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The Line: Ushering in the Future or a Smokescreen for Repression?

Image via Times of Israel

In January 2021, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) of Saudi Arabia announced The Line, a “civilization revolution” designed to “transform the concept of a conventional city into that of a futuristic one.” 170 kilometers long and with walls taller than the Empire State Building, The Line promises to create a city without roads or cars, instead relying on “invisible technology” and artificial intelligence to place everything residents might need within a five minute radius. The Line is part of NEOM, a shell company and development project controlled by MBS that aims to transform an area of desert the size of Belgium into a global crossroads with a ski resort, a man-made lake jutting out of a mountain, an octagon-shaped floating city, and The Line. Partnering with some of the world’s leading architecture firms like the California-based Morphis and London-based Zaha Hadid Architects, Saudi Arabia has positioned itself at the forefront of sustainable urban planning. Promotional materials for The Line emphasize that the city will have zero carbon emissions and is designed to preserve 95 percent of land for nature in the region. In the face of rising sea levels and intensifying climate disasters, MBS has advertised The Line as a “home for all of us,” emphasizing its location at the intersection of global trade routes and using images of people from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds to show that the city’s nine million residents will come from around the world and form a type of multicultural utopia. 

While many have dismissed The Line as a fanciful dream unlikely to make the jump from slick computer-generated graphics to actual infrastructure, MBS has shown no sign of backing down, hiring an army of consultants and beginning excavation for the first segment of The Line. With Saudi Aramco, Saudi Arabia’s national oil company, posting a 90 percent jump in quarterly profits this summer due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, MBS has no shortage of cash to funnel toward the project. 

Beneath the Crown Prince’s carefully choreographed messaging, however, lies an undercurrent of repression. In recent years, MBS ordered the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, detained family members seen as a threat to his authority, and executed 81 civilians accused of “disrupting the social fabric and national cohesion.” At the same time, on the world stage, MBS has used policies such as allowing women to drive and opening movie theaters to portray himself as a modernist reformer. Part of Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 initiative, The Line is part of this later group of policies designed to liberalize the country and appeal to an international audience. But the world must see The Line for what it is: a blatant effort by MBS to deflect attention and criticism away from his inaction on climate change, failure to create equitable economic development, and violent repression of dissent.

The announcement video for The Line shows a strip of green plants running through the desert, advertising “a year round temperate micro-climate” and emphasizing the project’s environmental bonafides. This image reveals the first major contradiction of The Line: Building an eco-friendly city in the middle of a desert with no access to fresh water requires extreme interventions to make the city liveable. All of the water must be desalinated though an energy-intensive process that creates highly concentrated brine that must then be disposed of. When this waste product is pumped back into the Red Sea, it sinks to the bottom of the ocean and decreases dissolved oxygen until many organisms suffocate, including seagrass and fish larvae. NEOM has promised to invest in the “exploration and development of new technologies and products” needed to build a brine processing plant that responsibly manages the waste from desalination. Yet even though this technology remains unbuilt and untested, NEOM has pushed forward with development, including building a golf course in the middle of the desert. While lush golf facilities may attract investors, sourcing the water needed to maintain a natural grass golf course comes at the expense of marine ecosystems in the Red Sea and makes a mockery of the notion that The Line presents a model for sustainable coexistence with nature. 

Saudi Arabia also remains heavily reliant on oil, using the profits from the fossil fuel industry to fund development of The Line. In August 2022, Saudi Aramco announced that it would expand its production capacity to 12.3 million barrels per day. While fossil fuels will continue to play an important role in the renewable energy transition, especially in places focused on energy security like the United States, the MBS’s branding of Saudi Arabia as a renewable energy leader obscures the deliberate effort the country is making to boost long-term oil production capacity. Perhaps anticipating growing international pressure to act on climate, MBS has leveraged proposals like The Line to signal action on climate while simultaneously increasing fossil fuel production. 

The second key problem with The Line is that in order to construct it, the Saudi government must displace indigenous tribes from their homes. The area now called NEOM is home to about 20,000 members of the Huwaitat tribe whose lineage dates to before the modern Saudi state was created. Needless to say, not all residents have embraced the Crown Prince’s proposals for transforming their homeland using innovations such as flying taxis, glow in the dark beaches, a giant artificial moon, and omnipresent facial recognition security cameras. Interactions between the Huwaitat tribe and the government have sometimes turned violent. For example, one man was shot by Saudi security forces after posting videos online pledging to defy the government’s eviction order. On October 2, 2022, three other men from the Huwaitat tribe were sentenced to death by Saudi Arabia’s criminal court after they refused to leave their homes. Threatened by armed military personnel and a court system controlled by the Crown Prince, these indigenous groups have little choice but to make way for a development that will transform their land into a futuristic mega-project. The world must not allow bold architectural proposals to obscure human rights abuses against minority communities within Saudi Arabia, many of whom lack the media platform to effectively appeal to the international community. 

Additionally, The Line undermines its promise as “a home for all of us” by catering almost exclusively to a select group of wealthy global elites, excluding those who are most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. The promotional materials for The Line read like a luxury real estate advertisement, emphasizing its “elegant mirror glass facade” and design features that “[enable] everyone to attain a good work/life balance.” Estimated to cost over one trillion dollars, these features will not come cheap for The Line’s future residents. High prices will likely not dissuade the wealthy residents MBS hopes to attract—people who would contribute to NEOM’s “knowledge economy.” Yet, noticeably absent from The Line is any mention of low-skilled jobs, with MBS enthusiastically describing how services will be automated and powered by artificial intelligence. The United Nations has noted that climate change will disproportionately impact the global poor. For these future climate refugees, safe, affordable housing and economic opportunities are needed, not luxury apartments towering over the Red Sea where residents are expected to work in high-skilled sectors like biomedical engineering or artificial intelligence. By advertising NEOM as a solution to the global climate crisis and “a home for all of us,” MBS receives good global publicity while doing very little beside providing a new place for oligarchs to stash their money. 

Finally, by creating a separate legal system in NEOM, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman will receive international goodwill without having to institute systemic reforms. The NEOM region has been designated as a “free zone,” meaning that it will have different laws than the rest of Saudi Arabia. While the government has not announced the details of this new legal system, they will likely cater to an international audience by legalizing activities such as drinking alcohol. This alternate legal system has the potential to fundamentally distort how the international community views Saudi Arabia. While international visitors might be able to go on a luxury vacation to the mountain resort located next to The Line and drink alcohol, they would not experience the same laws that govern the rest of Saudi Arabia, where homosexuality is punishable by death. MBS has leaned into this version of “one country, two systems,” organizing trips to NEOM for world leaders during the 2020 G20 summit. The risk is that we will conflate liberalization in NEOM—an area that will be predominantly populated with foreigners—with reform within Saudi Arabia. A futuristic Disney World-style development should not excuse MBS’s abysmal human rights record.

The world needs bold action on climate change and innovative ideas for urban planning. These developments can come from both democratic countries as well as authoritarian regimes. A good idea is a good idea, and the United States should not hesitate to endorse plans that come from places with different regime types or societal values. The problem with The Line, however, is that it promotes a vision of climate action, multicultural coexistence, and legal liberalization that does not translate into real, systemic change within Saudi Arabia. Rather, The Line serves as a flashy external facade designed to obscure the reality of what is going on within Saudi Arabia and deflects criticism from Mohammed bin Salman’s extensive human rights