What is Neom and The Line? All you need to know about Saudi Arabia's $500 billion megacity

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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With plans under way to build Saudi Arabia's smart city Neom, it is set to be a place in the desert unlike anything else on Earth.

Unveiling 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 and have 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 nine million people, who will live in interconnected societies run by artificial intelligence designed to coexist with nature, with excavation on this massive project having now started.

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 Tuesday's Global AI Summit in Riyadh, Neom chief executive Nadhmi Al Nasr said the city would make use of artificial intelligence technology to the fullest. He also confirmed that the planning phase of Neom had been successful and that work was progressing steadily.

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. It is 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. It is planned for completion in 2025.

The plans include a network of airports, including an international one. The first, called Neom Bay Airport in the northern region of Sharma, opened last year and operates regular flights for Neom investors and employees.

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

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

What is so special about it?

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.

Those behind the project say 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 advanced infrastructure. This will 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," said David Reavley, chief executive of Solar Water. "In Neom, we have found a partner who has a strong vision of what a new future looks like in harmony with nature."

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. However, the biggest challenge is to acquire more global and national partnerships.

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

Construction of The Line began 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 2026.

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

What is The Line in Neom?

The Line will have a mirror facade, which will allow even its footprint to “blend with nature”.

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

The Line will be the first city in the world to be powered by renewable energy including wind, solar and hydrogen.

“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 breathed 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.

The Line will also be the world's first zero-gravity vertical city.

“The idea of layering city functions vertically, giving people the possibility of moving seamlessly in three dimensions to access them, is a concept referred to as zero-gravity urbanism,” Prince Mohammed said.

There will be a hyper rail line running through the city to boost travel. This rail line will be powered through a renewable-powered electric system.

Recent drone footage of The Line, released by OT Sky Drone company, has revealed that construction on the mega project has started, with excavators seen digging a wide trench in the desert.

How do Saudis feel about Neom?

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

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," she said. "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."

Rawan Ahmed, a Saudi entrepreneur from the south-west port city of 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," she said. "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.”

When will Neom be completed?

The Crown Prince had said in July that Neom would be partly financed through a flotation expected in 2024.

The city's first phase is set to cost 1.2 trillion riyals ($319bn), half of which will come from the kingdom's sovereign wealth fund, the Public Investment Fund.

The economic zone that is eventually set to house nine million people is expected to have capacity for 450,000 by 2026 and 1.5-2 million by 2030, he said. It will eventually house nine million people by 2045.

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