It’s called The Line, a spanking new AI city to be built in the northwest of Saudi Arabia as part of the kingdom’s $500-billion NEOM project. The Line will be a “carbon-positive” community “powered by 100 per cent clean energy” strung, yes in a line, from the Red Sea coast into the interior for 170 kilometers. As enthusiastically reported by Arab News, there will be no need for cars or streets because “walkability will define life in The Line and essential services such as schools, medical clinics, leisure facilities, as well as green spaces, will be within a five-minute walk.”
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Should your place of work be a little further away, that will be taken care of too as “high-speed transit and autonomous mobility solutions will ensure that no journey will be longer than 20 minutes.” A glossy video details the glories of The Line.
Walk The Line
In his January 10 announcement of the megaproject, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman declared, “We need to transform the concept of a conventional city into that of a futuristic one.” The Line is the vision of NEOM taking shape, itself the brainchild of the crown prince, a centerpiece of Vision 2030 — his ambitious restructuring of Saudi society and the economy. The city will be home to 1 million people and, according to the crown prince, will create 380,000 jobs and add $48 billion to the kingdom’s GDP.
And if The Line sounds like a title to a Hollywood blockbuster, one starring a dashing young prince who pursues with vigor, courage and insight a vision for a future that will benefit his people and indeed all of humankind, well, that’s the storyline that his pricey PR advisers hope the world will buy. Every blockbuster requires a villain, and Mohammed bin Salman has found his in the global threats caused by climate change, stressing that “By 2050, one billion people will have to relocate due to rising CO2 emissions and sea levels. 90 per cent of people breathe polluted air.”
The man who charged headlong into war in Yemen, who seized the Lebanese prime minister and forced him to resign live on live TV, who arrested senior royals and members of the Saudi business elite in a classic shakedown masquerading as a corruption investigation, who ordered the killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the imprisonment and torture of women activists has a new line in the works. No longer the warrior prince who thought he would have a quick win against the Houthis, nor the mafia don presiding over murder and protection rackets, nor the tough guy cracking down hard on anyone who stood in his way: No, the new Mohammed bin Salman is a thoughtful environmental visionary.
He now asks all the right questions: “Why should we sacrifice nature for the sake of development? Why should seven million people die every year because of pollution? Why should we lose one million people every year due to traffic accidents? And why should we accept wasting years of our lives commuting.” The Line, intones the prince “is a civilizational revolution that puts humans first.” This recasting as a green warrior comes at a useful time. Bin Salman is keen to get out of President-elect Joe Biden’s bad books. And Biden, unlike the current inhabitant of the White House, does take the threat of climate change seriously.
With the next edition of the Future Investment Initiative, the crown prince’s effort to encourage foreign direct investment into the kingdom — happening in Riyadh in two weeks’ time and coming hard on the heels of the resolution of the Gulf feud, perfectly captured by the warm embrace bin Salman gave the Qatari emir — the makeover would seem to be moving along very nicely indeed.
Skeptics will note that the figures blithely thrown about by the prince may or may not be rooted in reality or hard data; a quick Google search throws up the figure of 7 million (if not more) deaths from pollution each year, but 380,000 jobs sounds like something of a stretch. The war in Yemen grinds on, and the Democrats, who now control all three branches of government in the United States, have made it clear they intend to hold the Saudis responsible for the many atrocities inflicted on civilians in their air war against the Houthis in Yemen.
Several senators and members of Congress from both sides are determined not to let the murder of Jamal Khashoggi simply slip out of sight. And, to the outrage of people everywhere, Loujain al Hathloul, whose only crime was to pursue the rights of women, was sentenced to six years in jail, with her allegations of torture in detention ignored by the court that sentenced her. It seems that the plotline of Mohammed bin Salman as a green warrior still has some serious question marks hanging over it.
Returning to the movie theme, these days, an average blockbuster is defined as anything above $100 million. The crown prince is going to sink between $100 billion and $200 billion from the kingdom’s Public Investment Fund into building The Line. It’s his proof of commitment to the war on climate change, a war in which he casts himself in a leading role. As far as blockbusters go, that’s a lot of dosh by anybody’s measure. The critics will have to wait and see whether or not it is money well spent.
*[This article was originally published by Arab Digest.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.