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The grand ambitions of NEOM, the futuristic city-building initiative launched in 2017 by Saudi Arabia’s crown prince Mohammed Bin Salman, are being dramatically tempered. On April 5, Bloomberg reported that the first phase of The Line, a 106-mile-long “linear city” stretching inland from the Red Sea’s coast, will be just 1.5 miles long by its expected completion date of 2030. While the original planned length of the initial phase is not entirely clear, 1.5 miles represents a far more modest figure than what was envisioned to be completed within the next six years. According to an anonymous source “familiar with the matter” and official documents relating to the project, this reduction in scale comes as the Saudi government, facing dropping cash reserves, stalls on the approval of NEOM’s 2024 budget. The NEOM project in its entirety, including The Line and associated resort and city-building efforts in the region, is estimated to cost $1.5 trillion.

The Line was originally pitched as an environmental utopia, embodying the NEOM-coined principle “Zero Gravity Urbanism.” Within the city’s sky-high mirrored walls, spanning 600 feet wide, spaces for living, working, and recreation would be layered vertically, “creating “never-before-seen efficiencies in city functions,” according to early promotional material. The experimental desert settlement would also be car-free, connected end-to-end via high-speed rail, and powered by 100 percent renewable energy. Architecture firms associated with the project have included Morphosis (which designed The Line's initial concept), Cook Haffner Architecture Platform, Pei Cobb Freed & Partners, HOK, LAVA, and OMA.

However, the hyperbolic project has received backlash from the outset, attracting criticism for the unrealistic scope of its ambition, the suspect political aims and poor human rights record of its visionaries, and potentially negative ecological impact. Scrutiny heightened as construction began in October of 2022, when reports surfaced that the Saudi government had issued death sentences and lengthy prison sentences to six members of the Howeitat tribe, which has long inhabited the proposed site, for resisting their eviction. In May 2023, a group of United Nations–appointed human rights experts issued a report outlining allegations of torture and other mistreatment involving the sentenced Howeitet people, warning the Saudi government of potential violations against international law.  

The Line Construction

NEOM released images of the Line's ongoing construction in a promotional video from February of this year. Screenshot via NEOM/YouTube

The first phase of The Line was expected to house over a million residents—the reported downsizing of the project will cut its residential capacity to less than 300,000, a small fraction of the completed city's projected 9 million citizens, according to Bloomberg’s sources. The report also notes that at least one contractor has begun dismissing some of the workers employed on The Line's construction.

The fate of NEOM’s other “regions,” which include the Oxagon, a floating industrial city, and Trojena, a sprawling ski resort, are not yet known. However, the luxury island destination Sindalah is expected to open this year.