Neom: everything you need to know about Saudi Arabia's $500 billion ‘megacity of the future’

Plans for a new smart city, called The Line, in Neom are part of the 2030 Vision to embrace a new economic era in the kingdom

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Saudi Arabia plans to build a city in the desert unlike anything else on Earth. In plans for the project, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said the 170-kilometre coastal strip in the north-west of the country would be free of cars and streets, with zero carbon emissions.

The smart city will be powered entirely by clean energy, a major step in Saudi Arabia's shift away from an oil-based economy.

The Line is to be built in Neom and will be home to one million people, living in interconnected societies run by artificial intelligence designed to coexist with nature.

Confronting the traffic, pollution and infrastructure challenges that overshadow urban life in conventional cities, this futuristic development will prioritise walkability, clean energy and technology to create a new way of living.

Speaking at the launch of The Line on Sunday, Prince Mohammed emphasised the need to address mounting pressure on urban spaces and find solutions for a rapidly expanding global population.

“By 2050, commute durations will double. By 2050, one billion people will have to relocate due to rising carbon dioxide emissions and sea levels,” he said.

He said that 90 per cent of people breathe polluted air.

"Why should we sacrifice nature for the sake of development? Why should seven million people die every year because of pollution? Why should we lose one million people every year to traffic accidents? And why should we accept wasting years of our lives commuting?" he said.

What is Neom?

First unveiled by Prince Mohammed in 2017, Neom is Saudi Arabia's flagship business and tourism development on the Red Sea coast and a central project in the 2030 Vision outlining the kingdom's plans to diversify the economy.

The $500 billion development will include smart towns and cities, ports and enterprise areas, research centres, sports and entertainment venues and tourist centres.

The development will be spread across 26,500 square kilometres and will comprise several zones, including industrial and logistics areas, all planned for completion in 2025.

There is a plan to establish a network of airports in Neom that will include an international airport. The first, called Neom Bay Airport in the northern region of Sharma, opened last year and conducts regular flights for investors and employees on the Neom project.

Antoni Vives, chief urban development officer at Neom, said the international airport, one of the largest in the world, would be ready before 2030.

Building the business and tech centre is expected to contribute $48bn to the kingdom's gross domestic product and create 380,000 jobs, with construction projected to begin in the first quarter of this year.

What's so special?

Neom is designed to respond to some of the most pressing global challenges facing urban areas and inspire an alternative way of living.

The city will preserve 95 per cent of the natural environment around the site, highlighting mankind's relationship with the natural world.

All energy in Neom will be 100 per cent renewable – from solar, wind and hydrogen-based power generation – ensuring a zero-emission, carbon-positive ecosystem.

Neom will be a regional powerhouse in water production and storage, anchored on water desalination. High-tech interoperable, modular systems will attract water-related research companies and start-ups to drive innovation and lead in all sectors of the water industry.

Neom's water distribution network will be completely connected through an advanced Internet of Water infrastructure to ensure minimal water loss, putting Neom at the forefront of water technology.

"Our game-changing desalination technology is 100 per cent carbon neutral and entirely sustainable. In Neom, we have found a partner who has a strong vision of what a new future looks like in harmony with nature," said David Reavley, chief executive of Solar Water.

The Line project is the first time in 150 years that a major urban development has been designed around people, not roads. Walkability will define life in the city, with all essential daily services, such as schools, medical clinics, leisure centres and green spaces, within a five-minute walk.

High-speed transit will be among the ways residents will be able to travel longer distances, making all areas of Neom accessible within 20 minutes. An urban environment that prioritises walking, cycling and personal electric mobility devices will be enhanced by access to high-speed public transit services connecting all neighbourhoods.

Who is building it?

Development is already under way. Neom chief executive Nazmi Al Nasr said this week that there were plans for "five to six projects for resort development within the city, in parallel with The Line, with some resorts estimated to open after three years".

The effect of the Covid-19 pandemic on the progress of the project has been minimal, he said, but the biggest challenge was to acquire more global and national partnerships.

The urban planning and development of all projects is under way and more details will be announced after the completion of each of the site plans.

Construction of The Line begins in the first quarter of this year. Agreements have been signed with construction companies Aecom and Bechtel to develop an advanced transport infrastructure, making The Line one of the largest and most complex infrastructure projects in the world.

A contract with Saudi Telecom Company was signed last year to provide a 5G network infrastructure that will accelerate Neom's digital ambitions.

Neom also signed a $5bn partnership with Acwa Power and Air Products in the US to develop the world's largest green hydrogen and green ammonia plant, to be operational in 2025.

Solar Water's technology will help Neom work towards one of its aims of revolutionising the process of water desalination, to help solve the problem of access to fresh water in Saudi Arabia.

How do Saudis feel about Neom?

"When I first heard about Neom in 2017 I thought it was the most incredible thing. I couldn't believe Saudi Arabia was going to do this, let alone be the first," said Hamid Al Kazim, a Saudi IT expert living in Riyadh.

Layan Baker, a Saudi wellness expert in Jeddah, said she found the scope of the project inspiring.

"It is the boldest, most ambitious idea to come out of not just the kingdom, but this decade. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has been the torchbearer of his ideas and is leading the country, especially its youth and future generations into a modern era where man and nature can coexist and flourish in harmony," she said.

Rawan Ahmed, a Saudi entrepreneur from Jazan, told The National it was perhaps a surprise to the rest of the world that the kingdom was at the centre of such innovation.

"For us it is a great moment in history, we have never felt this excitement before. It further instils the feeling of national pride all thanks to the vision of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman under the leadership of King Salman."