The Line is a one-building city in the desert that will span 106 miles (170 km) and eventually house nine million people. This futuristic city, part of the Neom project, will be built in the northwest of the Gulf country, near the Red Sea, according to an announcement by the kingdom’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Originally scheduled for completion in 2025, the Crown Prince insists the ambitious project is on track. He also said the goal is to make Saudi Arabia an economic powerhouse by attracting more citizens to the country. That said, Saudi officials say they have no plans to lift the kingdom’s ban on alcohol, including in this city.

The city’s compact design will ensure that residents can reach everything they need – homes, schools and workplaces – within a five-minute walk. A network of walkways at different levels will connect the buildings. The city will be without roads or cars. An express train will run from one end to the other in 20 minutes, and the Line will run exclusively on renewable energy, with no CO₂ emissions. Open urban spaces and the incorporation of nature will ensure air quality.

The Crown Prince spoke of a radical change in urban planning – vertical communities in layers that challenge the horizontal and flat, traditional large cities, as well as preserving nature, improving the quality of life and creating new ways of living. However, according to confidential documents leaked to the Wall Street Journal, project staff are concerned about whether people actually want to live so close together. They are also concerned that the size of the structure could alter groundwater flow in the desert and affect the movement of birds and animals.

Shade is also a challenge for construction. The lack of sunlight inside the 1640-foot (500m) tall building could prove detrimental to health. CNN writes that while some critics doubt it’s even technologically feasible, others have described The Line as “dystopian”. The idea is so big, extravagant and complicated that the project’s own architects and economists reportedly are not sure it will become a reality, writes The Guardian.

Human rights groups are also critical of the Neom project, claiming that the local population in the northwest is being displaced with violence and threats. Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN) claims that 20,000 members of the Huwaitat tribe have been displaced without adequate compensation. Saudi Arabia has long been criticized for human rights abuses. The effort to forcibly displace the original population violates all norms and rules of international human rights legislation, says DAWN director Sarah Leah Whitson.

Additionally, employers still control the movement and legal status of migrants in the country through the kafala system, which has been described as modern-day slavery. According to HRW, it is widespread that passports are confiscated and wages are not paid. Guest workers who leave their employers without permission can be imprisoned and deported.

Ahead of the COP26 climate conference last fall, bin Salman launched a green initiative for the desert nation, with the goal of zero emissions by 2060. Cambridge College researcher Joanna Depledge, an expert on climate negotiations, believes the initiative does not stand up to closer scrutiny. The Neom project, which includes “The Line” city plan, stems from a vision of making Saudi Arabia less dependent on oil. However, Saudi Arabia is increasing its oil production; according to Bloomberg, the energy minister has stated that the country will pump oil until the last very last drop.

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