Saudi Arabia’s trillion-dollar straight line city risks coming off the rails

“Our vertical city is starting to take shape,” the Neom corporation announced in a new video that showed an army of trucks and excavators hauling sand from the Saudi desert to lay the foundations for the world’s grandest construction project, the trillion-dollar experiment known as The Line.

Work has accelerated in recent months on Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s (MBS) vision for a 170km-long linear city just 200 metres wide sandwiched between two horizontal skyscrapers, intended to be a dazzling showcase of urban innovation and a new wonder of the world the Saudi ruler has compared to Egypt’s pyramids.

The Line is the centrepiece of the kingdom’s Vision 2030 blueprint for economic and technological transformation, for which megaprojects covering tourism, real estate, sports, and transport are in various stages of assembly across the country.

But as the shape of an outline begins to emerge at the vast site by the Red Sea, and lucrative contracts draw elite architects and consultants from around the world, The Line is at risk of coming off the rails due to spiralling costs, reluctant investors, design difficulties, and concern over alleged human rights abuses.

The kingdom has quietly scaled back its ambitions for the first phase of construction, with sources involved with the project claiming that The Line will have fewer than 300,000 residents by 2030, down from MBS’s plan for at least 1.5 million.

Just 2.4km of the city will be built by this date, project sources said. The Line is now expected to cost $2trn, according to analysts and sources close to the project – a massive increase on original estimates of $500bn for the whole Neom development zone, which includes plans for a floating hotel and foldable village.

The futuristic Saudi city aims to feature two massive, mirror-encased skyscrapers that extend over 170km of desert and mountain terrain (Photo: Neom/AFP)

Sources involved with the project suggest a chaotic and unwieldy project at the mercy of the crown prince’s whims. Work was delayed by several months when the de facto Saudi ruler requested that one end be moved to an area he preferred, project sources told The Wall Street Journal. Another lengthy delay reportedly came when excavation teams dumped tons of sand on the location of a planned waterway.

MBS himself recently said that he had instructed architects to reduce the width of The Line from 2km to 200 metres.

Living in The Line sounds like it would be daunting and logistically tough,” says Tom Ravenscroft, editor of architecture and design journal Dezeen. “The raw distances mean that work and friends could be extremely far apart. This city feels like it is designed for a very particular demographic – young people with digital jobs – and excludes any proposition for families and elderly people.

“Radial cities developed organically all over the world for a reason – they make sense with all points located close to each other. It is hard to see any real logistical benefits of a linear city.”

The Line has been billed as a model of sustainability, powered by green energies, but analysts have raised concerns about the carbon costs involved with a decades-long construction process in the Saudi desert. A Dezeen report highlighted that the vast, mirrored facades would pose a “substantial risk to migratory species”.

Project representatives remain bullish. “The intended scale is continuing as planned. There is no change in scale,” said Saudi economy minister Faisal al-Ibrahim, adding: “It is a long-term project that’s modular in design.”

Chief operating officer Giles Pendleton wrote last week, “The masterplan for The Line remains at 170km”, claiming a “record month” for excavation.

(FILES) This file handout photo provided by Saudi Arabia's NEOM on July 26, 2022 shows the design plan for the 500-metre tall parallel structures, known collectively as The Line, in the heart of the Red Sea megacity NEOM. - Saudi Arabia was chosen to host the 2029 Asian Winter Games at a $500 billion futuristic megacity in the desert that planners say will feature a year-round winter sports complex. The Saudi bid was
Analysts have raised concerns over the environmental cost of the vast project (Photo: Neom/AFP)

But independent analysts are unconvinced that the full scale of the project will be realised.

“Progress has been limited,” says Dr Andreas Krieg, a Gulf specialist at the Institute of Middle Eastern Studies at King’s College London. “People who have visited Neom have described it as small pockets of development here and there but nothing really integrated.

“They are looking at the first phase … which is less than 2 per cent, and even that is extremely ambitious.

“I don’t think the rest of it will come together. How long would it take to build?”

Even a state as wealthy as Saudi Arabia could struggle to foot the bill for its gigaprojects, and the regime has struggled to secure private investment.

“There was an ambition to massively increase foreign direct investment into Saudi Arabia,” says Torbjorn Soltvedt, associate director and Middle East analyst at risk consultancy firm Maplecroft, noting that the crown prince had sought international investors in Neom. “They were looking at above 5 per cent of GDP by 2021, and they are lagging far behind that. Last year it was about 1 per cent.”

The majority of the funding so far has been raised by the government through domestic sources, including the kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund, Public Investment Fund, Saudi banks, and the dividends of leading companies such as the world’s largest oil firm, Aramco.

The Neom corporation did not respond to a request for comment on costs.

A handout picture provided by Saudi's NEOM on July 26, 2022 shows the design plan for the 500-metre tall parallel structures, known collectively as The Line, in the heart of the Red Sea megacity NEOM. - A futuristic megacity in Saudi Arabia will feature two massive, mirror-encased skyscrapers that extend over 170 kilometres of desert and mountain terrain, ultimately housing nine million people, the kingdom's de facto ruler has announced. (Photo by NEOM / AFP) / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT
Just 2.4km of the structure is scheduled to be complete by 2030 (Photo: Neom/AFP)

Foreign investment has been deterred partly by concerns about the “feasibility” of the ambitious scheme, says Mr Soltvedt. But some are also put off by ethical concerns around issues such as the kingdom’s human rights record and the killing of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which a US assessment concluded was signed off by the crown prince.

“Foreign investors want to see more evidence of change before they really commit to long-term investment in Saudi Arabia,” he said. “They are sitting on the fence a little bit, and this project really needs foreign direct investment to make it work, which is why they are a bit stuck at the moment.”

Reputational issues resurfaced again with a recent BBC report alleging that Saudi authorities permitted the use of lethal force to clear rural communities from land designated for The Line, based on testimony from Saudi security officials.

One member of the Huwaitat tribe, Abdul Rahim al-Huwaiti, was killed resisting eviction in 2020. Saudi authorities say he fired at officers charged with clearing the area.

Riyadh claims that about 6,000 residents have been moved for the project. British-Saudi human rights group Alqst claims the figure is higher and claims that dozens have been arrested for resisting eviction, with five on death row.

But Mr Ravenscroft believes that with the wealth and power behind the project it could still be realised in some form.

“Anything is possible with enough money,” he said. “The real question is whether this building is actually needed or is just a vanity project – its success, or failure, seems entirely connected to MBS’s will to complete it.

“Given how personally attached he is to the project, I imagine it will be built in a form that can be claimed to be ‘complete’, although I would be very surprised if that looks anything like the current renders.”

The project serves a strategic purpose, suggests Dr Krieg, developing a remote area on the Red Sea that could allow Riyadh to forge new connections with the region and beyond, potentially including Israel if US-led negotiations over a normalisation deal are successful.

The development also serves as an advertisement for the Kingdom and its grand ambition, he believes.

“These megaprojects are basically a representation of progress in Saudi Arabia and whether they realise it or not doesn’t really matter,” said Dr Krieg.

“It creates a buzz in the global discourse, attracts interest from global companies, and puts Saudi Arabia on the map.”