Saudi Arabia’s controversial mega-city project: The Line

This is what Saudi Arabia's 100-mile long emission-free smart city could look like.

Video transcript

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- Countless governments and companies have taken a stab at building a city of the future. There's Songdo in South Korea; the Alphabet-funded Quayside project in Toronto, which was abandoned in May of last year; and both Singapore and Barcelona have tried to modernize with smart sensors.

In January of 2021, Saudi Arabia announced plans for its own futuristic city called The Line. Instead of communities sprawling outward from a central location, they would be built vertically and arranged, well, in a line hence the name. Even though the vision for the city stretches 170 kilometers, it would do away with cars entirely and, instead, be connected by high-speed rail that would travel the entire length in just 20 minutes. And each individual community would be largely self-contained so that almost anything you could need, be it a school, a doctor, or a quick meal, would be only a 5-minute walk away.

The government says The Line will run on 100% clean energy and make extensive use of sensors and AI to manage the city's services. And all of this is supposed to be nestled in the pristine natural landscape of Tabuk province with minimal impact on the environment.

Now, the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has revealed grandiose renders of what the city will look like to match the grandiose plans. The Line is envisioned as a giant glass and mirrored wall 170 kilometers long, 200 meters wide, and 500 meters tall. That's taller than the Empire State Building. It would have greenery stretching along the top, an open-air ventilation system to help maintain an ideal climate year round, and it would house up to 9 million people.

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Now, The Line is just one part of Saudi Arabia's controversial $500 billion NEOM mega city project. For one, the so-called virgin land that the government is building NEOM on is, unsurprisingly, not all that virgin. It is the ancestral and current home of many people, including members of the Hiawatha tribe, who are being forced from their homes for what many see as a vanity project that won't amount to much in reality.

Those who have dared to speak out against the government's plans or refuse to give up their homes have been harassed and abducted by Saudi security forces, arrested, or, in some cases, killed. For example, Abdul Rahim Al Huwaiti, a prominent Hiawatha activist, was killed by police in April of 2020 after posting videos on social media trying to raise awareness of the forced displacement.

All of this controversy has even led to some commercial partners pulling out of deals, like Riot Games, which had signed on NEOM to sponsor the "League of Legends" European Championship. Backlash from the gaming community caused that to quickly unravel.

Now, even if NEOM is eventually built and lives up to its lofty promises, there will still be plenty of more cause for concern. The Line is expected to be loaded with countless sensors, cameras, and facial recognition technology that, in such a confined space, could push government surveillance to almost unthinkable levels. Now, that would be troubling in any nation, but in a country like Saudi Arabia, where homosexuality is outlawed, LGBTQ people are persecuted, and women hold almost no rights, it's downright terrifying.

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