The ambition behind Saudi Arabia's Neom matters more than ever

The development of The Line, a new eco city, shows that nations in the Gulf are keeping their eyes fixed on the future, even in the middle of a pandemic

A handout picture provided by the Saudi Royal Palace on January 10, 2021, shows Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman launching 'The Line', a green city that can accomodate about one million people, at NEOM, an area in the north-west of the kingdom currently under development . Saudi Arabia, the world's largest exporter of crude oil, announced today the launch of the green city with "zero cars, zero roads, zero CO2 emissions".
NEOM is on the list of the many mega-projects underway, intended to diversify the economy of Saudi Arabia which depends very largely on the export of oil. 

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Cities reveal a great deal about humanity's vision for its civilisation. Today, some of the most aspirational urban projects on the planet are taking place in the Gulf, highlighting a sense of ambition in the region that adheres even as the world grapples with the challenges of a pandemic and its economic fallout.

Yesterday, Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammed bin Salman, announced plans for The Line, a city 170 kilometres long, as part of the Neom megaproject, a primary pillar of the country's Vision 2030. While this is a Saudi project, it fits into a broader, global framework of urbanism that looks to the future.

Environmental protection is central to the new city. In a video announcing The Line, Prince Mohammed said the initiative would produce no emissions and contain no vehicles. This is a remarkable goal in a country that holds more than 17 per cent of the globe's proven oil reserves. Instead, the project's architects propose, residents will never have to travel more than five minutes on foot to access services in their local area. To travel longer distances, the journey from one end of the 170km city to the other could take a mere 20 minutes.

Saudi policymakers are linking these environmental goals to the quality of life of its future residents. The project aims to eradicate commuting. The effects of this cannot be overstated. In 2014, it was estimated Americans, for example, spent a collective 30 billion hours commuting. Prince Mohammed has also committed to a city free of air pollution. According to the World Health Organisation, 90 per cent of people are affected by pollution's impact on physical and mental wellbeing. To eliminate it altogether would be a unique step in the history of cities since the Industrial Revolution.

A man stands on top of a sand dune during the 6th Stage of the Dakar Rally 2021 between Buraydah and Hail, in Saudi Arabia, on January 8, 2021.  / AFP / FRANCK FIFE
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The project aims to eradicate commuting

Developers will also preserve 95 per cent of the surrounding natural landscape, driving innovation without losing sight of the region's beauty and all of the positive effects nature has on people's happiness and sense of identity.

The Line, and Neom more broadly, are the latest and grandest designs in a larger urban development boom that has swept the Gulf since the start of this millennium. Two decades ago, few would have predicted with confidence just how successful so many of these projects have become. Some of the most ambitious, such as Dubai's international financial district, DIFC, are now thriving, global centres.

These successes show what can be achieved in the sphere of development in the Middle East, even under the pressures of a global pandemic. Projects on such a scale, wherever they take place in the world, will encounter challenges. But the spirit of ambition and confidence are important in aspirational projects that also deliver results in economic growth and societal development. It also shows the world the direction a country is travelling. In Saudi Arabia, Neom and The Line show the world the nation is seeking a diverse vision fit for the future.