Photo source: neom.com
One more mortgage on our planet
I’ve been researching The Line, the incredible project that Prince Mohammed Bin Salman presented a couple of years ago as he showed his vision of the future of Saudi Arabia. When I decided to write this piece, I had an idea in mind:
The wealthy must be building their little oasis for when climate change finally leaves us all with an unlivable planet.
Now, after quite a bit of reading, I think they just don’t know what the f**k they are doing. I guess they don’t know that you can’t breathe dollars.
If you don’t know about it, here is the official advertisement. As you can see, they have spent a lot of effort on it. It is worth watching, even if you think of it as a science-fiction short film. But bare in mind this is just a simulation. None of it is real.
Video source: neom.com
This Neom project is part of Saudi Arabia’s 2030 vision. In the last few years, the country has developed in many ways. They have given women some of our beloved rights allowing us to drive and paying us equal salaries for equal work. They also have invested in education and technology. It’s as if Prince Mohammed wanted to say: Saudi Arabia is open for international business. Which I hope happens and affects the population in a positive way.
This huge city, planned to accommodate 9 million people, is supposed to be that future. However, according to many engineers, architects and strategists, it’s not realistic.
Do we have the required technology to run it?
Neom promises a transportation system that can travel 170km in twenty minutes. Japan is still building the fastest train we’ve seen, and it doesn’t even qualify for Neom’s requirements. In fact, Japan has trouble getting it to term, and they don’t expect to have it ready until 2027.
Another issue comes when you look at the water supply. The available desalination options are not very efficient, and the alternative designs are in the early stages of development and won’t be a reality by 2030.
The current situation means that Neom would have to release millions of tons of CO2/year into the atmosphere and a bunch of litters of brine water into the sea, messing up the oxygen levels and, therefore, the marine life. So much for their zero-carbon marketing.
And then the structure itself. Five hundred meters tall walls and separated by a 200 meters gap?
Am I the only one who feels claustrophobic only thinking about it?
How is the air going to flow if the outer environment is overheated by mirror glass walls? We don’t want another pandemic in those circumstances. I guess they expect to spend even more energy on air-con than we already do.
They also promised fresh air and plenty of vegetation as if it were an easy task in those conditions, but there is no real plan to get natural sunlight inside the walls.
Ok! You are right! Technology evolves fast.
Maybe they solve all those issues in a revolutionary way that brings abundance to the nation. But that is exactly what it’s being done in many other projects that entail much less risk than The Line.
Does it really preserve the surroundings?
They claim that “95% of land will be preserved for nature”. It is true that due to its narrow design, the soil surface used for building might correspond to only 5% of the land. However, this doesn’t mean that its construction won’t have any repercussions on the natural surroundings.
For instance, the linear concept creates a fragmentation of natural habits. Along the highway, you probably have seen some wildlife corridors placed to allow animal migration. This is an indispensable feature for an environmentally friendly layout, one that The Line lacks from start to finish.
Neom might be located in a dry ecosystem, but in a desert, there are still thousands of species that will be affected by this giant obstacle. The issue is not only about animals being unable to travel; it’s about biodiversity, about inbreeding and genetic mutations that can lead to the deterioration of the species.
And all of that without mentioning the walls that will for sure be a massive trap to birds. Already glassy skyscrapers have shown their devastating influence on them; I cannot imagine 170 km of a continuous mirror barrier.
Photo: Rhea in Talampaya National Park (by Lucía Ferro)
On top of it, we have to think if building a city from scratch can actually be more sustainable than improving what we already have. Right in Saudi Arabia, we have many examples of disproportionately construction works that didn’t lead to anything positive. Much territory was stolen from the sea with the intention of building man-made islands that would function as holiday resorts.
I cannot begin to tell you how terribly it has impacted marine life. If it had at least a reasonable purpose, we could weigh the consequences, but the reality is that very little of the new ground was eventually used at all. It only served one goal shared only by a reduced proportion of the country’s population: to create more capital for those who already have it.
Who is going to live there?
Since a city is a place where large amounts of people live, this is the most relevant question of all.
For a start, the government is pushing people out of their land. Entire tribes have to relocate, God knows where. There has yet to be a plan for their relocation.
Are they going to get a nice spot in the future Neom?
And in that case, is it fair to force someone to live in a totally different way than they’ve always had?
In their marketing campaign, they insist that old cities are designed around industries and that The line is tailored to prioritize humans over anything else. Correct me if I am wrong, but it doesn’t look like they have put much thought into their fellow countryman.
In a sense, it has an explanation: the project is expected to cost over 1$ trillion! The government can’t afford it, so they are left with only one option. They need investors, rich people who want a part in it, maybe an apartment in a promising exotic town in which they can relax for a couple of weeks, oblivious to the reality of the world. A world in which most people can’t afford a house and struggle to pay rent. I don’t know nor understand their plan.
What I do know is that they certainly haven’t found anyone to inhabit Dubai’s man-made islands.
What is Price Mohammed bin Salman’s political agenda?
After questioning and refuting their architectural and environmental arguments, I can’t seem to find a good reason to initiate the project as it is, other than attention.
Some have mentioned the Prince’s aspirations of building the modern pyramid of Giza, something to leave behind that will keep his name in the history books. I think that even though it is a plausible idea, there has to be something else underneath.
I do agree with the fact that this endeavour is attracting quite some attention and that it is an efficient way of marketing the country. In the end, we are mentioning the nation’s name more often than we would otherwise. But it seems rather excessive to give the go-ahead to such an expensive project without any special purpose in mind.
What kind of economic activities will there be?
One of the most frequent complaints about its feasibility is that in order to get people to go and live there, there has to be some sort of economic activity going on.
Given that we are talking about a modular city in the middle of the desert, we are facing a lack of interest and motivation for the initial residents. The reason why technological cities grow none stop is that companies want to be where other companies are. In other words, they seek an already existent business fabric that enables them to improve production.
I understand this is what they are hoping for, but they are not giving any details about how they plan to achieve it.
In order to make it more appealing, it looks like they want to create Neom as a “city-state”, that is to say, a city with its own laws and tax system. They are talking about a free trade zone. In that case, people wouldn’t live in the city; they would come for a few days for business and then go. That is why there put a lot of emphasis on the recent airport build in the area.
Following this possibility, the city will be totally independent of Saudi Arabia’s government, though it would still be part of the country, and it would have certain financial advantages for those internationals that want to do business. All of it without having to adapt to the Arabic culture while quite likely being served by lower-class Saudis.
It sounds very much like a tax haven, and I doubt very much that the average population of the country will gain much from it. Why do they have to leave their culture behind if we are talking about their future?
Where are the locals who disagree?
Around the time of Neom’s introduction to the world, Jamal Khashoggi, a journalist who dared to criticize the development of this city, disappeared and, later, he was found dead.
Different countries investigated the matter getting to the conclusion that the murder must have been ordered by the Prince. As often happens in these cases, it is difficult to find justice further than those who directly committed the crime. Nevertheless, it points out how much this project meant for Saudi Arabia’s royalty and how little is still the freedom of speech for those who disagree with their power.
Why does he trust the untrustworthy?
Up until this point, even if most aspects of the project were quite fishy, I was ready to give them the benefit of the doubt. But then I came across their experts. On their official website, they show who is in charge of management and development.
Perhaps I am too naive, but I was expecting them to put this project into their own people’s hands. They talked so much about their country’s future that I thought the logical thing to do was to rely on them, Saudis who know the land and understand the needs of their own population.
However, what I found were ex-pats from America or even Australia. And, to my surprise, a Spanish Chief Urban Planning Officer. I am Spanish myself, so when I saw his name (Antoni Vives) I was very intrigued.
The site provided a small background about them in which it was mentioned he was the Former Deputy of Barcelona. Then, my scepticism pushed me to research his profile to satisfy my curiosity and also to understand a bit more about the spirit of this design.
His name is very well known in the Catalonian Region, but not for good reasons. Only last year, he was sentenced to two years in prison for corruption, later reduced to six months of community service. During his time in Barcelona’s city council, Antoni Vives defrauded the sum of 155.067 euros. He has also been linked to at least another case of corruption that is currently under investigation in the courts.
Do you think this is the right man for the job?
I don’t know what the Prince’s intentions with the Neom project are, but I do know he is taking some high risks here. If he plays well his cards he might make some pocket money for himself but, what’s a prince without his kingdom?
During an interview with Aljazeera, Journalist Jamal Khashoggi, in relationship to the 1$ trillion costs of the project, said:
“What if it goes wrong? It could bankrupt the country! And no one is allowed to criticise it.”
Price Mohammed Bin Salman has trusted the future of his nation to very unreliable businessmen who won’t blink an eye if they see the opportunity to fill their pockets with dirty money and fly away to the next county.
The Prince might not lose his money, but he might lose his country. And who is going to lose the most are the Saudis.
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