Beneath Saudi officials’ tough talk on the Regional Headquarters Program lies a strong desire for constructive engagement with top global firms and attracting greater inflows of foreign investment.
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The Arabian Peninsula is no stranger to introducing spectacular projects to its urban landscapes. Its cities are filled with forward-looking structures that seek to pave the way for a progressive future. And yet, in some instances, the premise of these ventures is not fully realized, and many visions remain incomplete. However, they may still hold promising potential, as with recent developments in Saudi Arabia.
In 2017 the kingdom announced the development of a new city, Neom, located in the northwestern region of Tabuk, overlooking the Red Sea. Neom is a combination of two words, the Greek “neo” and the Arabic word for future “mustaqbal.” The total area of the project is estimated at 10,000 square miles. At the time of its launch, not much was known in terms of specific details. However, official releases – picked up at length by the international media – indicated that this would be a city built “from scratch” and that it would be “bigger than Dubai and have more robots than humans.” Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman declared in an interview that, “Everything will have a link with artificial intelligence, with the Internet of Things – everything.” Such ambitions however come at a cost, which has been estimated at $500 billion according to the Wall Street Journal article “A Prince’s $500 Billion Desert Dream: Flying Cars, Robot Dinosaurs and a Giant Artificial Moon.”
There were no visualizations or diagrams explaining how such a vision would materialize in this barren stretch of land. However, that recently changed. In January, the crown prince introduced “The Line”– an over 100-mile-long linear city, depicted as a “Saudi blueprint for the global future of urban living.” Situated at the center of Neom, The Line is planned as a new kind of city seeking to attract residents from all over the globe. Seemingly divorced from its surrounding context, it targets a global audience by using catchy constructs such as “walkability,” “zero carbon,” and “smart city.” The official website describes it as “a revolution in urban living.”
International media reactions have been largely dismissive and, in some instances, quite hostile. Of particular note is a New York Times article that claims to uncover a “Dark Reality Behind Saudi Arabia’s Utopian Dreams.” In this article, the concept of The Line is primarily seen through the lens of geopolitical events and regional upheaval and becomes a broader vehicle to direct criticism at the kingdom and its policies. Other observers have pointed out that The Line will result in the displacement of thousands of inhabitants who were already living in the area, namely members of the Huwaitat tribe. However, a Neom advisory board member said that displaced members of the tribe would be compensated. Such assurances seem designed to deflect active resistance directed at the development, with reports of one protester being killed in 2020. In addition, critics have suggested that the city constitutes a “surveillance nightmare,” since it aims to exert an unprecedented amount of control over its future inhabitants by harvesting their personal data.
Such criticisms and drawbacks notwithstanding, is the planned development of Neom and The Line entirely without merit? Is there any value to be gained from proposing such futuristic visions? And, perhaps more relevant, will Neom and The Line ever be built and this vision realized? Certainly, examining the history of previous projects is not particularly assuring. During the rule of former King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz (2005-15) six economic cities were planned. Some were delayed, while others were never executed, or their scope and mandate were significantly reduced. In 2005 the King Abdullah Economic City near Jeddah was launched. Then three more integrated economic cities were planned in 2006 in Hail, Madinah, and Jazan. In 2007 similar ventures were proposed for Tabuk and the kingdom’s eastern region. The proposed area of Hail’s economic city has been reduced by more than 85% and the whole plan has been revised. According to its director, the original expectations and goals for the project were unrealistic. The first phase of the King Abdullah Economic City was completed in 2010, and as of 2015, only 15% of the city had been developed. It is not clear if this ambitious city will ever be completed according to the original vision.
Rather than focusing on whether these cities have been built or not, it might be more useful to explore the extent to which they follow a tradition of utopian visions in architecture and urbanism. As far back as the 18th century, French architect Claude-Nicolas Ledoux planned an ideal city centered around a saltworks factory, which was the only structure that was actually completed. In the 19th century, British urban planner Ebenezer Howard proposed an urban concept with a cluster of garden cities configured as satellites around a central core. This came to be known as the “garden city movement,” and it proved to be highly influential. During the course of the 20th century, two proposals were perhaps forerunners for The Line: American architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s plans for Broadacre City and Dynapolis by Greek planner Constantinos Doxiadis. Broadacre City, introduced in 1932, was envisioned as a utopian, libertarian community, extending endlessly along a grid, with low-rise houses and a mile-tall skyscraper for those seeking high-density living. The city was never built, although its influence is apparent in the endless tracts of suburbia across the United States. Dynapolis, a vision for the “City of the Future” as described by Doxiadis in the early 1950s, was a planned urban settlement extending along a central spine. Echoes of this concept are visible in the planning of Riyadh, which was carried out by the Greek planner in the 1960s.
While neither of these urban visions were executed or built according to plan, they are significant because many of their elements and components found their way into contemporary urban planning, and they became a mainstay of modernist urban visions. This is not just evident in the newly planned cities of the Arabian Peninsula; these visions have influenced urban development across the word. Brazilia, capital of Brazil, is a particularly poignant example. Planned in the 1950s, it reflects an urbanity that is predicated on the movement of cars, seeking to eliminate any kind of street life, and embodying a seemingly endless extension of a repetitive grid. And yet it continues to inspire architecture aficionados and has been subject to extensive research and analysis.
In many respects, The Line is a continuation of these futuristic and utopian visions. Envisioned as a city with no cars or even streets, it aims to have zero net carbon emissions. The city is planned to be situated alongside a 106-mile belt of “hyperconnected” communities stretching from the mountains of northwest Saudi Arabia to the Red Sea. Significantly, it is laid in three layers: The surface is dedicated to pedestrians, while two subterranean layers are used for transportation and infrastructure. Furthermore, instead of having a continuously expanding urban landscape, the development is arranged in “clusters,” aggregated along a central spine. And in a nod to recent developments in urbanism, developers point out that schools, shops, and other necessities will all be within a 15-minute walk. Achieving such a vision would be an important contribution to urbanism. However, according to latest reports, Neom has been mired in delays and “hit by an exodus of employees” some of whom have suggested that they are skeptical the plans are feasible. Moreover, some Saudi officials have suggested that the more than $1 billion that has been spent to develop initial infrastructure, “could have been put to better use elsewhere.” And yet the overall execution of the project continues unabated. There is even a proposal to construct a massive skyscraper extending 1,600 feet tall.
Regardless of whether The Line comes to fruition, the most important and significant aspect of the project may be its promotion of a new vision of urban living. It has elements of Carlos Moreno’s idea for a “15-minute” city, whereby daily urban necessities are within a 15-minute reach on foot or by bike. Work, home, shops, entertainment, education, and health care are all easily accessible, thus cutting down unnecessary journeys. Furthermore, such a vision of urbanism suggests a new relationship between citizens and the rhythm of life in cities. The Line, by focusing on the now fashionable discourse of walkability and the abolition of cars from city streets, as well as the extensive use of digital technologies, echoes and amplifies these ideas. Indeed, the development may offer useful lessons for urbanism in the 21st century.
It is natural for projects to change based on varying circumstances. And it is most likely that The Line will evolve further. However, even if it is never fully completed, the presentation of such an idea, with its boldness and innovative adaptation of prevailing urban concepts, suggests its promising potential. It follows in the footsteps of other futuristic visions that have been an integral part of urban development over the last few decades. It needs to be examined and assessed based on urban and architectural merits, rather than exclusively situated within a specific sociopolitical context. And yet that should not prevent critics from pointing out some of the negative implications that could result from such lavish visions. Ideally, these urban utopias should not draw away from existing resources or subject existing cities to neglect. Jeddah suffers from an aging infrastructure, and Riyadh needs a focus on some of its deteriorating neighborhoods. Efforts should be directed toward improving these areas. However, while much attention is geared toward megaprojects, considerable efforts are also being dedicated to promoting more intimate forms of urbanism. In Riyadh, there is an extensive public infrastructure program as well as an active humanization initiative placing the well-being of residents ahead of financial profits. More recent efforts aim at humanizing residential neighborhoods. Such an approach allows for a vision of a future in which the spectacular and the everyday can co-exist. They are not necessarily mutually exclusive.
is a non-resident fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington and an adjunct professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation. He previously served as a visiting scholar at AGSIW and is the author of “Temporary Cities: Resisting Transience in Arabia” (Routledge, 2019).
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