China: key partner for NEOM's ambitious Saudi project

NEOM is seeking to diversify its investment portfolio by attracting Chinese funds, thus strengthening its position as a futuristic innovation and development hub in Saudi Arabia
Tarek Qaddumi (dcha.), director ejecutivo del megaproyecto saudí NEOM, gesticula ante un mapa que muestra los emplazamientos de NEOM junto a Nicholas Ho (izq.), alto funcionario de Hong Kong responsable de la aplicación de la iniciativa china "Belt and Road" - PHOTO/Holmes CHAN / AFP
Tarek Qaddumi (right), executive director of the Saudi NEOM megaproject, gestures at a map showing NEOM sites with Nicholas Ho (left), a senior Hong Kong official responsible for implementing China's Belt and Road initiative - PHOTO/Holmes CHAN / AFP
  1. NEOM: “The Land of Future”
  2. China's investment plays a key role
  3. Why is China chosen by Saudi Arabia as a potential investor?
  4. The Line, Oxagon, Trojena and Sindalah
  5. Is The Line really sustainable and viable?
  6. How can spaces that foster human interaction and community vitality be created in such a linear and homogenous environment?

 The ambitions of Saudi Arabia's leaders seem endless. NEOM is probably the world's largest, most futuristic and advanced architectural challenge. Officials toured China with the aim of attracting investors, presenting the project's plans. 

 Continued efforts to decouple the economy from oil have led the Saudi royal family to undertake the construction of pharaonic projects such as The Line, Sindalah, Oxagon and Trojena. Self-described as 'the land of the future', NEOM sees itself as having the power and ambition to redefine livability and business. 

NEOM: “The Land of Future”

Following the creation of Saudi Vision 2030 on 25 April 2016, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman announced an ambitious programme to diversify the economy and improve the quality of life for government institutions and citizens - NEOM.

Sede del Banco de Inversiones de Capital del BCN con retratos del rey Salman y el príncipe heredero Mohamed bin Salman  - <a  data-cke-saved-href="" href="">Depositphotos</a>
Headquarters of the NCB Capital Investment Bank with portraits of King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman - Depositphotos

NEOM is a global hub open for business. Based on the development of a sustainable and forward-looking economy and setting new standards for talent and business, it gives a new meaning to urbanism where people and environmental care are the top priority. 

The region's networks and connectivity will become a model for the future and establish a new global standard of living. Protection, conservation and regeneration are at the heart of the NEOM model. 

En esta ilustración se pueden ver los emplazamientos de la empresa saudí NEOM - <a  data-cke-saved-href="" href="">Depositphotos</a>
This illustration shows the sites of the Saudi company NEOM - Depositphotos

It will form the world's largest talent-driven and diverse community in 14 sectors such as development and manufacturing, water treatment, advances in digital technology, bringing entertainment and culture to another plane, providing quality education, increasing investment and development in research and innovation, improving and adapting designs and buildings to Net Zero objectives, etc. 

China's investment plays a key role

Over the past three decades, China's remarkable economic growth and high population have made it the world's largest CO2 emitter in absolute terms, accounting for 28% of the global total in 2018. 

The problem of overpopulation has always been a headache for the Asian giant's leaders. Renewable energies are highly sustainable in the long term, but their current cost of implementation is extremely high. This, in a country of more than 1.42 billion people, is a major challenge. 

A pesar de todo el optimismo, la economía de 3,5 billones de dólares de la India sigue siendo pequeña en comparación con los 17,8 billones de china - <a  data-cke-saved-href="" href="">Depositphotos</a>
Located on the central coast of the Chinese giant, Shanghai is the country's largest city, one of the most populous in the world with more than 26 million people - Depositphotos

Economic progress and growth are the basis for the development of the Asian giant's wealth. With a 20-fold increase in its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) so far this century, China is already one of the most powerful economic powers in the world. Such is the strength of its economy that even in 2020, the year in which the COVID-19 pandemic began, it grew at a rate of 2.1%.

It plays an active role in promoting projects around the world. It currently buys public debt from more than 60 countries, most of them in Africa, and is a major player in international trade. 

 One of the main issues for China's short-term future is compliance with measures to curb global warming, as it consumes 40% of the world's coal. This is why the Saudi project is attracting the attention of Chinese investors. 

 Crecimiento económico es sinónimo de China - <a  data-cke-saved-href="" href="">Depositphotos</a>
 Economic growth is synonymous with China - Depositphotos

Why is China chosen by Saudi Arabia as a potential investor?

The unviability of the project is one of the problems that China wants to solve. Capable of the best and the worst, the People's Republic would not be averse to being part of the project. Being the most polluting country in the world is the label that Xi Jinping's government wants to get rid of. To this end, over the last decade it has pushed forward its Net Zero by 2060 programme with a view to its completion by 2050.

To achieve neutrality, it will need to invest more than 20 trillion euros in areas such as clean energy generation, advanced energy storage and carbon-free buildings. If the world is to meet the Paris climate goals, it is essential that China has a strategy to achieve net zero emissions by mid-century. 

El problema de la superpoblación en China es uno de los principales quebraderos de cabeza del Gobierno chino - <a  data-cke-saved-href="" href="">Depositphotos</a>
China's overpopulation problem is one of the main headaches for the Chinese government - Depositphotos

Despite the presentations in Hong Kong, led by Tariq al-Qaddoumi, executive director of Urban Planning at NEOM, and Leonard Chan, chairman of the Hong Kong Innovative Technology Development Association, the reaction from potential investors was mixed. While the exhibition helped make NEOM "less mysterious," according to Chan, the reactions of the guests were "fairly neutral". 

This neutrality can be attributed to concerns about the feasibility and perception of the project. Some investors, such as Plato Yip, head of the environmental organisation Friends of the Earth in Hong Kong, expressed feelings of being "imprisoned" within the project, while others, such as Finance Minister Mohammed al-Jadaan, pointed to the importance of sustainable foreign investment for the country's development. The feeling among the Chinese upon learning of the project was one of neutrality and concern about its long-term viability and perception.

Hong Kong se ha convertido en uno de los principales focos financieros a nivel mundial - <a  data-cke-saved-href="" href="">Depositphotos</a>
Hong Kong has become one of the world's leading financial centres - Depositphotos

The Line, Oxagon, Trojena and Sindalah

Over the years, NEOM has been implementing new projects to its portfolio. Since the implementation of the Sovereign Wealth Fund as part of the financing and the annexation of Saudi Aramco to the project in 2018, growth has been exponential. The first project completed by the company was NEOM Bay Airport. Although its international expansion took a big leap with the opening of The Line project.

The Line is the jewel in the crown and the one on which the Saudi kingdom is relying on for the future of its economy.  The project unveiled in 2022 consisted of two connected main skyscrapers over 488 metres high that would run more than 170 kilometres in a straight line. A self-sustainable city with no CO2 emissions, with high-speed train connections linking the two ends of the city in 20 minutes. 

AFP PHOTO / HO / NEOM - Una imagen proporcionada por NEOM el 5 de octubre muestra una vista del plan de diseño para Trojena, un área en la megaciudad planificada de NEOM en Arabia Saudí elegida para albergar los Juegos Asiáticos de Invierno de 2029
An image provided by NEOM on 5 October shows a view of the design plan for Trojena, an area in NEOM's planned megacity in Saudi Arabia chosen to host the 2029 Asian Winter Games - AFP PHOTO / HO / NEOM

The support following the announcement of The Line led NEOM and Saudi Vision 2030's top leaders to announce the new floating city model: Oxagon. This project, located at a strategic crossing point for cargo ships coming from South East Asia to Europe, will fight to be one of the most important ports in the world and the first zero energy cost port. 

Ambition did not stop at Oxagon. The sporting success of the Middle East region following the holding of the World Cup in Qatar and the announcement of the World Cup in Saudi Arabia for 2034, motivated the development of Trojena, the largest and most advanced sports complex in the world. It is scheduled to open in 2026 and its first major event will be the Asian Winter Games in 2029.

Sindalah es donde la naturaleza se encuentra con el diseño responsable, la tecnología de vanguardia y la arquitectura inspiradora. Ofreciendo experiencias inolvidables tanto sobre como bajo el mar, excelentes conexiones con el cercano Mediterráneo y excelentes campos de golf. Sindalah ofrece diversión durante todo el año gracias a su clima perfecto. El complejo incluirá un club de playa, un club náutico, un spa y centro de bienestar, además de 51 tiendas de lujo, un hotel de lujo y un gran puerto deportivo. 

AFP/SAUDI ROYAL PALACE / BANDAR AL-JALOUD - El príncipe heredero saudí Mohammed bin Salman inaugurando The Line, una ciudad verde con capacidad para cerca de un millón de personas, en NEOM, una zona del noroeste del reino actualmente en desarrollo
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman inaugurating The Line, a green city with a capacity for nearly one million people, in NEOM, an area in the northwest of the kingdom currently under development - AFP/SAUDI ROYAL PALACE / BANDAR AL-JALOUD

Is The Line really sustainable and viable?

It has taken two years to begin to see the first cracks in the pharaonic Saudi royal project at the hands of NEOM. 

The Line project in Saudi Arabia, promoted by NEOM, proposes a radical vision of urbanism. In a world where technological innovation and advanced urban planning are increasingly prominent, this project aims to redefine the boundaries of what a city can be. However, as we contemplate the potential of this straight-line city, it is crucial to reflect on how it might affect the human experience and the quality of life of those who inhabit it.

When the project was first unveiled, The Line was expected to be home to 9 million inhabitants, but expectations have been drastically reduced and now only just over 250,000 people are expected to live there. This significant reduction raises doubts about the long-term viability and attractiveness of the project. In addition, it has been announced that, due to economic problems, only approximately 2.8 km of the originally planned 170 km will be built, calling into question the full implementation of the project. 

Living in a city laid out in a straight line raises questions about the very essence of what it means to live in a community. Traditional cities are characterised by diversity of space, social interaction and connection to nature. Winding alleys, urban parks and bustling markets are fundamental elements of the urban experience. In contrast, a straight-line city may lack the vitality and distinctive character that define traditional cities. 

How can spaces that foster human interaction and community vitality be created in such a linear and homogenous environment?

Linear design presents unique challenges for urban design and spatial planning. The variety and diversity of spaces can result in monotonous and impersonal experiences for residents. Even in these designed cities, there are few opportunities for parks, green spaces and natural environments, which can lead to a loss of connection to nature.

Traditional cities are often places where people from different backgrounds and lifestyles live and interact, fostering diversity and tolerance. However, in a homogenous environment such as The Line, there is a risk of creating isolated groups with limited interaction and cultural exchange. 

Another aspect to consider is how linear cities can affect the emotional and psychological well-being of their inhabitants. Architecture and urban planning have a huge impact on people's mood and mental health. The lack of visual variety and the feeling of being confined to a linear space can create feelings of claustrophobia and isolation. 

In conclusion, as we explore the opportunities and challenges of Saudi Arabia's The Line project, it is worth considering the wider implications of living in a linear city. This radical approach to urban planning promises innovation and efficiency, but raises important questions about the meaning of urban life and the quality of life for residents. 

 Careful analysis and planning is required to ensure that The Line is not only functional and efficient, but also a humane and liveable place for those who call it home.