The Line
© Ivo Christov/Speedpool
August 2021

The Line

How a city is supposed to grow 170 kilometers (106 miles) into the desert and secure the future of Saudi Arabia, and what European experts think of the plan.

What can be seen here so far is stones, mountains and water galore, but soon the Saudi Arabian side of the Red Sea is supposed to become home to an urban landscape in an area that could accommodate New York City thirty-three times. The Arabian Peninsula is no place for skeptics, as the construction boom proves on its eastern coast, in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Even so, it’s hard to believe what the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud, is planning as the city of the future in the middle of the desert and has named Neom. A sub-project of Neom is The Line, a green linear city for which the vision of Neom has been fed concretely into a master plan since February 2021.

  • The Line
    is supposed to be energy self-sufficient and carbon-neutral.
  • Car-free
    residential level with green and recreational areas.
  • Supply and support level
    with shops, services and motorized short-haul transportation.
  • Besides Hyperloop high-speed systems,
    freight and regional trains are planned to travel on the third level.
  • 380,000
    forward-focused jobs are supposed to be created by The Line.
  • 1 million
    residents are planned to be distributed to the consecutive urbanizations of The Line.

“Neom and the linear city ‘The Line’ are more than mere PR. They’re realistic because the Crown Prince is driving the country’s transformation,” says a person who knows what he’s talking about. Professor Rainer Schmidt, a town and country planner from Munich, used to teach at the universities of Beijing and Berkeley, and planned and implemented numerous large-scale urban and landscaping projects, including some in the Arabian world. He’s been familiar with the region, the project plans, the developments and the decision-making structures on the Arabian Peninsula for decades. He knows that Neom and The Line are not utopian delusions of grandeur but the beginning of necessary social and economic change in the region – for a prospect of life without oil and with more personal freedom, as Rainer Schmidt says: “The people there are raising their voice.”

Sebastian Sons shares this view. He’s an expert on Saudi Arabia with the German Council on Foreign Relations and in a “Deutschlandfunk” radio broadcast said: “Saudi Arabia has been undergoing fundamental social change for years.” For him, too, the Saudi Arabian urban utopias are “a signal to us, to the West, to portray Saudi Arabia as something that it never before has been perceived as, that is as a country striving to enter modernity.”

Utopian or feasible?

The Line is a linear city of 170 kilometers (106 miles) in length connecting the Saudi Arabian desert with the Straits of Tiran in the northern part of the Red Sea. The location is strategically attractive. Across from it, on the opposite side of the coast, is Sharm el Sheik, one of the most important and high-revenue tourist resorts in the Middle East, just a few hours away from Europe by plane and located in Egypt, a political ally. This is where Saudi Arabia, by forging links with Egypt not just figuratively but also architecturally, wants to establish a closer connection to the West and demonstrate its fitness for the future around the world. The satellite towns of The Line are planned to be carbon-neutral and self-sufficient using “clean” energy. To achieve these objectives, the Line with its districts arranged like a pearl strand will organize itself on three layered levels. Intended uses and space are supposed to be interlinked as efficiently as possible in this way: an above-ground level with residential, green and recreational areas. The level below it is planned to accommodate underground shopping malls with stores for everyday needs, plus a network for autonomous short-distance travel. The project promises a maximum walk of five minutes from home to all everyday destinations, because The Line is supposed to be car- and even road-free, at least above the ground. On the third and lowest level, autonomous vehicles will haul people and goods in several tubes across medium distances. According to the plans, a Hyperloop train will cover the entire 170-kilometer (106-mile) distance in a maximum of 20 minutes, which calls for a speed of more than 500 km/h (310 mph). As a smart city, data about all processes are supposed to be captured and enhance the efficiency of the infrastructure by means of artificial intelligence.

It’s impossible to build a city with such a huge underground infrastructure

Vicente Guallart,
Spanish architect and city planner

The Spanish architect Vicente Guallart, a planner of several low-traffic and “CO2-absorbing” cities, voiced criticism during a broadcast of the German cultural TV program “Aspekte”: “The Line will never be built, simply because it’s impossible to build a city with such a huge underground infrastructure.” Rainer Schmidt has a different view: “The mobility structure with the Hyperloop, for instance, is evolving and certainly possible.”

Water and soil management for the desert

The environmental dimension is another issue raised by critics: 170 kilometers (106 miles) of area planted with greenery in the middle of the desert seems to be wasteful and inefficient in view of extremely scarce water resources. Rainer Schmidt counters this point as well, reporting about the success of a forested park in Riyadh he’d planned: “With efficient irrigation systems, with water and soil treatment – by enhancing soil with bacteria, for instance – sustainable greening of the desert is possible.” Plus, he refers to the afforestation project of the Sahara that not only is feasible but even sensible and necessary for environmental reasons in order to increase the water storage capacity of the soil and to prevent the spread of the desert. Water management and greening of dry regions could in the long run enable the necessary water supply and high-yield local farming in growing urban areas in Africa and the Arabian region, according to Schmidt. Critics on the other hand fear that exactly the opposite is true: The Line might tap into the valuable ground water reservoir that formed some 25,000 years ago when the Arabian Peninsula was still a green savannah and is among the largest ones on Earth. The entire region, especially Jordan, benefits from this non-renewable resource.

The Line© Ivo Christov/Speedpool
Cosmopolitan and pioneering?

Irrespective of the environmental considerations, the question arises whether The Line will be able to attract enough people and investors from all over the world in the first place. After all, the Saudi Arabian legal system and the degree of freedom for ethnic or other minorities, critics and women clearly differ from those of democratically ruled countries from which many of the investors, guests and future residents might hail. And they are essential, as Rainer Schmidt points out: “Financing of the project strictly by earnings from the petroleum sector is not realistic.” So, will the ­project boost social change in Saudi Arabia, in terms of democracy and a pluralistic and liberal society? Sebastian Sons puts the answer in perspective: “That has its limits and the limits are where the conservative clergy, the religious scholars, are massively affected, because Saudi Arabia is based on a very conservative and strict interpretation of Islam, which cannot be upended just like that.” That’s why, more than likely, says Schmidt, a free trade zone with a separate legal status for Neom and The Line would be inevitable. Should the project become a technological, environmental and social success it might be able to drive development in other desert regions, especially in Africa, with transferable solutions for water management, farming and urbanization. So, aside from the hype, The Line engenders a lot of hope for the future.

Short distances are gaining ground

The reconstruction of Europe after the Second World War inspired planners as a major opportunity for change: As more and more people became motorized, cities were planned in more spacious style, and seemingly efficiently and functionally divided into spheres of living, working, shopping and transportation. However, many of the satellite districts that emerged in the process proved neither pedestrian-friendly nor vibrant and atmospheric. Because these suburbs with their mono-structures had little capacity for change they were highly crisis-prone when confronted with changing social and economic developments and turned into socially deprived neighborhoods. In many areas, the anticipated efficiency of functional division was thrown into reverse. Since the middle of the nineteen-nineties, if not earlier, the mixed, concentrated city has been the ideal again – in Paris, for instance. Its mayor, Ann Hidalgo, proclaimed the “city of the 15 minutes”: Similar to the plan in The Line, all things of everyday life – including work – are supposed to be accessible on foot or by bike within a few minutes in Paris’ neighborhoods by the end of the decade. The coronavirus elevated the idea of self-sufficient sub-centers onto the desks of many urban planners, where people’s homes turn into safe havens and life is supposed to take place within immediate proximity. But critics of such decentralized concepts have been raising their hands as well. The journalist Alice Delaleu, for instance, wrote in the “Chroniques d’architecture” online magazine: “By creating the ‘city of the 15 minutes’ Paris is building new walls and descending into egoism,” particularly with regard to segregating poorer neighborhoods on the outskirts. Other critics fear that less mobile segments of the population such as senior citizens or people with disabilities will be disadvantaged.

The Line© Digital Vision/Getty
Rosa Grewe
Author Rosa Grewe
Rosa Grewe is a journalist specialized in architecture, construction technology and urban development. She loves cities and finds especially the non-perfect ones just perfect. The ones that keep changing with their people and their times. The ones that in their smallest free spaces surprise you with ample space to breathe. Living in a perfectly organized planned city? That wouldn’t be her cup of tea.