The video presenting the designs for The Line, a proposed new city in north-western Saudi Arabia, could be the opening scene of a straight-to-TV sci-fi film, seconds before the zombies clamber over each other and overrun the desperate defenders. The designs show a city built between two straight walls perfectly parallel to one another, reaching 500 metres into the sky and stretching 170 kilometres. The walls are clad on the outside in a mirrored façade which reflects the surrounding desert. The Saudi government appears serious about pressing ahead with the all-too-real project, which was first announced last year.
The Line – a personal project of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS), the pro-women’s rights reformer who approved the 2018 killing of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul – will supposedly be home to nine million people when it is completed. The two ends of the urban quadrilateral are to be connected by a rail line running at over 500km/hr, much faster than the best high-speed rail systems currently available.
The entire metropolis will apparently be car free. This might be difficult for MBS – who reportedly requested 350 limousines while on a recent visit to Greece – to get used to. The public information available about The Line seems to be predominantly concerned with boosting the ego of MBS (now freshly rehabilitated as Western leaders line up to vie for his country’s oil, as if they’d never heard Khashoggi’s name at at all).
The project’s website is full of tech buzzwords and vacuous PR jargon. The description of The Line reads more like a final-year bachelor’s degree project than a real plan that a petro-dictatorship is prepared to sink billions of dollars into building.
The city’s “automated services” will be run by “artificial intelligence,” asserts a section of the website titled “more time to spend with loved ones”. It goes on to boldly claim that “everything will be accessible within a five-minute walk” for residents.
Another section claims that The Line’s residents will enjoy “a perfect climate all-year-round”. Although it’s probably easier to guarantee more sunny days per year in Mecca than Malmö, even the most unfettered Middle Eastern dictator can’t control the weather. Then again, a city pitched as offering “zero-gravity living” doesn’t seem to care much for trivialities such as “the atmosphere” or “the laws of physics”.
The Line is a central part of the Saudi government’s ambitious project to build Neom, a $500bn city MBS once promised would be “a civilisational leap for humanity”. Much of Neom – of which The Line is one part – was meant to open by 2020, with more sections of the city being completed by 2025. Yet when an Economist correspondent visited the site this year, he found just two buildings had been completed (a visitor centre and a palace for MBS – as clear an indication of the dynamics behind the project as any). The Line, however, is technically only two buildings.
The Line would not be the first city to spring out of the Middle Eastern desert. Dubai, which today is one of the most developed cities in the world, was barely more than dirt roads and sand five decades ago. Egypt is building an as-yet-unnamed capital to alleviate pressure on Cairo, one of the most congested cities in the world.
Even so, there is something particularly surreal about The Line’s obvious impracticality that gives it the vibe of an idea greenlighted by someone no one says no to. For the same reasons that The Line has attracted more attention than Egypt’s new capital, it will almost certainly never be built. Yet for some reason, the project lives on, every additional detail coming to light proving why tech bro culture meeting unfettered Middle Eastern autocracy is the intersection of some of the worst trends of our era.