Saudis Are Pushing Ahead With Desert Megaproject

But sources say plans for 105-mile-long city have been scaled back in the medium term
By Rob Quinn,  Newser Staff
Posted May 8, 2024 12:47 PM CDT
Saudi Megaproject Could Be Losing Momentum
This satellite photo from Planet Labs PBC shows the empty desert around where the future city of Neom, Saudi Arabia, is planned.   (Planet Labs PBC via AP)

Saudi Arabia is pushing ahead with a project so big that merely building housing for construction workers will cost an estimated $5 billion—but the Neom project is not going entirely smoothly. The Wall Street Journal reports the megaproject is losing momentum amid rising costs and major blunders, including one in which a mountain of excavated dirt had to be moved because it was dumped on the site of a planned waterway to the Red Sea.

  • The project. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has likened Neom to the Great Pyramids and made it the main focus of his plans to transform the country's economy. Plans call for a 105-mile-long city in the desert, known as "the Line," with a projected population of 9 million people living in skyscrapers taller than the Empire State Building.

  • A shorter line. Insiders told Bloomberg last month that medium-term ambitions for the project had been significantly scaled back, with the Line now expected to be just 1.5 miles long by 2030, rather than the initial target of 10 miles, with a population of around 300,000. The sources say some construction workers had been laid off, though other Neom projects remain on track, including solar and wind farms to produce "green hydrogen."
  • Minister claims it's "full steam ahead." In late April, Faisal Al Ibrahim, the country's economy minister, told CNBC that plans had not been scaled back, though he acknowledged that decisions were being made for "optimal economic impact" and officials want to avoid overheating the economy.
  • Rising costs. Neom's official estimated cost is $500 billion—steep even for a country as rich as Saudi Arabia—but Neom employees say the true price tag could be $2 trillion or higher just to complete the Line, the Journal reports. The Saudi government is funding the project, and high construction costs mean it is unlikely to attract much private investment.
  • A white elephant in the desert? The Journal notes that while urban planners have long proposed linear cities, people have been building cities around a core for thousands of years. "It's battling against the entire history of the way cities are founded and grow," says John E. Fernandez, professor in the department of architecture at MIT.
(More Saudi Arabia stories.)

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