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Saudi Arabia’s new mirrored city looks like a huge dystopian wall in the desert

Dec 13, 2023

By James Vincent, a senior reporter who has covered AI, robotics, and more for eight years at The Verge.

Often, on the internet, completely deranged CGI infrastructure concepts cooked up by bored design students go mildly viral, like those public transit "discs" that ride above traffic on stilts or that idea for a nuclear-powered "flying hotel." Very rarely these half-baked renders are backed by one of the wealthiest sovereign wealth funds in the world. But such is the case with Saudi Arabia's plan to build what looks like a huge mirrored wall in the desert.

If you’ve not been following this saga, let me get you up to speed. Saudi Arabia has a lot of money, and Saudi Arabia's crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), has a lot of ambition. In order to leave his mark on the world, MBS plans to develop a huge city in the desert named Neom, which will incorporate pretty much every futuristic technology you can think of, from the merely ambitious (like vertical farms and cloud seeding) to the sci-fi fantastical (like robot cage fights and a fake moon for some reason???).

The whole thing has been strongly criticized, with reports revealing problems from vast over-spending to oppressive treatment of local tribes (who have been forcibly relocated for the project). But MBS has reportedly declared the project "my pyramids," and so work forges on. The latest twist is a newly revealed design for The Line: a "vertical city" some 500 meters tall, 170 kilometers in length, and — for some reason — covered in mirrors.

Just look at the promo video below and try to convince me this is not the result of some very excitable marketing execs and a fortnight of all-nighters in Blender:

And just look at these renders. I mean just look at them. Do these look like realistic visions of the future to you? They look like that meme of an unimaginably utopian future. Which I guess is the point.

Although it looks like a wall, The Line is actually supposed to be comprised of two huge parallel buildings, connected via walkways and divided into neighborhoods that are supposed to offer all the amenities of city life within a five-minute walking distance.

The Wall Street Journal has some extra details on the project based on internal documents, but they read like unimaginative world-building notes for a new Netflix sci-fi show. Vegetables will be "autonomously harvested and bundled" from community farms; "a high-speed train will run under the mirrored buildings"; the Line will include a stadium "up to 1,000 feet above the ground," and there’ll be a marina for yachts under an arch between the buildings.

I’m not saying The Line (or something like it) won't eventually get built. MBS has reportedly budgeted $500 billion for the project and seems determined to spend it. But we’ve seen similar mega-projects come and go, like The World island development in nearby Dubai. In that case, the islands were constructed, but only a few are now open, and most are sinking back into the ocean. We’ll see how long it is before the sheen rubs off The Line's mirrors.

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