The Coming Desert Metropolis

(Photo: Arabisk London)

By Joel Moffat – Regular Contributor

Out of the barren deserts surrounding the Red Sea, the rumblings of major plans gather speed in Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Both Arab nations have initiated world-class urban projects as showcases for their respective countries. Such projects have historically provided ample opportunity for financial misuse and personal vanity projects. They have a particular attraction to authoritarian governments, as the cities of Nur-Sultan and Ashgabat attest to. Indeed, very few have developed into functional cities. The new projects in Egypt and Saudi may not seem especially noteworthy, yet their sheer scale and ambition rival few cases in the modern world. Certainly, the vision of Saudi Arabia’s NEOM represents an urban space of a radically different, if not dubious, nature. Yet both projects have proven extremely controversial, furthering the agenda of domestic authoritarian institutions, and being associated with rampant human rights abuse in their construction.  

Egypt’s New Capital:

The mounting pressures of Cairo’s rapid and unregulated growth have fostered the need to export the country’s administration from its cramped streets. Holding over 20 million people, and with projections for that figure to double before 2050, the Arab world’s greatest urban centre suffers from chronic congestion and pollution. 45km east of the capital, a $40 billion project mid-way through construction emerges from the desert – ‘Cairo New City’. The project currently lacks an official name, but rumours suggest the simple name ‘Egypt’. 

Beyond the need to move administration away from the claustrophobic city centre, the finished project is intended to be a major new population centre, holding up to 6.5 million inhabitants at completion. The project’s official website also claims completion will create 1.75 million new jobs. Construction of the city itself could induce a large and much-desired economic boost from contractors and construction workers. The opportunity has attracted international bids, with China joining the growing list of global competitors. 

However, the actual target market for this large new housing market is not yet clear. The average cost of housing in the new city sits at $50,000, a major indulgence for a country whose average annual income sits just over $3,000. Considering the relative affluence of the urban environment, the city may look to attract a new migrant population, similar to the success cities across the Gulf had in attracting majority immigrant populations. Global immigration made Dubai a world-renowned city.

To ensure this international image, Egypt’s new capital will host a number of major prestigious projects. The Oblisco Capitale will certainly be the most visible of these. At a planned 1km height, it will be the tallest building on earth. Just across the Red Sea, Saudi Arabia has also sanctioned construction of its own 1km tall building in Jeddah. The city has also planned a number of other attractions, including a green zone twice the size of Central Park, and a theme park four times that of Disneyland. These may seem false, albeit marketable, ambitions, yet some such projects have already been completed. The recently unveiled Nativity of Christ is the largest cathedral in the Middle East, and Al-Fattah Al-Aleem Mosque is the largest in Egypt.  

The financing of the project has been a cause of serious concern. 51% of the company overseeing management is owned by the Egyptian military. Since its coup in 2013, the military has been pursuing greater influence in Egyptian society. Whether success or failure the military will reap the greatest rewards from the city, not the government and certainly not the inhabitants of Cairo. The military oversees the selling of new houses and gains control over Cairo government buildings abandoned by the move. Underneath the marketable glamour and ambition of Egypt’s new capital lies the authoritarian tendencies and military institutions that threaten the Arab world’s most populous country. 


On the other side of the Red Sea, a project of even greater aspirations begins initial construction. Indeed, NEOM may be a project impossible to ever realise. The name refers to the Greek word for ‘new’ (neo) and the Arabic word for ‘future’ (mustaqbal). Its marketing reeks of the self-assured and ignorant privilege of the Kingdom’s young crown prince, Mohammad Bin Salman (MBS). The project’s budget of $500 billion is an eye-watering sum even for the deep pockets of the Saudi royal family; over 10 times the budget for Egypt’s new capital. NEOM is not only the pet project of MBS but will be the shining achievement of Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030, a plan to weed the kingdom’s economy away from dependency on oil.      

The city’s grandest achievement is known as ‘The Line’. It is a 175km singular, perfectly straight street that is advertised as revolutionising the urban experience. It is claimed that the street will be absent of cars, and that end-to-end travel will take as little time as 20 minutes. Not only is functional living on ‘The Line’ difficult to imagine, it is hard to see why anyone would consider this to be a desirable place to live. Surrounding this central line, the greater urban area of NEOM will cover an area of 26,500 square kilometres, greater than that of neighbouring Kuwait. 

Central to NEOM’s public imaging has been its innovative environmental concept. ‘The Line’ has a ban on cars, but the rest of the urban area will allow for access to every important amenity within a five-minute walk. The large distances between populated areas, oil-focussed economy, and exceedingly high temperatures have ensured the Kingdom’s fixation with the automobile. The viability of a ban is yet to be seen. Furthermore, the project’s marketing has claimed NEOM to be the world’s most food self-sufficient city, achieved through advanced agricultural techniques such as vertical farming. This claim approaches absurdity in a country that currently imports roughly 80% of its food. 

The Crown Prince has been accused of ‘greenwashing’ the project to draw attention away from its ever-increasing faults. Indeed, recent Saudi history has been defined by remarkable claims that have failed to be followed through. For example, the Kingdom has claimed it will generate 50% of its total energy by electricity before 2030, yet as little as 0.1% of national energy is currently produced in this way, with no clear programmes to rectify that. 

The environmental claims concerning NEOM are proving to be hollow: the project has had a largely negative impact on its local environment. Most importantly, the grand construction will be reliant upon the expulsion of local residents. The Saudi government has so far ensured the forced removal of 20,000 Bedouin Huwaitat residents, with the refusal of one local in April 2020 ending fatally. Furthermore, regional water security will challenge the viability of NEOM. The city will largely rely on costly water salination facilities that will be detrimental to local marine biodiversity. The extensive use of water salination facilities makes one question the ability to create the world’s largest coral reef, neighbouring the city by 2050.

It is claimed the city will exist largely outside the Saudi legal system. This will distance the city from Wahabism, the hyper-conservative interpretation of Islam that emanates from the royal family’s base in Riyadh. This will arguably provide a more desirable living environment for many, allowing NEOM to better position itself as an international city. However, the willingness of the Royal Family to voluntarily relinquish control is questionable. The House of Saud has relied on such control to retain its large territory despite major religious differences outside of Riyadh. 

Despite sizable annual wages of over $1 million, a number of high-profile employees have left the project. There have been questions regarding the overly ambitious nature of the project and its use of funding. The ten royal palaces projected to cost $400 million each has raised concerns over how much the Royal Family will benefit the project at the expense of others. None of these obstacles, however, have restricted the project’s instigation. Brett Smythe, the Chief Project Officer of NEOM, recently announced that the utility and road backbone of the first construction zone had been completed. This included the construction of the first permanent settlement villages and marine works. Smythe promised an increased rate of construction in 2022.

Controversy surrounding the Royal Family, and especially the Crown Prince, have seriously delegitimised the viability of the project. The culpability of the Crown Prince in the assassination of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul has driven many potential investors away from their links to the family of Saud. The atmosphere of paranoia cultivated through MBS’s rise to power has eliminated internal criticism of the project from even private gatherings. Few are now willing to express serious concerns over the viability or sustainability of the project to the Crown Prince. The dangers of being labelled as a dissident are potentially fatal. 

It is yet to be seen whether either city will finish construction in the near future. It will take even longer to discern whether either investment pays off. Yet the potential to develop into functional cities or desirable places to live is highly doubtful. What seems clear is that both projects will further entrench their ruling factions into greater authoritarian positions. Neither appear to offer locals any tangible benefit. They will only benefit the privileged elites of their respective societies. The Arab world does not lie dormant, and the drive for major innovation continues to emerge from the desert.

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