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NEOM- A straight line to the future?

Of all the mega-ambitious mega-projects that Saudi Arabia has recently committed to, none come close to the scale and aspiration of NEOM. Amongst various grand statements, this city of the future, covering an area similar to Singapore and 1200km from Riyadh, is planned to be a living laboratory and a sustainable ecosystem for living and working. Well produced videos have been regularly released on social media about key aspects of the plan but until now these teasers have been somewhat ambiguous and it has been challenging to actually define what this might look like in reality.

So for those of us with an interest in the deliverables and opportunities of the mega-projects, it is welcome to finally learn some specifics. On January 10th, NEOM released a presentation by the Crown Prince, HH Mohamed bin Salman, launching "THE LINE", a city with no cars and no streets, that will be the urban core of the destination. In keeping with the project's enormous ambition, The Line will be a staggering 170km long, home to 1 million people and support 380,000 jobs. All regular activities and needs will be within 5 minutes walk of any dwelling. Residents will be able to access the natural environment within 5 minutes, and energy provision will be 100% renewable. The project will have 3 distinct levels, with a transportation spine on the lower-level, services in the middle and finally a pedestrian element at the ground level. Commuting will be fast, with the longest journey from end-to-end taking only 20 minutes.

Judging by social media commentary, the response to the announcement has been predominantly positive, although a project of this scale has also attracted inevitable cynicism. Building a city from scratch across 170km (however narrow) of desert terrain and multiple elevations will be no mean feat. Delivering on the objectives with the stated "minimal" environmental impact will also be challenging likely be well scrutinised. Putting the construction feasibility aside for one moment though, probably the biggest challenge The Line will face is attracting and sustaining a population over the long term without continuous subsidy. Can NEOM genuinely become a self-sustaining city that can withstand economic shocks (such as a pandemic) or will Riyadh be advised to build a budget that allows for some form of social safety-net and other mechanisms to support residents if required? Will Saudi need to relocate some major elements of government administration to NEOM to provide a core backbone for the city which in turn creates a private-sector ecosystem to service it? An approach such as this may help deliver a relatively stable economy and population like Canberra in Australia.

What is not in doubt are the commercial opportunities for relevant sectors in the development phase. Already NEOM is reaching out to establish key partnerships in areas such as water, health, renewable energy, food production, transportation and media to help develop solutions that deliver on the overall vision. In turn these major partners will require niche players in their industries to realise their objectives. Understanding NEOM's needs and procurement approaches will essential to positioning these companies for success.

We look forward to seeing further specific announcements and opportunities over the coming months.

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