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  • Elisabeth Gaiganis

Saudi Project 'The Line' Begins Construction

While construction began in October, recent drone-derived images of Saudi Arabia's controversial mega-project are circulating online, raising questions of ecological sustainability, economic durability, and working condition crises. What are the repercussions of 'The Line', Saudi Arabia's smart city designed for net zero emissions, and what are people around the world saying about it?

The plan was revealed in January of 2021 by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in a presentation that was broadcast on state television, and later in 2022, a promotional video was released which quickly went viral, leading to a plethora of online discussion and debate. The Saudi megacity is one of three parts of the NEOM project and will consist of two futuristic, utopian looking 500m tall, 170km long mirrored buildings with a space in between. It will supposedly eventually, within an area of just 34 km2, house 9 million people surrounded by nature with no roads, cars, or carbon emissions, and will effectively be powered entirely by renewable energy. Similarly to Barcelona's "superblocks", the building will be divided into squares, which will each fashion amenities such as schools and shops so that everything citizens need is within a 5-minute reach. The city will consist of three layers; one surface layer for pedestrians and two underground layers for infrastructure and public transport. A number of architects, engineers, and climate experts question whether the project is technologically feasible and whether the result will be worth the tremendous carbon emissions required for its construction.

One Twitter user described the recent construction efforts as "building a hellish prison", while another perceived it as a utopia. Overall, the online discourse sparked many questions, such as how animals, such as birds, will migrate across this linear city, and how a nature-surrounded city in the desert will thrive with zero carbon emissions. Many had similar issues surrounding its superficiality: "This would kill ecosystems and slice through habitats," says Sandra Leigh Lester, a climate activist and sustainable building advisor. Two users took to Twitter to engage in a critical discourse about the smart city:

""Zero emissions"... says the largest construction project in history'

"how are they to cool it? They say it will have a temperate climate? How is it powered? Where's the sewer system? The water pumps? there's going to be emissions somewhere"

"Definitely. It's an absolutely ridiculous and disingenuous statement."

Others pointed out failed smaller-scale linear developments from around the world such as in Ørestad, Copenhagen and the city of Roza in Poland. "Everything about NEOM seems like it was dreamed up by a Saudi official who watched a sci-fi movie on [the Middle East Broadcasting Center] at like 4 am and said 'that looks cool, let's throw $100bn at it," noted Gregg Carlstrom, reporter for The Economist. Additional concerns arise for the workers and citizens inhabiting the land on which The Line will be built on: "I don't want to imagine how many people will be displaced for this capitalist vanity project." Many others, however, point out the staggering amount of jobs that will be created, and outline their love for the idea: "I LOVE the concept of “The Line” city being built in Saudi Arabia So many great benefits for humanity & earth from that project"

A final but most important consideration is for the Saudi Arabian people which object to the project and the migrant workers which will undoubtedly assist in its construction. Here's Victor Tangermann for The Byte:

"Given Saudi Arabia's less-than-stellar human rights record, the construction of Neom will almost certainly come at a humanitarian cost. In March, the kingdom executed 81 men, the biggest mass execution in decades, according to CNN. Human Rights Watch is also warning that migrant workers, who will undoubtedly work on the project, will be entirely at the mercy of their employers, and operating outside of labor laws."

Independent Saudi Arabian NGO AQST reported on 'death sentences for men who refused to make way for Neom'. According to the article, Saudi Arabia's Specialised Criminal Court (SCC) sentenced three Huwaitait men to death, men whose families have been forcibly evicted to make way for the NEOM mega-project. In April 2020, Abdul Rahim al-Huwaiti was shot dead by security forces in his home soon after posting videos opposing the eviction of local families as a means to make way for the superficial government-backed project. Not long after in 2022, Abdul's brother Shadli al-Huwaiti was imprisoned and later sentenced to death. Other local residents whose opposition were met with death sentencing include Ibrahim al-Huwaiti and Ataullah al-Huwaiti. Other members of the Huwaitat tribe have allegedly been arrested for refusing to comply with the eviction from their homes in the name of the Crown Prince's futuristic city.

One Twitter user questions whether "migrant workers dead bodies be buried in the wall or underneath it?"

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