would you like to live there?
I'm too old to live in the Line. I think the Line is, you and I are a bit beyond our sell by date, as far as that's concerned. I think the Line is going to attract Saudis in their 20s and 30s.
Would you ever move there?
No, I would never. I would rather prefer the people who are already living there to be building real projects from their own ideas where they are included, where their ideas are part of the project, where their cities and traditions are respected. I'd rather do that.