The first thing to understand about the Line, the city that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman hopes to conjure up in the desert along the Red Sea, is that it is in fact a line: a 100-mile linear metropolis of 9 million souls envisioned as a monument of human civilization on par with the Pyramids.
On the surface, the comparison checks out: Like a pyramid, a line is a shape. This Line is in a planned desert community called Neom, mashing together the Greek word for “new” with an “M” for the prince’s given name. It’s larger than anything around—the length of Long Island and the height of the Empire State Building, containing the population of New York City. When future explorers find its dulled edges jutting up from the carbon-heated sea, they will wonder what the hell it was all about.
So why does this shimmering desert arcology, whose latest designs were unveiled last week, feel so familiar? Largely because I have been gorging myself on the promotional copy on Neom.com, a stew of buzzwords so thick it may take me a while to recover my capacity for original thought. The Line, the kingdom tells us, is bringing value to the world through work-life balance, legacy-free urbanism, enhanced livability, leisure and sports, vertical living, next-gen architecture, walkable communities, and environmental solutions. Am I in a Martian colony or in Hudson Yards?
This uncanny blend of eye-catching renderings and mind-numbing jargon permeates every aspect of the project. Neom is bin Salman’s effort to create a city from scratch. It includes a floating cargo port, Oxagon, with an uncertain number of sides, and a ski community built around a manmade lake, called Trojena. The renderings are straight out of a Marvel movie, and no surprise there: The crown prince is a fan. According to Vivian Nereim’s delightful feature in BusinessWeek about the project, he’s hired Hollywood designers and encouraged them to adopt a “cyberpunk” aesthetic. Here too, the language does not quite measure up to the imagery: Trojena, which sounds like an erectile dysfunction medicine, will be made up of six districts, called Gateway, Discover, Valley, Explore, Relax, and Fun.
And then there is the Line, which packs several voguish tenets of contemporary urbanism—car-free! Five-minute city!—into a colossal superstructure that the world’s richest NUMTOT calls “zero-gravity urbanism.” It looks to have all the walkable charm of a new airport, and the scale will pose challenges inside and out. If similarly sized cities are any guide, moving the Line’s millions every day could require a hundred subway lines, all running on the same axis. In a rendering released by Neom, the Line looms ethereal over a Red Sea bay. Not pictured: Several migratory bird species, unconscious and extinct, lying at the base of its mirrored walls.
You can understand the temptation of the Line. Cities initially developed as circles for two reasons. First, people wanted to be as close as possible to the center. Second, a circle encloses the maximum amount of territory with a minimum amount of fortification. But trains, highways, and elevators have opened up possibilities for linear development that makes more efficient use of space. Le Corbusier drew up his Plan Obus for Algiers, an elevated highway built atop apartment housing for 180,000 people. (Never built.) The Italian firm Superstudio developed a similar concept in the ’60s as a critique of just that kind of modernism (Also never built, but Rome did actually construct a kilometerlong housing project, Corviale.) After the Line was unveiled early last year, Superstudio’s Gian Piero Frassinelli told the New York Times: “seeing the dystopias of your own imagination being created is not the best thing you could wish for.”
In another way, too, Bin Salman’s vision is rooted in history. What ruler has not dreamed of building his own city on a hill? Peter the Great built St. Petersburg; Juscelino Kubitschek built Brasilia. Such projects have often been motivated by a kind of environmental determinism—the idea that human flourishing, or at least fluid traffic, can be unlocked through better design. The jury’s out on that, but the dream never dies. Just 300 miles west of Neom, Egypt is exporting its central government to a New Administrative Capital near Cairo*.
A related instinct is the idea that a new city can be built from scratch if it only has the proper legal foundation. You see this idea crop up everywhere from medieval city-states to tax havens to the recent “charter cities” movement, whose proponents believe a clean slate, free of the corrupt, meddlesome, money-hungry state, can not just foster a prosperous society—it can draw entrepreneurial people from all over the world. This is part of the Neom vision too, though the details are a little fuzzy. Neom is all about a “legacy-free” society with a “competitive legal framework,” which is supposed to sound like a favorable comparison to the West when it comes to, say, experimental medical research. Live, work, operate!
Less clear is how Neom relates to Saudi Arabia. The $500 billion project promises 100 percent renewable energy, but it will live or die on the price of oil and the kingdom’s ability to sell it for decades to come. How does a country that requires women to cover their knees and shoulders expect to “evolve into the sustainable-fashion capital of the world,” as Neom’s material suggests? How does a country where homosexuality can be punished by death and dissidents imprisoned at random expect to build a “vibrant city that boosts social integration, social values and cultural promotion”? How does a country that recently executed 81 people in one day expect to draw the “best and the brightest” to a “place of unparalleled social and economic experimentation”?
Well, one answer to these questions is obvious: It won’t. There will be no Trajena, no Oxagon, no soccer stadium a thousand feet above the desert, no high-speed trains and high-speed elevators, no Zero Gravity Urbanism. The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces, the solemn temples, the great Line itself—all this shall dissolve, and leave not a rendering behind.
But here’s the weirdest part: All this mumbo jumbo, which sounds as if you’d asked an A.I. to produce a manifesto for a new civilization on a diet of Sand Hill Road slide decks and New York Times real estate advertisements, is associated with actual people! Their testimonies are indistinguishable from the Neom promo copy. Neom’s managing director for media, entertainment, culture & fashion, a former movie executive named Wayne Borg, says, “Neom is going to make a tremendous impact on our sector by way of redefining how many parts of the media industry operate, from sustainability to how we produce content, through digital terms, how we collaborate, and how we create a truly sustainable industry.” This wasn’t some sputtering response delivered under pressure at the hands of an attacking journalist—this is their promotional video!
Paul Marshall, Neom’s chief environmental officer, says, “Nature still reigns supreme in a place like Neom.” Paul, have you looked out the window lately?
Joseph Bradley, the head of technology at Neom, says, “NEOM is not about building a smart city, it is about building the first cognitive city, where world-class technology is fueled with data and intelligence to interact seamlessly with its population.” Joseph, blink twice if you’re sitting in a boardroom chair that can drop you into a shark tank at the push of a button.
When the crown prince first announced the project in 2017, he got a whole host of influential people on board, including former U.S. Department of Energy head Ernest Moniz and Sir Norman Foster, the acclaimed British architect. But the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 scared off those bold-faced names. According to reporting in Bloomberg and the Wall Street Journal, life at Neom isn’t easy: It’s a cultlike workplace that requires employees to live in a tiny desert town of identical houses with fellow Neomites. Then again, according to those reports, salaries for foreign executives can approach a million dollars a year. Jamal who?
So far, all this effort has produced little on the ground besides the construction of an employee village and the eviction of indigenous residents. The current executive team seems a bit threadbare. Jan Paterson, Neom’s head of sports, who told Bloomberg she hopes her grandchildren can swim to school in Neom’s commuter canals, is also the head of health, well-being, and biotech, responsible for “spearhead[ing] genetics as the future of personalized care.” Tall order!
But there’s been no skimping on the contracts in design, construction, and consulting. (Contractors, presumably, do not have to live in Neom.) The Line is the work of Morphosis, founded by Pritzker winner Thom Mayne, and Neom has attracted other heavyweights such as contracting giant WSP Global, Boston Consulting Group, and, of course, McKinsey, which never saw a paycheck it didn’t like. Comparatively speaking, these firms make the tormented pro-golf circuit, divided between traditional arrangements and a lucrative new Saudi competition, look positively righteous.
The result of this hiring dichotomy is that the project is teeming with dazzling visuals, top-notch web design, and high-quality stock photography. But as in the comic book and sci-fi movies beloved by its millennial boss, no amount of optic-nerve stimulation can make up for dialogue and plot composed of nonstop cliches. The end result of Neom is probably closer to a bunch of industrial facilities, a Saudi-funded research university, and some multinational companies encouraged to set up their satellite offices.
Bin Salman finds himself confronting a classic strongman’s dilemma: He has gotten the team he deserves, a staff that’s too well-paid to give it to him straight. Here’s a free tip: If you want people to be able to walk places, the third dimension is your friend.
*Correction, August 2, 2022: This article initially stated that Cairo is east of Neom; it is west.