All monument: a design plan for Trojena’s artificial lake, within Saudi Arabia’s proposed new megacity of Neom. It is already slated to host the Asian Winter Games in 2029. Image: NEOM / AFP

Welcome to Neom, Saudi Arabia’s desert dystopia in the making

Western architects are scrambling to work on a Saudi Arabian dream: a city founded on a 170km-long line of mirrored towers. But will it end up as a series of broken pieces?
January 25, 2023

The first images of Neom that filtered out of Saudi Arabia suggested a generic science-fiction B-movie. Clouds of flying taxis lit by an artificial moon and random outcrops of swirling glass towers framed a city of nine million people dreamed up by Mohammed bin Salman, crown prince and cyberpunk enthusiast, for the waterless northwestern province of Tabuk. These overheated fantasies were mocked as more likely the product of a brainstorming session set up by Boston Consulting and McKinsey—and storyboarded by one of the creators of Marvel’s cinematic universe—than the work of an actual city planner.

Both consultancies really were involved in designing the city and, according to a well-informed report by Bloomberg, many of the visuals were indeed made by Hollywood’s most successful set-designers. Olivier Pron, who visualised superheroic romp Guardians of the Galaxy, Nathan Crowley of The Dark Knight and Jeff Julian, who was responsible for the look of I Am Legend, were all commissioned.

There is a long tradition of carpetbaggers trying to palm off desolate swampland as a prime urban investment with the aid of over-optimistic prospectuses and fancifully illustrated maps. The practice goes back at least to the end of the 17th century, when the failed attempt to build New Edinburgh on the Darién Gap in Panama almost bankrupted Scotland.

The name Neom comes from the Greek neo, or “new”, and the first letter of mustaqbal, an Arabic word for “future”. “It’s going to have the best of everything in the world, which will lead to an ecosystem of incubation and a proliferation of ideas and inspiration,” read the project’s pitch. “One without commutes and the humidity of Singapore, the pollution of London, the poor weather of Paris or the tax of Silicon Valley.” It is a distant echo of Scotland’s idea that a colony in the right place to ship goods overland, thus avoiding the interminable sailing trip around Cape Horn, would make it rich.

For all bin Salman’s hopes of giving Neom the best of everything and making it the blueprint for Saudi Arabia’s move away from oil dependency to a sustainable post-petroleum future, the crown prince actually wanted designers to explore the aesthetics of dystopia. This was so far-fetched that, aside from the impact of flying in highly paid consultants from around the world, it seemed as though few hydrocarbons would ever be spent on bringing it to life.

All that changed last summer, when bin Salman unleashed a fleet of giant diggers and earth-moving equipment. They poured out of the encampment that he had set up to accommodate his first 2,000 workers and swarmed across the desert to lay the foundations for Neom’s most striking element: a linear, mirror-faced mega-structure, 170km long, named The Line.

That land was claimed by the Howeitat tribe and—according to Saudi dissidents—one of its members, Abdul Rahim al-Huwaiti, died in April 2020 after a confrontation with security forces in the area, while others were offered compensation to leave.

An international group of architects ready to overlook those casualties, as well as the 2018 murder and dismemberment of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, have set out their own ideas to replace those of the moviemakers and embarked on the dance with wealth and power that has always shaped so much architectural practice.

These architects created a series of renderings of Neom that display a great deal more conviction than the earlier versions of the city. The images are undoubtedly compelling, but they do not convey the scale and size of what is being proposed; nor, in the end, are they any more plausible than the sci-fi visuals.

The renderings suggest an endless city, with the graceful sweep of the Great Wall of China, which follows the natural landscape. But what is really being planned is two continuous lines of ultra-tall buildings rising 500 metres above sea level, hidden on each side behind a mirror -glass shield. The ground at the foot of the walls will rise and fall, but the top of The Line is level from end to end.

It is a city that might have been conceived by WeWork’s founder Adam Neumann in consultation with FTX boss Sam Bankman-Fried, with the benefit of management advice from Elon Musk. Neom’s spokespeople certainly echo these fantasists’ language. “Neom is an accelerator of human progress that will drive the concept of liveability beyond current standards for living in large urban complexes. Moreover, our energy system at Neom must be sustainable and in harmony with nature,” Thorsten Schwarz, an executive director with Neom Energy & Water, told Energy Review in February 2022.

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Barking mad: models of The Line project on display at an exhibition in Riyadh. Image: Balkis Press / ABACA / Shutterstock

In the same vein, Roger Nickells, head of design and construction, suggests on Neom’s website: “Trust in the construction industry is a productivity multiplier. When trust is in good supply, then collaboration is easier to achieve and the industry can be sure of a level playing field. Workers are not exploited, quality is never compromised and productivity is gained, not lost. Participating companies will have mechanisms to trust they are all in compliance with regulations and taxes. Worker skills will be certified and their identity verified. They will all carry supercomputers in their pocket that use biometric verification for site access, equipment access. We will utilise mobile phone technology to the max, in order to improve trust at the human level. For collaboration will not be effective without trusted data sharing.”

Saudi Arabia already has the clock tower in Mecca, one of only 10 skyscrapers in the world that are taller than 500 metres. There would have been one more to add to the list if Prince Al Waleed bin Talal Al Saud had been able to complete his kilometre-high tower in Jeddah. Instead, he was among the 300 Saudi dignitaries held under house arrest in a Riyadh hotel for several months in 2017 and 2018 by his cousin bin Salman. Five years later, the tower’s abandoned hulk, as tall as the Shard in London, sits on the edge of one of the kingdom’s more characterful cities, a monument to architectural hubris, waiting for the builders to return.

A 500-metre-tall building is well within the bounds of present-day technology, but whether it would be possible to build a row of them 170km long for $500bn is another question. Giles Pendleton, an Australian-South African engineer and one of the consultants who presently lead the team tasked with building Neom, claims to have no doubts that it will have one million residents by 2030, and will be both completed and house nine million people by 2045. But like Putin’s generals, bin Salman’s architects wouldn’t want to bring their boss bad news.

Neom is a city that is all monument, which offers nowhere to get off the grid

Even more implausible than its size and the speed of its planned creation is the stunning bluntness of the basic idea. It’s less a city, more a single building. The continuous double file of skyscrapers, squeezed like giant cake icing in the Saudi desert, will face each other across a space just a little wider than the Champs Elysées. The fully grown trees shown in the renderings at the bottom of a narrow canyon 500 metres deep—which would get no more than 15 minutes of sunlight a day—are clearly impossible.

This world will supposedly contain everything it needs to sustain itself: sports stadia, universities, hundreds of schools, tens of thousands of shops, millions of homes and enough farms to feed its people (less information is available on the number of sewage farms that will be needed to dispose of their effluent). But it is claimed that there will be no cars and no pollution, because a high-speed rail link will run from end-to-end of the complex in 20 minutes and the street layout will encourage cycling.

The train is possible: China already has a magnetic levitation (maglev) train operating in Shanghai, and Japan is developing the same technology to construct one between Nagoya and Tokyo, which should approach the speed that would be necessary to traverse The Line in 20 minutes. But in the context of Saudi Arabia, cycling as a means of transport seems considerably less likely than the flying taxis.

It comes as no surprise to find that Boris Johnson is an enthusiast for Neom. Ahead of the G20 summit hosted remotely by Saudi Arabia in 2020, while he was prime minister, Johnson praised the “exciting new city”, whose “origins I was able to inspect a couple of years ago. Built on the sands of fossil fuels but powered by green hydrogen, under an enviable climate, an enviably reliable sun to provide just inexhaustible solar energy, that city, that vision of Neom, represents a greener future for all of us.”

The city is intended to accommodate its nine million people on just 34 square km—a gravity-defying 250,000 people per square km. For comparison, London has the same number of occupants spread over 1,500 square km, which represents 5,725 people per square km. Surprisingly, there is a documented precedent for Neom, though it is not one that its planners make much noise about. Dharavi, the famous slum in Mumbai, has 277,136 people per square km.

Neom may be implausible, but it would be foolhardy to say that none of it will never be built. If you ask where the people, in a country of 34m, will come from to fill this city, it’s worth remembering that, as recently as 1980, the entire population of Saudi Arabia itself was only nine million. In 1979, Chinese ruler Deng Xiaoping announced that a fishing village close to the Hong Kong border would become a special enterprise zone, with its own rules and currency. That village is now Shenzhen, home to 12m people and, after Silicon Valley, the world’s most significant powerhouse for the digital economy. Like Shenzhen in the early days, bin Salman wants Neom to have its own laws and tax regime.

Architecture generally offers practitioners a longer career than most creative professions. But there is something about the nature of the particular selection of architects who have been gathered to build Neom that suggests a supergroup of ageing rockers getting together to go on the road one last time for the sake of their pensions. Most of the best-known architects involved are from a generation that began working in the 1960s. These are the boomers who once revelled in causing disruption and abandoning conventions, and who have thrived on becoming celebrities. Their number includes Thom Mayne from Los Angeles and Massimiliano Fuksas from Rome, who are both 79; the Netherlands’ Rem Koolhaas, who is 78; and the UK’s Peter Cook, who has reached the age of 86. Also onboard is Wolf Prix, the Viennese architect who has only now shut down his operations in Russian-occupied Crimea, aged 81.

This generation is accompanied by some of its students. The architects’ protegés working on Neom include Tom Wiscombe, a former employee of Wolf Prix, and Oyler Wu and others associated with Sci-Arc, the school Mayne started in Los Angeles. There are also, of course, commercial firms involved, such as HOK, as well as the widely respected Adjaye Associates and Zaha Hadid Architects.

HOK have designed what they call the hanging university of Neom. David Adjaye’s name is associated with a golf resort. Rem Koolhaas’s firm, OMA, has designed a section of The Line with a rooftop stadium. And Peter Cook is described as being responsible for the so-called research section of The Line, accommodating 77,000 people, which includes 6.4 total square metres of space—about the size of the first phase of London’s Canary Wharf.

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The location of Neom within Saudi Arabia. Image: Shutterstock / Prospect

Mayne has had the most obvious impact on the project. He has spent his career designing what might be described as “heavy metal” architecture, working on the idea of buildings as giant mysterious machines—almost as if everything he has done to date was a preparation for this moment.

Cook, an affable member of the Royal Academy in London, also has form in this kind of approach. One partner in Archigram, his architectural thinktank, came up with the idea of a moveable city on wheels in 1964, and drew a fluorescent monster that anticipated the world of The Matrix by half a century.

The architects associated with the project won’t talk about it or confirm that they are working on Neom. Anyone who has seen the terms of the non-disclosure agreements that Saudi government entities insist on will understand why. But at “The Line Experience”, an exhibition in Riyadh that runs until April, their names and photographs are on show alongside a selection of huge models.

Outside Saudi Arabia the reaction to their work has not been positive. Mostly it is described as fantasy. But Adam Greenfield, an urbanist at the London School of Economics, has taken it with dead seriousness. Writing for the online magazine Dezeen in November 2022 on the clashes between the builders and the tribespeople and the project’s claims of sustainability, he tried to appeal to junior staff of Mayne and Cook, urging them to refuse to work on the project: “It has already brought death, and in carving a line through a living, breathing community, all of those complicit in its design and construction are already destroyers of worlds.”

It is not a view that has had much noticeable effect. Back in 2016, Cook told an architectural conference in Berlin that “there’s a conspiracy of boring, which is all about drawing attention to limitations. It terrorises people into saying ‘we can’t do this or that, because it’ll be breaking the rules.’” His words could have been understood as a justification of Neom and all it stands for.

Cook continued: “In the Archigram days we were very optimistic. We had lots of stupid ideas, but there was delight and strange interplays. For goodness’ sake, let’s not retreat into a world of black and white. Let’s enjoy a pink world, a yellow world, a colourful world.” In bin Salman, he certainly has a client whose reputation suggests that he is easily bored and not shy of discarding ideas he has tired of.

Real urban planning is about developing ideas of city life. But Neom is all monument, offering nowhere to get off the grid and enjoy the anonymity that a real city provides. It is a surveillance city, controlled by artificial intelligence.

Neom promises to offer more than The Line. An intercontinental airport to rival Singapore and Dubai is planned, while design work is underway on Oxagon, envisaged as the largest floating structure in the world, a settlement moored off the Red Sea coastline with homes for 90,000 residents by 2030.

In an idea beyond parody, Trojena, the first outdoor ski resort in the region, with villas designed by a team including Zaha Hadid’s studio, has already won the right to stage the 2029 Asian Winter Games. It will involve the creation of an artificial lake and artificial snow. And there is Sindalah, a luxury resort with a housing estate of 10,000-square metre palaces and a yacht club that will appeal to the Monte Carlo crowd, with plenty of berths to tie up their super yachts, including bin Salman’s own $300m vessel.

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Artist’s impression of the 170km-long, mirror-faced megastructure, The Line

Bin Salman has said: “The Line will tackle the challenges facing humanity in urban life today and will shine a light on alternative ways to live.” But why is he really doing it?

On a national level—like so many political leaders before him—he is using architecture and urban planning to make a statement about his country. Stalin blew up the largest church in Moscow and ordered his favoured architect, Boris Iofan, to design a replacement that would be taller than the Empire State, topped by a representation of Lenin that would have been larger than the statue of Liberty. “New buildings are put up to strengthen our new authority”, Hitler once told his architect, Albert Speer, who had a 100ft-long model of World Capital Germania, which would have doubled the size of Berlin, on permanent display in his studio. It came in chest-high sections, and featured a triumphal arch, a great hall based on Hitler’s own designs.

Authoritarians have a deep-seated and well-founded suspicion of conventional cities: they are troublesome places given to insubordination, and uncontrollable. They like to build new capitals far from dissenters—as the military did for the Myanmar regime in the early 2000s with Naypyidaw.

Not every new city is the product of an authoritarian government, though. Brasília was different. The democratically elected Brazilian president Juscelino Kubitschek made an apparently spur-of-the-moment decision to relocate the capital away from Rio de Janeiro and the coast, in order to end its European orientation and move on from the country’s colonial legacy.

Bin Salman’s dream city has its roots in film design and imagineering as much as in architecture—in this, and in its assembly of multiple zones within the overall boundaries of the site, it is much like a theme park. Here the Saudi prince is following more closely in Walt Disney’s steps than he perhaps realises. Shortly before his death in 1966, Disney was working on Epcot—an experimental, prototype community of tomorrow on hundreds of acres of Florida land he had bought up through a series of anonymous companies. Only a fragment was realised. The Contemporary Resort hotel designed by Welton Beckett, where monorails have glided into the central atrium and whisked visitors to the theme park ever since 1971, is like a miniature-scale model of The Line.

The most likely outcome of the efforts of bin Salman’s diggers in the desert is a scattering of monumental fragments, part occupied, and made to operate in makeshift ways, rather than being fully completed. William Gibson once memorably described Singapore as Disneyland with the death penalty. He might have been thinking of Neom.