Jeddah | Saudi Arabia’s futuristic NEOM megacity will stretch 170 kilometers and feature two massive glass-clad skyscrapers, according to new plans unveiled by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, which have not dispelled doubts over the project’s financial viability and environmental impact.
Dubbed “The Line,” two massive parallel skyscrapers 500 meters high form the center of the city over the Red Sea, the multi-hundred-billion-dollar flagship project of the kingdom’s de facto ruler, Mohammed bin Salman. Oil to diversify the country’s economy.
With its flying taxis and domestic robots, NEOM has been making a lot of noise since its first announcement in 2017, even as architects and economists question its feasibility.
Initially, NEOM was billed as the regional “Silicon Valley”, a biotechnology and digital center spanning 26,500 square kilometers.
But during an appearance on ‘The Line’ on Monday night, the prince outlined a more ambitious vision, describing a utopian city without cars, the most livable city ‘on the whole planet’.
The idea of rethinking urban life to respond to the “convenience of living and environmental crises” in just 34 square kilometers, he again raised skepticism among some.
“The concept has evolved so much since its initial conception that it is sometimes difficult to determine its direction,” commented Robert Mogilnicki of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
Officials previously cited a population of one million residents in NEOM.
The crown prince has now set a target of 1.2 million residents by 2030 and nine million by 2045, according to him, betting on the population boom needed to make Saudi Arabia an economic power that can compete in all sectors.
Nationally, the goal is to reach 100 million inhabitants by 2040, “about 30 million Saudis and 70 million or so foreigners,” compared with about 34 million residents today, Mohammed bin Salman said.
“This is the main interest of the NEOM structure: increasing the capacity (population, note) of Saudi Arabia (…). And since we’re doing it from scratch, why copy generic cities?”
Just 200 meters wide, according to the “Zero Gravity Urbanism” model, “The Line” must respond to uncontrolled urban sprawl and damage to the environment by superimposing houses, schools and parks.
Residents will be able to access “all of their daily needs” within a five-minute walk, as well as other amenities such as outdoor ski slopes and “high-speed rail with a 20-minute end-to-end ride (from the city),” according to a press release issued Monday.
NEOM is also expected to be governed by its own law, which is being drafted, but Saudi officials have already said they have no plans to lift the kingdom’s alcohol ban.
Find the funds
Another challenge for NEOM: honoring the country’s commitments in terms of environmental protection – without convincing environmentalists – to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060.
According to a promotional video released Monday, the site runs entirely on renewable energy and has a “year-round temperate microclimate with natural ventilation.”
NEOM is well-positioned to benefit from solar and wind power, and the city is poised to host the world’s largest green hydrogen plant, said Torbjörn Soltvedt of consultancy Verisk Maplecroft. “But the viability of NEOM as a whole remains unclear given the project’s unprecedented scale and cost.”
According to Prince Mohammed, the cost of the “first phase”, which runs until 2030, is estimated at 1,200 billion Saudi riyals (about 319 billion dollars).
In addition to government grants, funding is expected to come from the private sector and NEOM’s planned IPO in 2024.
Although the current scenario with rising oil prices is more favorable to the kingdom than during the Covid-19 pandemic, financing remains a potential challenge.
Moreover, Robert Mogilnicki emphasizes that “funding is only one part of the equation.”
“Buying demand is hard, especially when you’re asking people to participate in an experiment about living and working in the future.”