Neom: The true cost of Saudi Arabia's 100% renewable futuristic city

Silas Lehane considers whether Saudi Arabia's 'The Line' is a 'revolution in urban living' or an example of greenwashing and humanitarian violation. 

Saudi Arabia’s futuristic plans for ‘Neom’ are lifted straight from a 1960s sci-fi novel. A gargantuan development area in the country’s northwest, at the project’s centre, is ‘The Line’: a 170km long, 500m tall ‘linear’ city. Intended plans are brimming with spectacular ideas - like self-driving helicopters and marble beaches - using as-yet unrealised technologies. This $550 billion ‘giga-project’ appears to demonstrate Saudi Arabia’s ambitious sustainability goals: Neom will be 100% renewable, zero-carbon, and have no roads or cars. 

Is this a case of Greenwashing?

Environmental campaigners, however, were quick to denounce Neom as a typical case of ‘greenwashing’ - Saudi Arabia remains the world’s second-largest oil producer and recently announced plans to increase production until 2027. With Neom, the Saudi government can gesture to its purported environmentalism whilst continuing an extraordinarily successful but ecologically catastrophic developmental model reliant on fossil fuel extraction

Neom highlights the urgent need for ‘energy democracy’ involving community participation so that any systems built can centre local needs and concerns.

Moreover, Saudi Arabia’s plans have prompted a range of humanitarian concerns. The project’s vast site covers the ancestral homeland of the Huwaitat tribe, and an estimated 20,000 people are being dis placed by the project. Rights monitors have documented gross violence during forced expulsions and the UN has raised serious concerns for 3 tribal members who have been sentenced to death under opaque ‘anti-terror’ laws for resisting eviction. Reports have additionally shed light on the horrific working conditions endured by labourers at the site. 

The need for a 'just' energy transition 

There are self-evident questions regarding the sheer feat of engineering required to realise Neom’s sustainable vision. Neom’s futuristic plans embody a ‘techno-optimistic’ ideological trend identified by Rajak in corporate decarbonisation policy: a promise to resolve ecological problems with a transformational technological fix. This technology may not yet exist, but an unwavering faith in its arrival means changes to business practices that are urgently needed now are instead postponed onto an anticipated future. In this case, this permits a ‘business as usual’ approach to development that regards land expulsions and labour exploitation as acceptable consequences for future ecological prosperity.

The ongoing failures of Neom highlight the need for a ‘just’ energy transition, one which contextualises environmental issues alongside multidimensional racial, social, and economic concerns. Recent scholarship has brought attention to how renewable energy projects, whilst offering possibilities for social change, in their implementation can reproduce existing inequalities. Thinking through energy justice requires attending to such structurally unequal dynamics of land, capital, and power operating not just in Saudi Arabia but also within and across nation-states worldwide.  

There's no quick-fix solution

There is an understandable desire for quick-fix solutions to the unfolding climate emergency, and the grandeur of techno-optimist projects like Neom provides just this. But this very spectacle can occlude the material realities of implementation that perpetuate violent exploitation and expropriation. Building responsible energy solutions is challenging. It demands thoughtful and expansive analysis of its impacts, and perhaps, as Lennon argues, it requires us to reconsider what ‘energy’ really is: a vibrant, relational quality that underscores the ‘ interdependent ties between all forms of matter’.

At a minimum, however, Neom highlights the urgent need for ‘energy democracy’ involving community participation so that any systems built can centre local needs and concerns. Taking ‘environmentalism’ in only its narrowest terms means ‘justice’ for none but a select few. 

Header image credit: The Line Design via Neom.

About the author

Silas Lehane studies MA Anthropology of Global Futures and Sustainability at SOAS.