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Saudi’s New Smart City, Neom: a Utopia or Dystopia?

Imagine a world flourishing with technological advancements beyond the boundaries of reality. A place free of cars, leveled with floating structures, an emphasis on artificial intelligence, and much more. Perhaps you envision a metropolitan city of the future that strives for sustainability– a city that can change the way we live. In 2017, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia launched its economic project NEOM, which embodies these qualities and according to its website is “the land of the future.”

Although the city is currently being developed, how accurately can NEOM’s visions be converted from concept to reality? Many considerations have been made about environmental, architectural, and human rights issues, in addition to the overall long-term practicality of this leap into the future. 

What in the World is NEOM?

NEOM is a developing region in Northwestern Saudi Arabia that quite literally extends from the desert into the body of the Red Sea. This region currently consists of four cities (ten being the goal) that “perform” respective duties: Oxagon, Trojena, The Line, and Sindalah.


Oxagon, given its name from its shape, finds half of the city floating in the sea and the other half residing on the land. Its main purpose is to act as a trading port and serve as an advanced industrial city.


Trojena is marketed as the mountainous and naturesque section of the project, which aims to become a multi-season vacation destination, even consisting of a ski resort.


The Line, arguably the most intriguing city of NEOM represents the residential living space, priding itself in its quickness and accessibility.


Finally, Sindalah is a luxurious Island resort in the Red Sea, offering world-class hospitality and superyachts, of course for those who can afford it!

Why Does Saudi Arabia Want To Develop Neom?

Investors have been running for a piece of this opportunity for a new world, accounting for tremendous economic support to the construction of NEOM. Most recently, On June 6th, 2023, a whopping $5.6 billion dollar investment deal was finalized to develop the first step toward workforce housing. The economic effort to get the wheels rolling is extensive, but why is the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia pushing for such grand support on this project, and what does this mean for the future of countries on a global scale? 

According to Prince Mohammed bin Salaman, the country is using the development of NEOM as an effort to steer the economy away from being dependent on the booming oil industry (which Saudi Arabia is conventionally known for.) Derived from the Saudi Vision Plan, which aims to increase competitiveness in the realm of technological development and economic prosperity, the development of NEOM undeniably generates a political challenge for other countries to keep up. Like an arms race in a time of war, NEOM will initiate a need for other governments to keep up, as everyone wants to be “the best.”

The Downsides of Neom

In addition to the possibility for great innovation, there is growing criticism surrounding the Kingdom’s claims for sustainable development, especially in the cases of Oxagon and The Line.

The marine habitat will suffer on behalf of the human desire to innovate.

In the case of Oxagon, the most obvious environmental issue stems from its encroachment into oceanic ecosystems. For starters, it is clear that this industrial port is going to drive a heavy flow of boat traffic, which introduces unfamiliar toxins into the water at a steady rate. This is especially relative since NEOM won’t have cars and it is quite far from the capital city. It is safe to assume that the region will heavily depend on this trading port for the importation and exportation of goods. Aside from the issue of boats, what is undeniable is that the city (Oxagon) has half of its body in the sea.

With that in mind, what happens to the oceanic life that resides in that body of water? They will be displaced and disrupted. The marine habitat will suffer on behalf of the human desire to innovate. Instead, I’d argue that it would be more sustainable to build solely on unoccupied desert land (which is the lesser of two evils in the eyes of sustainable development and could only work if the desert is truly unoccupied.)

The Line presents a combination of architectural and environmental concerns, specifically in its shape and the amount of resources needed to sustain the city. Most clearly, it is questionable how a perfectly straight city will cut through a mountainous desert without damaging the surrounding land. It seems like the Line is most concerned with aesthetics and unconventionality rather than practicality and preservation of the desert. The project cuts through 2600 square miles of desert, where different animals and ecosystems reside.

Having no curvature, The Line will demolish the homes of these species. In fact, the exterior of The Line is planned to be made of a mirror-like/reflective material, which will confuse birds and cause them to crash, creating a mass grave right outside the city. In regards to the general demands of the city, there is a possible strain on water resources, which would be counterproductive to the overall “sustainable” energy practices of NEOM. 

The United Nations has already expressed its concern over executions that have taken place in regard to the development of NEOM. There are many tribal communities that reside in the land which is intended to be used to create NEOM. Although the prince had promised to respect these tribes in the planning of NEOM, tribes are being forced to relocate, and those who do not comply face legal punishment. There has already been displacement of the Howeitat tribe, including the death of a member and the prison sentences of others. 

The Future is NEOM

When seen from the perspective of improving our lifestyles, NEOM seems gorgeous and perfect. NEOM is a potential glimpse of the future of urban living. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the rest of the globe appear to have too many concerns on the table, though. One can only hope that Saudi Arabia has taken these objections into consideration and is working on workable solutions for the sake of life on Earth as NEOM is not expected to be fully finished until 2030.