Neom is arguably the world’s largest and most controversial architecture project. Here, we explain the key details of the development in Saudi Arabia, which includes The Line megacity.
What is Neom?
An initiative of crown prince Mohammed bin Salman – Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler – Neom is a large area of the country that has been earmarked for development.
Although often called a smart city, Neom is more accurately described as a region that will contain numerous cities, resorts and other developments.
The project is being largely bankrolled by the Public Investment Fund, which invests funds on behalf of the government of Saudi Arabia. The Saudi development company established to create Neom, which is led by chief executive officer Nadhmi Al-Nasr, claim the fund is contributing $500 billion to the scheme.
It forms part of the Saudi Vision 2030 plan to diversify the country’s economy in order to reduce its dependence on oil.
Where is Neom?
Neom encompasses an area of around 10,200 square miles (26,500 square kilometres) in northwestern Saudi Arabia. This is around the size of Albania.
The area is bounded by the Red Sea to the south and the Gulf of Aqaba to the west.
What will be in Neom?
According to the developer, Neom will consist of 10 projects that they refer to as regions. So far, details of four of the regions have been announced. These are The Line, which is the most well-known, Oxagon, Trojena and Sindalah.
The Line is planned to be a 170-kilometre linear city that will house nine million people. It will run from east to west across the Neom region. According to the developer, the city will consist of two parallel, 500-metre-high, linear skyscrapers standing 200 metres apart. The buildings will be clad with mirrored facades.
Oxagon is planned as an octagon-shaped port city that will be built on the Red Sea at the far south of the Neom region. According to Neom’s developer, the port and logistics hub will be the “world’s largest floating structure”.
Trojena is planned as ski resort in the Sarwat Mountains near the north of the Neom region. The 60-square-kilometre skiing and outdoor-activity resort will offer year-round skiing and is set to host the 2029 Asian Winter Games.
Sindalah is planned as an island resort within the Red Sea. Aimed at the yachting community, the 840,000-square-metre island will have an 86-berth marina and numerous hotels.
What architecture studios are designing Neom?
Only a handful of architecture studios have been officially announced as designers of the Neom project. US studio Aecom is listed as a partner on the Neom website.
The developer of Neom revealed that UK studio Zaha Hadid Architects, Dutch practice UNStudio, US studio Aedas, German studio LAVA and Australian studio Bureau Proberts are working on the design of the Trojena ski resort.
Dutch studio Mecanoo also confirmed to Dezeen that they were working on Trojena.
Italian superyacht and architecture studio Luca Dini Design and Architecture has been announced as the designer of the Sindalah resort.
Numerous other studios have been connected to Neom, with multiple studios named within an exhibition of The Line in Riyadh. However, the exhibition did not make clear the extent of involvement of the studios named and several told Dezeen that they are no longer working on the project.
US studio Morphosis has long been rumoured to be the lead architect of The Line and was included in the exhibition. Its founder Thom Mayne appeared to confirm this at a talk last month, in which he stated he was working on a city that he described as “a big planning thing in Saudi Arabia that I can’t talk about”.
Other studios believed to be working on The Line and named in the exhibition include: US practices Pei Cobb Freed & Partners, Tom Wiscombe Architecture, Oyler Wu Collaborative and HOK; UK studios Adjaye Associates and Peter Cook‘s studio CHAP; Austria studios Coop Himmelb(l)au and Delugan Meissl Associated Architects; and Italian practice Studio Fuksas.
Leading the design of the project is former deputy mayor of Barcelona Antoni Vives, who is The Line’s chief urban planning officer.
British architect Norman Foster was initially on the Neom advisory board but withdrew following Jamal Khashoggi’s murder. A spokesperson for his studio, Foster + Partners, confirmed that the firm is not currently working on the project.
When will Neom be built?
Neom is working to ambitious timelines, with much of the project set to be built by 2030.
Last year, drone footage was revealed showing site preparation for The Line taking place, while Neom recently released a video showing glimpses of progress on the site.
The first element scheduled for completion is the Sindalah luxury island, with the developer of Neom aiming to welcome its first guests in early 2024.
Port city Oxagon will follow shortly after, with the first residents planned to move in in 2024 and the onshore part of the city due to complete by 2030. Ski resort Trojena is set to open in 2026.
According to the developer, the largest element of Neom, The Line, will “be rolled out between now and 2045”. The aim is for one million people to be living in The Line by 2030. Some commentators have expressed scepticism about these timelines.
According to the developer, 2,400 staff already live and work at Neom.
Why is Neom controversial?
The Neom project has proved controversial due to three main concerns – sustainability, liveability and human rights.
There are numerous concerns about Saudi Arabia’s human rights record – Freedom House gave the country 7/100 in its global freedom scoring, while Amnesty International has published a list of 10 ways the country “violates human rights” on its website.
While there are broad concerns about human rights in Saudi Arabia and for the people who will be building the gigantic project, the direct controversies connected to Neom are related to evictions taking place ahead of construction.
The area that is set to be developed is the historic homeland of the Huwaitat tribe and it is estimated that around 20,000 tribe members will be relocated to accommodate the planned development.
In 2020, Abdul Rahim al-Huwaiti from the tribe posted videos online aiming to draw attention to these evictions. The BBC later reported that Al-Huwaiti was killed by Saudi security services.
Last year human rights organisation ALQST reported that three people connected to Al-Huwaiti, who were forcibly evicted from the Neom site in 2020, had been sentenced to death.
Speaking to Dezeen, Amnesty International’s Peter Frankental said that companies working on Neom were facing a “moral dilemma” and should “think twice” about their continuing involvement in the project.
Additionally, the developer of Neom have made many sustainability claims, with the development aiming to be powered by 100 per cent renewable sources.
“We see The Line as a unique opportunity to set a new benchmark for combining prosperity, livability and environmental preservation,” Neom’s executive director Tarek Qaddumi told Dezeen.
However, Neom – and The Line in particular – have been criticised for the expected embodied carbon associated with building the project. Philip Oldfield, head of the built environment school at the University of New South Wales, has estimated that upwards of 1.8 billion tonnes of embodied carbon dioxide will be produced.
He told Dezeen that this huge embodied carbon cost of construction “will overwhelm any environmental benefits”.
Experts talking to Dezeen were also concerned over the mirrored facades’ impact on animal and birdlife.
On liveability, Bin Salman stated that The Line “will challenge the traditional flat, horizontal cities and create a model for nature preservation and enhanced human liveability”.
However, according to experts the liveability claims would rest on how the city is maintained.
“These images project a degree of control which is very difficult to retain, especially over a period of time, even in a very autocratic society,” said associate professor of architecture at Princeton University Marshall Brown.
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