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Release peace: the magazine

Release peace: the magazine

Analysis & Background Stories on International Affairs

A city in the desert: Welcome to NEOM

Article by: Harriet Kerr

Aiming for a sustainable future 

In 2016, Saudi Arabia formulated an ambitious plan named the Saudi Vision 2030. The objectives were clear: to diversify its oil-dependent economy, whilst developing competitive public service sectors such as healthcare, infrastructure, and tourism. Sustainability and inclusivity were said to be at the heart of all proposed projects, to improve the quality of life and living standards for its population, alongside those of future generations. Equally, the Middle Eastern country wanted to counter its history of being on the receiving end of global criticism when it comes to freedom of expression, women’s rights, and beliefs. Ultimately, Saudi Arabia’s policies seem to be forward- thinking. But what does this mean on the ground?

The Challenges being Tackled

With climate change having devastating effects on people and the environment all around the globe, it is clear that the ways in which societies function need to become more sustainable. Particularly in terms of energy production, Saudi Arabia ranks 1st globally for oil exports, and emits 15.3 metric tons of CO2 per capita, ranking 60th in the world. The country recognised the need to shift away from its reliance on this non-renewable resource. It is also a signatory to the Paris climate agreement. The Saudi Vision 2030 would allow for its economy to gain greater diversification, and achieve economic and environmental sustainability. 

On the flipside, Saudi Arabia also has a reputation for the incomprehensible treatment of those whose beliefs do not align with that of the country’s tradition. Cases of discrimination have occurred in areas such as employment and education, all the way up to everyday life matters. One striking example of such discrimination is that up until only recently women in Saudi Arabia were forbidden from driving a car by law. But, the fact that this recently changed might be the glimpse of hope that the Saudi Vision 2030 seeks to further more. The country is taking steps towards altering its preconceptions and changing legislation. Let’s have a look at NEOM City as one example of that proposed change.

Please enter: NEOM City 

With the tagline “made to change” NEOM city is to become Saudi Arabia’s progressive and sustainable answer to the often sensitive political discussion that comes alongside the country. The word NEOM itself directly translates as ‘new future’ in Arabic. Construction of the city began in 2020 and its first residents are expected to arrive already in 2024. NEOM is offering Saudi’s people a branch to do things differently and pave the way for a more sustainable future. 

From Oil-Dependency to a Diversified Economy?

NEOM breaks itself down into several different investment sectors, taking on different areas of modern-day living and putting technology, sustainability, and innovation at the forefront of their design and purpose. Reducing its dependency on just one sector is expected to boost Saudi Arabia’s resilience when it comes to global shocks. Currently, if the oil sector is subject to changes in demand or supply, this has dramatic effects on the country’s economy. But, by creating a more equally proportioned split between sectors, these shocks could be absorbed easier, creating a stronger and more sustainable economy.

Urban Design

Whilst previously, cities would be built on top of pre-existing infrastructure, NEOM’s mobility sector offers a completely blank canvas to revolutionise how people get from A to B. The idea behind the city is to make it a two-level build. There will be an underground network for the exchange of goods, as well as public transport networks, between different areas. On the surface, just like the rest of its design, NEOM advocates for a sustainable approach, encouraging its citizens to walk or cycle everywhere, on the premise that everything should and will be accessible. The city itself, more commonly referred to as The Line is planned to have zero streets, and zero cars. And with community hubs being a maximum of only 20 minutes commute from one another, it is evident that efficiency is being prioritised as part of the design agenda. But is it really likely to be successful or is it just another overhyped project that is unlikely to ever materialise? 

With the city being the size of Belgium, and urban development stretching 170km, cycling or for that matter walking from one side of the city to the other may pose serious challenges to any prospective citizens. And the speed required to travel 170km in 20 minutes equals to about 510 km/hour, which can only be achieved using Hyperloops or maglev trains, two technologies that are unlikely to have been constructed by 2030. 


One of the most discussed elements of NEOM is its approach to legislation. It would be challenging for such an ambitious and forward-thinking project to take place under Saudi Arabia’s existing rules. The government seems to be aware of that. The idea is that NEOM will not follow the rest of the conservative legislation of Saudi Arabia. Instead, the city is to consider a variety of stakeholders, investors, businesses, and innovators to ensure they are building a place to live and work for residents who are used to greater liberties in their home countries. This independence will present itself in a separate tax system, new labour laws as well as an autonomous judicial system. Though Saudi leaders have already taken some steps towards this liberalisation, and even promised that NEOM city will be 98% aligned with Western norms, the final 2% may yet prove decisive. These 2% are vaguely defined and the question remains if the city will be able to outcompete its already established rival cities such as Dubai, where fewer restrictions apply, and attract global talent. 

A promised land?

NEOM City is planned to cover 25,000 square feet of new forms of living. To put that into perspective, it is a staggering twenty-five times the size of New York City.. Critics argue that the city is overly ambitious and unlikely to attract a sizable population or global talent. But only time will tell. It is undeniable that the grit and determination behind NEOM could be a force to be reckoned with, and finally open up the global playing field for Saudi Arabia. With the eyes of the world upon them, it’s up for Saudi Arabia to prove the doubters wrong. 

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