A new city rises in the desert, under a fake moon

Cleaning an oiled Kemp’s Ridley turtle after the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Neom could offer Saudi Arabia a cleaner way to earn a living. Image: By NOAA, via ClimateVisuals

The world’s biggest oil exporter, Saudi Arabia, is planing a new city entirely dependent on clean energy.

LONDON, 18 January, 2021 − Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, who has not till now shown any great enthusiasm for tackling climate chaos, is working on designs for an environmentally-friendly new city in the kingdom.

At successive international climate meetings Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest oil exporter, has been among those states which have obstructed rather than encouraged attempts to tackle the increasingly urgent problems associated with a fast-warming world.

But recently Prince Mohammed, seen very much as the power behind the Saudi throne, has been talking of building a zero emissions city and establishing what he describes as “a blueprint for how people and planet can co-exist in harmony.”

In a glitzy presentation high on vision but low on detail, the prince outlined plans for a new, futuristic urban area to be carved out of the desert in the province of Tabuk, in north-west Saudi Arabia.

The city, to be called The Line, will stretch inwards for 106 miles from the Saudi Red Sea coast. It will be powered by 100% clean energy, says the prince, with no roads or cars. Instead “a belt of hyper-connected future communities” will be established.

Future techno-hub

There will be flying taxis, and scores of robot servants. The whole scheme will be built around nature, Prince Mohammed says. “Why should we sacrifice nature for the sake of development?”, he asks. “Why should seven million people die every year because of pollution?”

The cost of the project will be between US$100-200 billion: initial construction work will begin early next year, and an airport has already been built.

The Line is just one element in an overall Saudi plan called Vision 2030,  which seeks to wean the country off its dependence on oil revenues – which account for a major part of gross domestic product.

The aim is to turn Saudi Arabia into one of the world’s technological hubs. A multi-billion dollar tourist industry will also be established. Eventually, says Prince Mohammed, desert lands bordering Egypt and Jordan covering more than 10,000 square miles – an area roughly the size of Belgium – will be developed.

The Line, built to house a million people, will form part of a much larger US$500bn project called Neom – a combination of the Greek word Neos, meaning new, and the Arabic word mustaqbal, or future.

“Why should we sacrifice nature for the sake of development? Why should seven million people die every year because of pollution?”

Details about Neom are scarce: the project website says it will be home to both a Saudi and an international community, composed of “dreamers and doers.”

Attractions will include beaches with glow-in-the-dark-sand. There will even be a large fake moon to light the sky on cloudy nights.

If all this sounds a trifle fantastical, look no further than the Gulf cities of Dubai and Abu Dhabi where, over a relatively short time, small fishing and trading settlements have been turned into international centres of commerce and tourism. Prince Mohammed’s ambitions, though – and his talk of a sustainable, emissions-free future – are open to doubt.

Saudi Arabia is one of the world’s most profligate users of energy – almost all of it derived from the country’s plentiful reserves of fossil fuels. Renewable energy projects, announced in the past with much fanfare, have often come to nothing.

The Arabian peninsula is among the fastest-warming areas on the planet. For several years scientists have been warning that parts of the region will become uninhabitable if temperatures continue to rise.

Champion desalinator

Saudi Arabia has severely depleted water resources: the Neom project says it will help tackle this problem through extensive cloud seeding. Whether this will work is also open to question: cloud seeding can lead to its own set of environmental problems.

The project and its offshoot The Line will need to process water by using desalination technology. Saudi Arabia is already home to more desalination plants than any other country: the brine discharged in large quantities by such plants is harmful, particularly in such fragile ecological areas as the Red Sea.

Prince Mohammed and the Saudi planners have made little mention of those living in the north-west of the country who will be severely disrupted by Neom. The Huwaitat tribe, native to the area, say they are being forcibly relocated. A spokesman for the tribe was killed recently: reports say he was shot by government security forces.

Whether The Line and Prince Mohammed’s emissions-free Neom zone are built might ultimately depend on finance. Even for the deep-pocketed Saudis, the cost of the scheme represents a considerable challenge.

The project’s backers are wooing international investors: though many foreign companies will be licking their lips at the prospect of being involved in Neom, international banks and other financial institutions might be reluctant to invest funds, particularly in the wake of the brutal killing of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi dissident, and the ongoing imprisonment of others who voice any opposition to the prince and the kingdom’s hierarchy. − Climate News Network