A look into Saudi Arabia’s ‘The Line’: a futuristic utopia or dystopia?

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Intended to be a 110 miles long smart city with a population of nine million, resulting in a population density 38 times that of Hong Kong, Saudi Arabia’s ‘The Line’ raises questions as to whether it is merely a vanity project or an effective plan for some futuristic utopia.

Located in the province of Tabuk, near the border with Egypt, it is estimated to cost around $200 bn (some estimates placing it near $1 tn) and bring more than 400,000 jobs to the region.

As part of Crown Prince Salman’s ‘Saudi Vision 2030’ project, it is the latest in a whole heap of futuristic developments in the gulf region, the most recent being of course the Qatari FIFA World Cup. It is indeed hard not to contrast this project with the current atmosphere in employment; the region’s seemingly lax approach to workers’ rights and often underpaid South Asian immigrant labourers working under wealthy employers illustrate a different picture than that of the project.

In terms of engineering, it seems like a challenging project and will no doubt be one of the wonders of the modern world, should it be completed. It is intended to be completely carbon neutral, with no cars or roads. Logistically, however, it will be interesting to see how the state deals with supplying a city 110 miles long.

Logically, cities span an open area; the rationale behind the linear design is an interesting one that will ostensibly provide a shorter travel distance. Will we see transportation of the future, with possibilities including Maglev or even ‘Hyperloop’ trains?

It is difficult not to see the dystopian aspect

To take a more philosophical point of view, however, it is difficult not to see the dystopian aspect. Coming from an absolute monarchy with a differential approach to human rights, the city’s data collection scheme has caused some digital rights researchers to deem it a ‘surveillance city.’

In its early days of construction there have already been ‘issues’ to say the least. The project has displaced the native Howeitat tribe, even sentencing three to death after refusing to vacate their homes.

No matter the investment and engineering complexity, from a moral standpoint, actions as rash and strict as this so early into the project do not bode well for the future.

From an economic point of view, even for a state as rich as Saudi Arabia, financing the project has proved challenging. The ‘Public Investment Fund’, one of the largest sovereign wealth funds in the world, saw certain contributors withdraw from the project.

This began with the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul around four years ago. Since then companies such as JPMorgan, Blackrock, Google pulled out of conferences, alongside major media houses.

Thus, even with the project’s estimated £514 bn worth of assets, it is unlikely for construction to be completed on time, especially if Western, ‘supports’ continue backing away.

Transportation of the future with possibilities including Maglev or even Hyperloop trains

Also, whilst the regime has made sure to emphasise the ‘no emissions’ part of The Line, worldwide construction industry itself accounts for nearly 40% of worldwide energy- related CO2 emissions.

It is physically impossible to build a 1,600 ft tall building out of low carbon materials. Philip Oldfield, of the University of New South Wales, has estimated the carbon footprint of construction to be approximately 1.8 Gigatonnes of CO2 equivalent (for comparison the entirety of the UK produced 0.5 Gigatonnes CO2 equivalent in 2021 according to the ONS).

To summarise, whilst it will no doubt be a testament to mankind’s ingenuity and be a leap into the ever-promised ‘cities of tomorrow’, The Line is yet the latest thought experiment that is gone too far. The human cost has already been large enough, with the mentioned death sentences, and it is a harrowing thought to wonder what lies in store.

Image credit: Olympus E-M10 via Pixabay

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