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Saudi Arabia’s Sci-Fi Megacity in the Desert Isn’t Going Well

In World
April 26, 2024

Over the last several years, Saudi Arabia has been working on a massive infrastructure project that its leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (or MBS) hopes will transform the Kingdom and its relationship with the outside world. The Neom project is a series of developments that are currently under construction in the nation’s Tabuk region. Saudi leaders hope the project will attract foreign visitors while also helping to modernize the country through innovative technological development and applications.

Chief among the development projects associated with Neom is The Line, a proposed 105-mile-long city that will run along the coast of the Dead Sea. The city, which developers had initially projected could house as many as 9 million people by the year 2030, is currently under construction. Ground was officially broken on the project two years ago, and ever since then, the Saudis have been racing to erect their massive metropolis, which is projected to cost as much as $500 billion.

The designs for this city are intense, enormous, and seem almost impossible to achieve. The Line itself is expected to be elevated above the desert at a height taller than the Empire State Building. At the same time, the entire length of this construction will be supported by a gigantic mirrored facade that will stretch its entire length. The city is also supposed to have no cars or streets, instead relying on a comprehensive rail system, so that residents may live in an environmentally friendly environment.

“The designs revealed today for the city’s vertically layered communities will challenge the traditional flat, horizontal cities and create a model for nature preservation and enhanced human livability,” Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said in 2022 when the project was originally announced.

While developers have said they hope much of the Neom project will be completed by 2039, lately, things haven’t been going so smoothly. The hugely ambitious sci-fi-tinged dreams that have animated the project seem to be dying while being replaced with more realistic plans. Here’s what’s been happening with the project over the last several months, as the Saudis have struggled to advance their floundering new desert metropolis.

Click through to get the latest on the brewing disaster in the desert or just keep scrolling if you’re on mobile.

The Saudis are hunting for new revenue streams

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To realize a project as huge as Neom, you need a lot of cash—and, currently, Saudi Arabia is a little bit light in that department. As such, the Kingdom’s developers have been on the hunt for new revenue sources to support the city’s continued development. This week, Bloomberg reports that the country is hosting hundreds of bankers and investors in Neom, in the hopes of inspiring them to take out their wallets and write some checks. The visits, which are being managed by Neom’s Chief Executive Officer Nadhmi Al-Nasr, are designed to inspire interest in the project by displaying “the actual work happening inside Neom rather than relying on the virtual reality videos that developers have previously trodded out” when meeting with potential investors in foreign cities.

Plans for Neom were recently scaled back

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As the Saudis hunt for cash, the city’s planners were recently forced to drastically scale back the original size and scope of the development. Bloomberg reported in early April that the city, which developers have said is expected to stretch 170 kilometers, will not be finished anytime soon. A source close to the project told Bloomberg that officials only expect to build about 2.4 kilometers of the city by 2030. As The Guardian notes, that’s a shocking reduction of 98 percent. Presumably, Saudi officials still hope to build the entire city, although they’ll have to pick up the pace if they don’t want to be under construction for the next century. Developers also originally had much more ambitious population growth projections. Initially, the project’s backers hoped that there would be 1.5 million people living in the city by the year 2030. Now, they are expecting less than 300,000 people by that time, Bloomberg writes.

Plans for the city are diverse (and weird)

A number of new projects have been announced related to Neom this year alone. Fast Company notes the increasingly “unhinged” creative iterations of the city, including Trojena, a $500 billion luxury mountain resort, Zardun, a “Luxury ecotourism” destination located in an oasis, Treyam, a resort destination located on a futuristic bridge erected over a desert lagoon, and many, many other promised installations that seem like something straight out of Star Wars. If you want a full accounting of all of the unhinged developments that have been announced in the name of the Neom project, you can head to the project’s website, where you’ll find press release after press release that promise visitors visually astounding, currently hypothetical, locales.

The Saudis want China to help fund the new development

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China is among the potential revenue providers who could help the Kingdom realize its bold urban project. About a week ago, Saudi developers traveled to several Chinese cities, including Beijing, Hong Kong, and Shanghai, as they sought to “court Chinese investors” for assistance in realizing the project, Business Insider reported.

It’s unclear whether China is actually interested in helping out, however. No deals have been announced as a result of the Saudi visits and Leonard Chan, the chair of the Hong Kong Innovative Technology Development Association, told a French news agency that responses to the Saudis’ presentations were “mostly neutral.” Chan proceeded to further dunk on the development, saying: “I’ll visit for fun, but I won’t live there. It’s like something out of ‘SimCity.’”

Vision 2030 is also seeing more changes

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The plans for Neom are part of the much broader state project, dubbed Saudi Vision 2030, which is a master plan for the modernization and future-looking development of the Kingdom. However, it was recently reported that Saudi officials are concerned about the sheer costs of the Vision 2030 project. Earlier this month, Business Insider wrote that the costs of MBS’s vision “were starting to cause alarm at the highest level of the country’s government.” It seems likely, then, that broader changes to the Crown Prince’s agenda—not just those related to The Line—may have to be made in the coming years.

It’s unclear when, if ever, people will actually live in Neom

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When will people actually get to live in Neom? No one really knows. City developers had hoped to flood the desert with futuristic fun-seekers at some point in the next few years. It increasingly looks like that’s more or less a pipe dream. There are small sub-projects that are expected to be ready for human visitation relatively soon but, for the most part, it’s hard to see when people will be able to live in this sprawling desert metropolis.

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