The Fine Line Between Utopia and Dystopia: Saudi Arabia’s Plans for a Futuristic “Smart City”

With issues like energy, conservation, and property ownership considered some of the most pressing of our times, the future of our living and working arrangements has become one of the most thought-provoking topics. Saudi Arabia has a two-word answer to the question of future cities: The Line. 

In the past, we would speculate on what sorts of dystopian communities would appear in the vague and distant future. The Line, which is already under construction, is now set to become a reality within the next few years.  

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salaman recently revealed the design concepts for The Line, a massive linear city that will be a “civilizational revolution that puts humans first” and will provide “an unprecedented urban living experience while preserving the surrounding nature.” The Line “redefines the concept of urban development and what cities of the future should look like.”

Living on a Thin Line 

According to the project’s website, The Line is only 0.1 mile wide, is 0.3 miles tall, and over 105 miles long. It’s also meant to house 9 million people with an infrastructure footprint of just over 21 square miles. The Line will have a controlled climate, access to nature, amenities within a 5-minute walk, and an end to end commute of just 20 minutes. The building will also be run on 100% renewable energy, with no roads, cars, or emissions. The website stresses that, for the first time, this city prioritizes health over infrastructure. 

The Line is only one of three facets of Neom, a planned $500 billion one-building city that is set to be constructed in northwestern Saudi Arabia. Neom will serve as an ambitious model of sustainable living, working, and travel. It consists of Oxagon, a floating city in which “industries and technology come together in harmony with nature,” Trogena, “a year-round mountain destination,” and The Line, which is up first for development.  

Saudi Vision 2030

Neom itself is part of the Saudi Vision 2030 plan, an aim to bolster the country’s economy, infrastructure, and reputation. Saudi Arabia claims the project will create 380,000 jobs and add $48 billion to the country’s GDP by diversifying its oil-dependent economy, promoting tourism, and developing the country’s public sector. Saudi Vision 2030 also serves another purpose. It is a rebranding, an attempt to reform the country while distancing itself from its questionable human rights record.  

Even though Saudi Arabia attempts to project an image of a new kingdom, as shiny as the mirror-plated walls of The Line, the country cannot escape or gloss over its controversies. 

First, women in Saudi Arabia only gained the right to vote in 2015 and weren’t allowed to drive until 2018, making Saudi Arabia the last country in the world to let women drive. That same year, the questionable assasination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi took place, which the Crown prince took responsibility for. Then, only months ago in march of 2022, there was a mass execution of 81 people, the largest in modern history.

The plan for The Line was released on January 10, 2021 and now, the newly released video promotion and statement from July 25, 2022 brought The Line into the current spotlight. With the attention came, of course, came criticism.

Utopia or Dystopia?

The major criticisms of The Line are that it is dystopian and artificial. Human beings don’t want to live in synthetic environments, be completely dependent on technology, live in such close quarters to so many people, and ultimately lack space, resources, and autonomy.

Critics also view the project as preposterously unrealistic and far-fetched. According to the WSJ, The Line will include a number of bin Salaman’s fanciful amenities including a sports stadium, robot maids, a yacht marina, robotic dinosaurs, flying taxis, glow in the dark beaches, and an artificial moon. These absurd additions only discredit the validity of the project. 

The information that has been released about The Line so far is sparse in its details, telling us only the what, but not the how. Where will Saudi Arabia get the money, the materials, the energy, the technology to create this? Not only does Neom seem infeasible, but even though The Line attempts to appeal to the Green Movement with its promises of emission-free living, the project has drawn criticism for environmental reasons regarding the need for increased Saudi oil production in order to build the structure. Environmentalists have also spoken out about how the monolithic building will disrupt the  migratory patterns of wildlife. Another concerning factor is the forced eviction of the Huwaitat people, who were removed from the region to make room for the building.

In the end, many unanswered questions remain as to the logistics of The Line. What would the laws and government of the city be like? Would there be religious requirements since it’s located in Saudi Arabia? How would it be powered and what if the power grid failed? 

Already, Neom, which was supposed to have major progress completed by 2020, has been delayed, and it is unlikely that the original 2025 deadline for the building will be met. 

Cautionary Tales 

Neom is eerily reminiscent of other grandiose schemes from corrupt governments’ attempts to prove their effectiveness to the world. Most notably, the Ryugyong Hotel of North Korea, nicknamed the Hotel of Doom, was meant to showcase the success of the communist regime. It was supposed to be the tallest building in the world, but it now stands empty and unfinished in the capital city of Pyongyang, symbolic of the country’s decay.

The climate-centric focus of The Line also does not bode well for its sustainability. The cautionary tale Sri Lanka’s collapse after the country tried to go organic on a national level stands testament that trying to go green to please the global elites is not an economically sound course of action. 

Closing Thoughts

The future residents of The Line will be living on a thin line, both literally and figuratively.  Will The Line be an ideal nature-centric community, or an insubstantial totalitarian nightmare? Idealistic at best, The Line seems like something from a dystopian sci fi movie, but on the other hand, if it’s pulled off successfully, it would be a much better alternative for many people who are living in slums. Saudi Arabia too, walks a fine line between regressive oppression and progressive idealism. In the end, is there that much of a difference between the two? Ultimately, only the future will show whether The Line will be a shining model for other nations, or yet another cautionary tale.

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Author: Sylvie Patterson

I’m originally from Madison, WI and I plan on studying international economics at Trinity University.

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