In Saudi Arabia’s remote Tabuk Province, a desolate arid region bordering the Red Sea, the city of tomorrow is starting to take shape. A 10,230-square-mile swath of desert land has been earmarked as the site of Neom, a megacity self-described as a “high-tech semi-autonomous state” powered on renewable energy and that seeks to reimagine urban life.
It starts with Neom’s architecture: if all goes as planned, the city will build twin 1,640-foot-tall skyscrapers that stretch horizontally for dozens of miles, housing a mix of residential, retail, and office space. The proposal is a radical shift from its previous concept of a string of developments linked by underground high-speed rail into a long, continuous structure. Though plans are conceptual for now, the towers would easily become the world’s biggest buildings and unlike any man-made structure in history.
Neom forms a crucial component of the Saudi Vision 2030 plan, a framework to reduce the country’s dependence on oil, diversify the economy, and strengthen public service sectors like health, education, infrastructure, recreation, and tourism. Plans first came to light in 2017, when the country announced The Line, a $200 billion car-free linear city designed with architecture firm Morphosis that will form the region’s backbone. Though plans are confidential, insider sources say that Neom’s buildings will be “different heights as you go,” with their final size dictated by engineering concerns. Inside, people will coexist with “robotic avatars and holograms,” fusing the digital and physical into a new type of metaverse.
“When people talk about The Line, they see a futuristic Hyperloop, Star Wars type of entity,” Ali Shihabi, a member of Neom’s advisory board, tells Bloomberg. “But when The Line was presented to the board, I saw a highly intelligent, well-thought-out sustainable modern city that will accommodate from laborers to billionaires and that will be built in stages, so it will follow demand.”
Building two gargantuan skyscrapers in the middle of a desert facing a long-term water shortage seemingly contradicts sustainable efforts, but the Saudi Crown Prince touts Neom’s green credentials—solar and wind power plants, water provided via carbon-free desalination, facilities for vertical farming—as crucial to achieving the Saudi Green Initiative’s goal of net zero emissions by 2060. Still, critics accuse him of greenwashing, especially considering his plan to continue pumping hydrocarbons despite global oil production needing to fall by roughly five percent annually to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
There are also questions about who Neom will serve. Marketing videos present a vision of the mega-city as a cosmopolitan oasis accommodating everyone “from laborers to billionaires,” but locals fear Neom will simply cater to the ultra-wealthy. Construction is still in early stages, but so far completed projects include a helipad, golf course, and palaces for the country’s royal family.
The city’s first projects—Oxagon, the world’s largest floating structure, and Trojena, whose world-class wellness facilities include a ski slope and interactive nature reserve—are scheduled to open in 2024 and aim to attract five million visitors by 2030. That rapid-fire time frame may be a stretch: Saudi Arabia has a history of stalled construction projects, notably the Jeddah Tower, which was billed as the tallest structure ever built at one kilometer, but hit a standstill during construction after the 2017–19 Saudi Arabian purge brought about labor issues with a contractor.
Surface Says: Saudi Arabia’s rebrand after the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi seems to be bearing fruit: Desert X AlUla completed its second edition in March, despite outcries from many art world figures; the new Saudi-backed golf league, LIV, recently lured away some of the sport’s marquee names with exorbitant contracts; and Joe Biden announced an upcoming trip to the kingdom to discuss energy, a notable shift in foreign policy away from ostracization.