Saudi Arabia has started building a gigantic planned city in the middle of the desert. Nine million people should one day live in Neom on the Red Sea and not emit any greenhouse gases. The mega project has many critics.

The world was different when Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman unveiled the Neom mega-project in 2017. The oil price shock of 2014 was only three years ago, the barrel still cost less than 60 dollars and the chances that it would ever go up again were slim. For oil-dependent nations like Saudi Arabia, it was clear that the age of their black gold was coming to an end in the foreseeable future.

So, together with his consultants, Salman drafted “Vision 2030”. By the end of the decade, the crown prince, who effectively governs the country, wants to restructure the state away from oil and towards modern technologies and future-oriented industries. Neom is the biggest symbol of this change. A gigantic planned city is to be built on the westernmost tip of the Arabian Peninsula, directly opposite the Sinai Peninsula, 26,500 square kilometers in size and thus larger than Hesse and almost as big as Belgium.

Construction on Neom started back in 2015. In a first step, Saudi Arabia expanded an unpaved military runway into an international airport. Workers and goods are mainly flown in via the “Neom Airport”. But there are already scheduled connections to Riyadh, Dubai, Damman, Jeddah and London. The international experts hired by Saudi Arabia for the construction of Neom, including many Germans, are flown in via the latter.

There is a lot of money to be made in the desert for German companies. Thyssenkrupp, for example, is building the world’s largest hydrogen factory in Neom. The Bavarian Bauer AG ensures that the buildings to be erected later stand on solid ground in the shallow desert sand. The Bruchsal-based company Volocopter recently announced an investment of 175 million dollars from the UK to provide Neom with air taxis. And the former Siemens manager Klaus Kleinfeld was in charge of the construction of the planned city for a long time. He is now only an advisor to the crown prince. The Saudi Nadhmi Al-Nasr has now taken over the CEO post. He was previously on the board of state oil giant Aramco.

Its IPO is to help finance the megacity. The costs are estimated at up to 500 billion dollars, although the money is to be spent over 30 years. The first phase of construction is scheduled to be completed in 2030. In addition to the already completed coastal city of Sharma Airport, this includes a floating commercial port 89 kilometers south in Duba called “Oxagon”, an up to 250 square kilometer industrial park 25 kilometers north of Duba, the ski resort of Trojena 50 kilometers inland on Arabia’s highest mountain range at around 2000 meters and “The Line”.

The latter is probably the most spectacular project of the first construction phase: The Line is a 170-kilometer-long and only 200-meter-wide city that is to rise from the Red Sea inland through the desert. Nine million people are said to live here in countless residential towers up to 500 meters high, sealed off from the desert only by glass walls. Roads are not planned, underground trains and the German air taxis are supposed to transport goods and people. All energy for The Line is to be obtained from renewable energies, in and around the city the desert is to be greened. The Line would end up with a population density of 260,000 people per square kilometer. For comparison: Munich, the most densely populated city in Germany, has 4,700 people, Manila, the world leader, has 44,000. The first people are expected to move in here next year.

Saudi Arabia plans to deploy many other future technologies in Neom, such as 5G as a mobile communications standard, cameras and artificial intelligence to intelligently control the city, as well as autonomous cars and robots in every imaginable place.

But the grandiose plans have – as usual – downsides. First, while the Red Sea region is largely desert, it is not uninhabited. Tens of thousands of Bedouins have already been forcibly resettled, demonstrators have been given the death penalty, and entire villages have been leveled to the desert floor. As was the case recently with the World Cup in Qatar, the accommodation and treatment of guest workers from Asia who are building Neom are also under discussion. So far, the conditions here seem to be better than in the neighboring country, although human rights organizations have also criticized Neom.

It is also questionable where the nine million people who will one day populate Neom will come from. Only 35 million people live in Saudi Arabia itself, plus around eleven million guest workers. So the kingdom obviously hopes for migrants from other countries, preferably from industrialized countries. However, since these often have no desire to move to a country where Islamic Sharia law still applies, Neom is given the status of an autonomous region. The city can therefore set up its own legal and tax system, both of which should be based more on western models. Why this is only possible in Neom and not in the rest of the country defies the logic of the observer.

The implementation of Neom is also not that easy politically. Also part of the construction plan is a bridge across the Strait of Tiran, dividing Saudi Arabia and Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. For the bridge, the two countries first had to settle a decades-long dispute over the islands of Tiran and Sanafir in the strait in 2016. Egypt now accepts the Saudi claim to the islands, but rumor has it that they paid for it with several billion euros. However, Egypt is not the only neighbor with which Saudi Arabia must cooperate.

Israel also has to agree to the construction of the bridge, even though the Jewish state begins 180 kilometers further north. However, the 1979 Camp David Peace Treaty between Israel and its neighbors stipulates that Israel is guaranteed free access to the Red Sea and the Suez Canal via the Straits of Tiran. At least during the construction phase, this access is likely to be restricted. To date, Israel and Saudi Arabia have not agreed on the construction. Officially, the two countries have not had diplomatic relations with each other for decades. However, Neom could lead to more cooperation here. While Saudi Arabia would like to build a bridge to Egypt to connect the East African market more quickly, Israel would like to have flight rights to Saudi airspace to reach destinations in Asia faster.

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