I like writing about the Saudi's "Vision 2030" program as it indicates what Islam and the world will be like in the not-so-distant future (see "Why All the Fuss About Vision 2030, Saudi Arabia?", Dec 25, 2021). What we are covering in this article is the project called NEOM, the scientific assumptions that will make it work and the dark underbelly that the Saudis would rather you not know about.
By some accounts, 15 Giga projects are going on in Saudi Arabia. A Giga project would be considered the building of a series of dams, a city in the desert, or a canal that costs billions of dollars and takes many years to accomplish. In the United States, the 1930's Tennessee Valley Authority project to build dozens of dams would be a Giga project. The biggest Giga project of them all in Saudi Arabia is a city in the desert called NEOM. Saudi officials claim that the name "NEOM" is derived from two words. The first three letters are from the Ancient Greek prefix neo, meaning "new." The fourth letter is from the abbreviation of Mustaqbal, an Arabic word meaning "future." On the NEOM website, it also says that the “M” was chosen because it was the first letter of the crown prince’s name, “Mohammad.” There is also another source of that name. NEOM is a cyber term meaning New Enterprise Operating Model and is used to describe new messaging apps such as Snapchat or Instagram. In either case, the city of NEOM is aptly named.
NEOM is a province located in the northern part of the country. It borders the Red Sea, east of Egypt, across the Gulf of Aqaba, and south of Jordan. NEOM has three distinct areas that have been officially announced. First, there is Oxagon, a "gateway to advanced and clean industries," which will become the largest floating industrial complex in the world. Second is Trojena, a year-round destination with mountain-quality dry air, a ski slope, mountain biking, water sports, wellness facilities, and an interactive nature preserve. Both projects look impressive, but the third project is actually under construction. Called "The Line," this project is a 105-mile-long, 150-story skyscraper capable of housing 9 million residents. From space, this project looks like a line in the sand because it is a line in the sand of the Saudi Arabian desert. One end of The Line does protrude into the Red Sea.
The Line comprises two parallel skyscrapers that cut through the desert from the coast to the mountains. The Line will be encased on both sides with gigantic mirrors for an added surreal touch. From the side, the project will blend into the desert. From the top, the skyscrapers will be joined by a rooftop promenade capable of holding greenways and recreational venues. Imagine a 105-mile-long, 640-foot-wide greenway with landing spaces for air taxis and retail and commercial shops. The ground and basement levels will be home to a bullet train capable of transiting the entire 105-mile distance in 20 minutes (300 mph).
City planners call this concept "zero gravity urbanism," which is the idea of layering city functions vertically while enabling inhabitants to move seamlessly up, down, and across. This city will be a world of no roads and no cars – only flying taxis and high-speed rail. This type of city brings to the imagination the sci-fi cities we see in the movies, such as in Star Trek and Star Wars. But can this be a reality by 2030? This project will undoubtedly drive innovation and technology as we have never seen before.
Based on Unrealistic Technology?
Cynicism toward the project is something NEOM leaders acknowledge but firmly rebuff. Enclosed cities have become a narrative shorthand for futuristic settlements in science fiction. Supposedly, The Line is pitched as a massive smart city that is carbon neutral. Powered by solar cells and wind turbines, the skyscraper will need food and supplements from outside resources. In today's world, we have several examples of high-tech habitats that must be self-contained, but none are carbon neutral. The McMurdo Station in the Antarctic is relatively self-contained and self-sufficient, primarily due to its remoteness. However, the station still needs significant food and fuel supplies each year. Other structures designed to be as self-contained and self-sufficient as possible include aircraft carriers, submarines, and oil rigs. While as efficient as possible, all three must be refueled and resupplied every two to six months.
Other technologies are not there yet, either. Renewable energy technologies, and food production, are all critical, but the technology has not reached that pinnacle. The International Space Station has the best water filtration and recycling system in the world, including urine and sweat, but it still requires regular freshwater supplies every few months. Not everyone sees a future for high-rise buildings. In 2021, China banned new buildings over 150 stories.
In summary, the technology is not there yet. However, new projects, such as this one, can push the envelope to force technology development.
The Dark Side
The NEOM website promotes it as “a new vision of what the future could be…a home for people who dream big and who want to be part of building a new model for sustainable living.” The website fails to mention that The Line's construction requires the internal displacement of about 20,000 people from the Huwaitat tribe. Despite vague promises of compensation, the tribe has been forcefully evicted to make room for the new construction. The tribal leader voiced his concerns and criticized the project on YouTube in April 2020. Shortly after that, he was shot dead by security forces. Three other tribal officials have received the death sentence. Several more tribal members have received prison sentences of 30 to 50 years. The crown prince has been brutal on protesters. The number of beneficiaries and evictions mirrors the size of the TVA project in the 1930s. In round numbers, some 10 million people received electricity, and about 20,000 families were relocated. However, the displaced rural homeowners received some compensation for their land, and few if any resistors were killed or imprisoned.
Monumental architecture has gone with power since the Great Pyramids were built in ancient Egypt. Powerful regimes tend to be brutal, especially where there is no democracy or accountability to the people. In Islam, there is no liberal democracy. Islam does not focus on individual rights but on communal or social rights. So, you could argue that what Saudi Arabia is building aligns with the values they espouse.
There is one more thing to consider. How do the values of non-Muslims fit into the project? One story highlights that view. In April 1954, Robert Oppenheimer – the physicist regarded as "the father of the atomic bomb" explained his willing participation in the atom bomb project. "When you see something technically sweet, you go ahead and do it."
In the same vein of thought, Westerners who work on The Line construction project are as complicit as the Saudis are in the lethal and unethical evictions being carried out. We do know that Oppenheimer carried his project through to completion. He later reflected: "Now I am become Death, destroyer of worlds." Oppenheimer was able to live with his actions. NEOM is not an atomic bomb and will not kill millions of people, but it has carved a line of destruction through a living, breathing community. Those complicit in its design and construction are already destroyers of worlds.
Credit for the NEOM map and architectural rendering go to the NEOM website.