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Saudi Arabia: ‘The Line’ of Concern or an Ecotopia?

Updated: Jan 23

Thomas Kelly explores the proposed megacity 'The Line’ which promises unprecedented organisation of its population and considers its potential purpose for utopia or state control.


textured sandy desert terrain

Photo by Kunj Parekh


Trapped within the confines of a crystalline metropolis, hemmed in by desolate wastelands on all sides, Yevgeny Zamyatin's dystopian science fiction novel We serves as a stark portrayal of the convergence of monumental urbanism and totalitarian ideology.


In this narrative, the transparent nature of the city becomes a tangible metaphor for the erosion of autonomy and individuality within the all-seeing surveillance state.  


Zamyatin's work has proven eerily prophetic as we witness the unfolding of a real-world counterpart in Saudi Arabia's ambitious megacity, NEOM, often referred to as 'The Line.'


This ambitious endeavour entails the construction of two colossal, mirrored skyscrapers spanning an astounding 170 kilometres across the Arabian desert, giving rise to a distinctive vertical city. With an estimated construction cost of $1 trillion and the capacity to house 9 million residents, this controversial project commenced its construction in July 2023.  

 

The Line aspires to redefine the essence of urban development, presenting a radically innovative model for spatial organisation and infrastructure systems in future smart cities.  According to Rafael Prieto-Curiel, a researcher specialising in cities at the Complexity Science Hub, ‘it embodies the dream of starting from scratch and completely reimagining the concept of a city’. 


Nevertheless, its announcement has evoked a spectrum of reactions, ranging from awe at its scale and commitment to sustainability and liveability to concerns regarding the potential extension of influence by the Saudi state and technology-driven governance, with so-called ‘gigaprojects’ straddling the lines between the creation of new progressive ecologies and image-centric vanity schemes.  

 

The project has stirred concerns regarding an intensification of authoritarian control within a nation marked by a troubling history of human rights abuses, political assassinations, and strict restrictions on press freedoms, prompting journalist Elliot Smith to pose the question: is The Line ‘ushering in the future or a smokescreen for repression?’ 


Did you know?                                                                         The Line will have 265,000 people per km2, four times greater than the most densely populated city on Earth, Manila. - NPJ


The Line: A Cognitive City 

 

While often presented as revolutionary solutions to conventional urban challenges like congestion, overcrowding, and poverty alleviation, these igaprojects can often operate as a disguise concealing their true intentions. Behind their glossy façades lie a common thread of control whether exerted by architects, corporations, states, or an amalgamation of these forces.  

 

Saudi Arabia has strategically established itself as the epicentre of this global architectural phenomenon, showcasing a series of momentous and otherworldly commissions on the horizon as featured at the cityscape conference in Riyadh. These include the Jeddah Central, Murabba, the Red Sea Project, and, the highly anticipated Kingdom Tower, set to surpass the Burj Khalifa as the tallest structure on the planet.


As the name indicates, these developments formed part of the Crown Prince Bin Salman’s 2030 vision to raise the profile of the nation and transform its petrochemical economy into a hub of global tourism.  

 

Touted as the world's first 'cognitive city,' the Line epitomises this approach by organising its residents within a smart superstructure spanning multiple levels, where the digital and physical spheres are inextricably connected. This cognitive city relies on AI and Project NEOS, the world's first operating platform to facilitate data transfers, human mobility, and the entire city's communication infrastructure.


Inspired by the CGI special effects of video game technology, of which the Crown Prince is known to be a fan, the shining environments glimpsed in the promotional materials create the impression of an unreal paradise, a social media, AI-augmented utopia that promises total connectivity.  


“You cannot build a 500-meter-tall building out of low-carbon materials; this would require a phenomenal quantity of steel, glass, and concrete” - Philip Oldfield, Head of School, UNSW Built Environment

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Joseph Bradley, the CEO of Technology and Digital at NEOM, has made bold assurances regarding user data control within The Line. He stated, "[The Line] residents will have full control over their personal data. M3LD is an innovative consent management platform that will enhance trust by putting personal data ownership back in the hands of users."  

However, the question arises: can these promises be genuinely trusted?  

 

These commitments, seemingly beneficial, raise concerns about their potential costs, including privacy infringement, restricted movement, and diminished individual autonomy.


The incorporation of advanced AI and geolocation software capable of tracking residents throughout the city, and collecting data on their spending habits and daily routines, raises valid apprehensions. Moreover, the promise of swift cross-city journeys in under fifteen minutes hints at a controlled and confined living environment, where citizens will be under constant surveillance.  


Environmental Sustainability 

 

One of The Line's noteworthy aspects is its emphasis on environmental sustainability. This claim has faced scrutiny and scepticism. Despite the visuals of lush green foliage and spaces, the sprawling 170-kilometre line could act as a formidable barrier to the surprisingly varied desert species unless substantial investments are made in constructing costly tunnels to facilitate their movement.


Furthermore, doubts persist regarding The Line's claims of ecotopia, especially when considering the substantial material and energy demands of skyscraper construction. 

 

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Philip Oldfield, Head of the Built Environment school at the University of New South Wales, cautioned against overlooking the massive, embodied carbon cost of such construction.


He noted that this cost could overshadow any environmental benefits, stating, “You cannot build a 500-meter-tall building out of low-carbon materials; this would require a phenomenal quantity of steel, glass, and concrete”.  


New Era of Authoritarianism  

 

One cannot ignore the deeply troubling human rights violations already entangled with this megaproject. Last year, the Saudi Arabian government imposed death sentences on Shadli al-Huwaiti, Ibrahim al-Huwaiti, and Ataullah al-Huwaiti, all members of the Huwaitat tribe residing in the project's designated area, even before the project commenced.


In his endeavour to enhance Saudi Arabia's reputation, Crown Prince Mohammed appears willing to resort to various brutalities that seem to be escalating, aiming to implement a new way of life and attract investments from Western democracies. 


These incidents give rise to profound ethical concerns about the architects, corporations, and foreign investors associated with the endeavour. While we must explore innovative approaches to address the impending climate crisis, these troubling events cast a shadow of uncertainty over the future of a project that many worldwide suspect, if it comes to fruition, will symbolise a new era of authoritarianism.

 

Researched by Thomas Kelly / Editor: Ziryan Aziz / Online Editor: Harry Hetherington

 

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