Overview:

Saudi Arabia is promoting its latest megacity project again. Don't let concept art distract you from the bigger urban planning crisis.

Reading Time: 6 minutes

The 2006 documentary Manufactured Landscapes opens with an eight-minute tracking shot of a Chinese factory floor, seemingly endless rows of machinery in a city-sized complex of 17,000 employees. Revisited in Factory City (2012), this industrial zone played into the idea that Asian cultures were more willing than the West to trade humanity for advancement. Yet around the same time, the West was also learning about “Foxconn City,” a 1.4-square-mile complex with 450,000 densely packed employees at its peak, most notorious for its suicide-prevention nets and miserable working conditions. There, live-in workers manufactured the Apple, Amazon, and Dell products we happily use overseas, even knowing the human cost.

So were we really so far removed from these dehumanizing megaprojects?

Saudi Arabia’s latest social engineering project, a linear city called The Line, is on track to be the next grand installation that celebrates innovation while raising serious questions about the human cost. Planning for this 105-mile-long city, two mirrored lines of skyscrapers sheltering a wide array of perks like high-speed transport and luxury amenities will surely yield technological advances with applications elsewhere.

But this kind of endless cityscape, like something out of J. G. Ballard’s “The Concentration City,” has a long track record of failure to surmount if it’s to become a thriving home for populations of actual future human beings.

Part of a larger development project called NEOM, The Line belongs to a group of territorial holdings called “special economic zones” (SEZs) that merit closer scrutiny even when not developed by countries notorious for serious human rights abuses. So don’t be distracted by Saudi Arabia’s PR campaigns, with all those promises of grand living in a desert oasis that play well enough for a news cycle or two:

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Pay attention instead to the long-term narrative behind so many extravagant projects in recent years⁠—and what they tell us about the dire state of investment in public works.

Top-down urban planning’s recent busts

The mid-to-late-2000s was a time of ambitious city-scale project announcements, all shaped around the very ideas of digital innovation and cleaner energy futures at the heart of PR for The Line.

The United Arab Emirates had a notoriously high per capita environmental footprint when the state-owned Mubadala Investment Company launched Masdar City, a vision of a clean-tech future outside Abu Dhabi. Almost two decades later, the site remains unfinished after being contentiously half-constructed through high-emissions processes. Today, its mixed-result greening projects and ghost-town feel have left it open to repurposing, and the UAE recently announced plans to turn it into the world’s first space economic zone instead.

Likewise, when the Incheon U-city Corporation’s smart city was proposed in South Korea, Songdo International Business District promised a pedestrian-friendly, low-carbon, high-tech space with enough urban density to invite dynamic living. Within 3.5 hours’ flying distance of 61 cities with over one million residents, the government hoped it would become an obvious hub for international business development. But for all the fancy tech developed and installed within its many completed sectors, the city remains underpopulated, isolating, and estranging to this day.

Saudi Arabia was also part of that mid-2000s wave, boasting of King Abdullah Economic City (KAEC), a project the size of Washington, D.C. Managed by the publicly-traded Emaar Economic City company, KAEC promised to revolutionize Saudi business by moving the country away from oil and opening one of the world’s largest, most efficient commercial ports. KAEC was promoted as an eco-conscious development, but planners failed to account not only for building but also connectivity costs. Massive interior projects, absent plans for how to bring the city “online” with respect to surrounding trade networks, bankrupted construction budgets and stalled further growth. This year, new investors were announced that the region hopes will help reboot KAEC, which still has under 10,000 residents.

On a smaller but no less telling scale, Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs also recently attempted to engineer a cityscape from technology first, an approach that often involves reinventing a more complicated wheel. The Toronto waterfront development project known as Quayside was marketed as “the world’s first neighborhood built from the internet up”, with all sorts of fancy promises to combat winter’s grip on pedestrian spaces and tackle energy waste. The project foundered in 2020, but not before raising questions about whether its eco-friendly ambitions justified the intense surveillance state embedded in its core digital design.

No list of grand megacity projects would be complete without mentioning Elon Musk’s SpaceX Mars City, and Jeff Bezos’s near-Earth orbiting O’Neill (spinning cylinder) colonies. While Bezos doesn’t expect the technology to be ready for generations, his Blue Origin company has been working on tools necessary to move humanity closer to that end. Musk, conversely, has ambitious near-future target dates to send people to Mars on loans they will pay off by working there.

NEOM: Saudi Arabia’s latest venture

It’s easy to linger on surface details about Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s pet project, The Line, with its estimated price tag of between 300 and 500 billion dollars. For one, there’s the immediate distraction of cityscape concept art that NEOM announced on July 29 to drum up interest for an impending exhibition. NEOM, the broader megacity initiative on the coast of the Red Sea, is also working on a year-round semi-natural resort in the nearby mountains, and its own clean-energy industrial zone, which promises superior port-and-supply-chain dynamics in an “unmatched business regulatory environment”.

The prince’s stated motivations for this project also invite deeper consideration. It is indeed a challenge to plan a better future for a country where some 65 percent of citizens are under 35. Moreover, moving Saudi Arabia away from an oil-based economy, toward a greener future with a huge reduction in human environmental impact, would have clear benefits for international politics.

There are plenty of human rights concerns to pick over as well. The prince remains notorious for his role in the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Saudi Arabia is no friend to human rights, especially in the case of migrant workers, women, and queer people. And the eviction of Huwaitat tribe members for the development of The Line saw activist Abdul Rahim al-Huwaiti killed in a brutal home assault by Saudi security forces, just hours after he criticized the planned eviction of his tribe from Al Khuraiba village to clear the way for The Line.

The aftermath of the assault by Saudi security forces on the family home of Abdul Rahim al-Huwaiti after he criticized evictions planned to make way for The Line

Critics are wise, in other words, to be skeptical about the timing of this latest PR campaign for a project that’s been launching all kinds of wild promises and related, science-fictional artwork sporadically for years.

The more pressing issue emerges when we position The Line within the recent history of other privately funded, tech-first, top-down megacity initiatives often developed in regions granted significant exclusions from existing legal structures. These SEZs are regions where more liberalized business policies encourage investment, production, and policy experimentation: for better and for worse.

Beyond the bells and whistles: The problem with SEZs

Special economic zones are a recent site of academic, industry, government, and NGO concern, but there are also very sound reasons for their initial and surging popularity. They come in many forms, including freeports and Free Trade Zones, and on a larger scale certainly have their advantages, especially for countries trying to diversify their way out of an economic bottleneck.

A country too heavily reliant on oil exports, for instance, is often limited by the precarious oil futures market, and doesn’t have enough freed-up capital to develop whole new industries (say, for clean energy) on its own. By cordoning off parcels of land and inviting investors into a zone with more relaxed business regulations, a country can quickly boost local innovation, job growth, and new income streams.

In theory, at least.

In practice, while some countries have transitioned from lower- to higher-yield economies through SEZs, like the Dominican Republic with bananas and Mauritius with sugar, not all have been able to replicate China’s especially robust manufacturing-export economy of SEZ-based industrial zones.

And on top of the dismal track record for megacity projects in particular, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has also highlighted the significant role of SEZs in creating havens for money laundering, smuggling, and other illicit activities. Academic research further documents SEZs as sites of tax evasion, and notes their potential incompatibility with World Trade Organization best practices. The OECD has since advanced a code of conduct to mitigate the risk of these more-autonomous regions, but its efficacy lies with individual government willingness to adopt policy on its basis. A tall order, when those SEZs are also bringing new investment into one’s region.

These lax regulatory environments, the likes of which NEOM and other megacity projects code for in PR campaigns so readily taken for breaking news, also explain why hundreds of billions of dollars end up getting poured into vanity initiatives when they could be doing more direct good through public works projects instead. It’s easy to point and laugh at costly, fantastical blueprints for spectacular “cities of the future”. But beneath all the grandiose marketing is the troubling reality of profoundly underfunded government systems increasingly ceding land and inviting citizens to give up broader state protections to private industry initiatives.

We could build wonderful cities of the future together. Indeed, many hardworking architects and urban planners are doing just that. But whenever wealthy individuals and corporations lead the charge through top-down, tech-driven modeling, especially on territory with legal exclusions built in, we need to see this international economic indicator for what it truly is.

Highly privatized megacity projects like NEOM are a sign of money flowing out of democratic systems, into oft-failing social engineering projects with absolutely no obligation to better serve us all.

GLOBAL HUMANIST SHOPTALK M L Clark is a Canadian writer by birth, now based in Medellín, Colombia, who publishes speculative fiction and humanist essays with a focus on imagining a more just world.