By Esther Fulz
Innovative ideas have long captured the attention of individuals and organizations across the globe. Neom City, currently being built in Saudi Arabia in preparation for the 2029 Asian Winter Games, is no exception. The linear city will be over 175 km long and just 200 meters wide, and house the Gulf’s first outdoor ski resort and a man made freshwater lake. It’s planned to be powered with renewable energy.
Despite the novelty and excitement surrounding the idea of Neom City, there are also some concerns. The Saudi government is rushing into this project, overlooking important considerations in human rights and environmental impact.
“Countries [in the Middle East] are relatively small and new to their wealth,” said Dr. Duerr, Professor of International Studies at Cedarville University. “They’re building massive amounts of infrastructure, but don’t have the population base to do it.”
Despite the construction industry’s recent growth, it’s difficult to find native Saudis interested in heavy manual work, further exacerbating labor shortages created by the government’s ambitious goals. As a result, importation of foreign workers is required, creating potential for oppression and exploitation.
“There has been a great influx of workers from South Asia and Southeast Asia, but with it we have seen a major lack of human rights and deaths on the job in much higher numbers than would be tolerated in the United States or virtually any other country in the world,” said Duerr. “Additionally, there is no ability for these workers to become citizens.”
Native Saudis also suffer because of these projects. Many citizens have been driven out of their homes for the sake of the city’s development, and critics of the Saudi government have in extreme circumstances faced death. One such example was the ordered execution of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who publicly opposed the plans of Saudi’s crown prince Mohammed bin Salman.
“When authoritarians try to do things quickly, these types of things happen,” said Duerr. “Accountability in a dictatorship is much more limited, and it results in an egregious abuse of human rights.”
The long-term environmental sustainability of Neom City is questionable. Neom City receives great attention for its proposed environmental friendliness, and is part of a larger project sponsored by the Saudi government called the Saudi Green Initiative. The program, which has a goal of net zero emissions by 2060, may be beneficial to strive towards but is unlikely to be feasible.
“I don’t think net zero emissions is realistic for any confined society,” said Tom Rice, Assistant Professor of Geology at Cedarville University. “People want freedom to make their own decisions. Unless the government makes some demands, the use of energy rises and falls and changes from time to time based on technology, the economy, and changes in size and population.”
As for Neom City itself, finding materials both to create and maintain the city is likely to be difficult and counterproductive to environmental goals. Saudi Arabia lacks surface rivers and other natural large bodies of water. As a result, groundwater is heavily pumped and is becoming depleted, requiring city developers to turn to saltwater, which must be desalinated before use.
“Creating an artificial environment, considering this lack of water, is likely to consume massive amounts of energy and no one has satisfactorily answered the question of how this necessary energy will be produced,” said Rice. “The carbon footprint during the construction phase of this project is likely to be four times what England would put out in a year. No one seems to be accounting for this.”
Another relevant question is whether, when the project is finished, anyone will want to live there.
“Most people want to go out to a setting because there’s a natural aspect to it,” said Rice. “Sometimes it’s lush and green but sometimes it’s dry and barren, but God created it, and we like to figure out how we can fit into that and enjoy it. In designing Neom, Crown Prince Salman has ignored the real creator and seems to believe we can put something anywhere just because technology will allow us to.”
Despite these challenges, Neom City is still a promising idea. With more time, money and careful planning, the Saudi government may be able to create something like it, even if that means building on a smaller scale. Allowing more time and thought to be put into these projects will help to prevent environmental harm and human rights abuses.
Esther Fultz is a junior Social Work major and an Off-Campus and On-Campus writer for Cedars. She enjoys writing songs, spending time outdoors, drinking coffee, and hanging with friends.Photo Credit: Alkendy, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.en>, via WikimediaCommons