The next failed Smart City: Saudi Arabia's "The Line"

Saudi Arabia just presented it’s new megaproject: “THE LINE”, a linear development of smart cities connected without cars, is, according to the designboom site on 14.01.2021, “a 170 kilometer (106 mile) belt of communities connected without the need for cars or roads. described as ‘a revolution in urban living’, the project has been put forward as a blueprint for how people can co-exist in harmony with the planet. THE LINE will be completely free of cars and streets, with residents given access to nature and all of their daily needs within a walking distance of five minutes. furthermore, the team behind the project says that the linear development of hyper-connected AI-enabled communities will be powered by 100% clean energy.” (Designboom)

The branding of the project is filled with cliché videos and images of happy, glamorous people smartly dressed in clean clothes while strolling around nature and mountains (remember it’s mostly hot arid burning desert in Saudi Arabia, that is why you see no trees!), with big promises of an urban revolution of smart ecological cities with no traffic and all within a 5 min walk.

It reminds me of the idea of Dallas, Texas: a highway into the desert with people along the highway, an endless series of pop-up self-contained "communities". Of course car-centric, but the CBD and cultural centre remained in the city centre, so these “communities” became just bedrooms in the desert. And this is what will happen at Neom. It will not be a living lab as they describe it in their website, it will be another failed attempt of fast tracked city making as it was the Masdar City in Abu Dhabi.

I have lived and worked in Oman and been in the Middle East many times. There are countless of these projects promising new living landscapes, while some do become trendy "instagram locations" for some years, most of these turn into badly maintained dormitories while the cultural rich life of any city, is fermented, as usual, where it has grown organically over time, not through some Corbusier alike mega project of highway layers or tunnels.

The real motivation for these projects are not living labs or altruistic urban experiments for a better world, these are ways to absorb the capitalism surplus, in the west, or in the middle east, it is also to make the royal family happy. Power requires a network of happy rich people to hold the master up high, this is done by distributing governmental positions or assets to the family. Such projects move a great deal of money and contracts that these families benefit the most. It looks good too for the government as it pretends to move into an arena of sustainability and innovation and it keeps consumption going.

Why such a long line into the mountains? Why such an orientation? Why the maps' borders align not to any known regional maps?

(overlay done of the provided map with google earth)

The state oil giant Saudi Arabian Oil Co., or Aramco, is going to drill 7 gas exploration wells in the Tabuk Province (see rigzone). Also there, in that same northwestern area of Saudi Arabia, a new massive gas plant is rising: Midyan (see aramco). Ok that makes sense, there is business ongoing, but why is such a line going over mountains that reach 1000 meters height? Why not go into more populated areas? Is this a new pipeline disguised as an ecological smart city?

If you visit the official site, one can read that this will be the “supply chain for the rest of saudi arabia and beyond…”. “THE LINE is located in NEOM, linking the coast of the Red Sea with the mountains and upper valleys of the north-west of Saudi Arabia. The location is at the crossroads of the world, making it a natural choice for a global innovation hub. More than 40% of the global population will be able to reach NEOM’s breathtaking terrain in less than a four-hour flight, while 13% of the world’s trade already flows through the Red Sea.

The more I read, even from business insider articles I see no clear justification for such a long line all the way into the mountains, when 10 to 20 km of such a "pipe" line would have sufficed.

Who pays the bill is the environment of course, Middle East countries import sand from countries like Australia to produce cement. That's right, because desert sand, it’s grains, are too smooth and fine to be bonded together for the making of concrete. Let alone water, “The Line” is not following any natural line of water, a river or underground water supply, it might just be a nice looking line for a an overblown marketing plan or maybe a line to integrate a speed rail unable to make curves, maybe for the overhyped hyperloop which has not yet been tested to make curves!

If you hear anyone in a smart suit talking of a smart city ecological project, run, run away fast from that proposal if you care for communities and for the environment. "The Line" will be another smart city ruin in some 100 years or less, great for photography and apocalyptical movie sets.

Pedro Aibéo


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