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What are the biggest challenges for NEOM, the Saudi Arabian Megacity?

We’ve written about the vision for NEOM multiple times on Capital Frontiers. NEOM is the massive new city project Saudi Arabia launched in 2017 in the country’s northwest corner by Jordan, a priority project of the Crown Prince with the objective to create an unparalleled and unprecedented reinvention of the city to drive the country’s emergent transformation.

As Saudi Arabia has pushed forward from idea to concept and from concept to planning, the last many months have brought with them a surge in hiring and some preliminary ideas about what the city might look like. This is a step forward for the project.

Those concepts include a range of projects including a few one-off resorts, but also a seminal central project known as “The Line”, which will be the backbone of the new city, to include a Hyperloop, utilities, infrastructure, and, most notably, zero cars. The Line aspires to preserve the nature of NEOM while limiting the city’s emissions. It is roughly consistent with the vision for a city of zero streets.

The concept for the Line has emerged after extensive consultation using a diverse breadth of global firms, from consulting ideas from McKinsey to visionary ideas from leading starchitects to contributions from AECOM, Bechtel, and other consulting giants. No one company has cemented its stamp on the project, however. The emergence of these early ideas accompanies some public information about timelines for the project, including the seminal date of 2030.

The transition from abstract vision to concrete concept is an exciting junction for NEOM’s development. It’s also a time of nervousness and unease. After all, it’s one thing to speak in abstraction about changing the world and resetting the future, but committing to something physical opens the project up for international critique and judgement. Once a concept is in place, NEOM will be open to evaluation by the world both with respect to whether it is achieving its own ambitions, and as to whether those ambitions themselves are truly the right ones for such a massive investment.

As NEOM moves forward, it will face massive challenges, borne from any number of conditions: the fact that this is still a ground-up city-making project in the middle of a lightly populated desert, the fact that it has set such massive ambitions for itself, the fact that attracting foreign investment and residents is critical to the project even at a time when Saudi Arabia must work hard to find either. And also the contrasting nature between the ambitious vision for the project and the practical and bureaucratic constraints that come with doing work in this part of the world that often naturally slow innovative potential.

Among the critical challenges:

Creating critical mass: It will take an enormous critical mass of infrastructure, utilities, and development to make the vision for this city real. This will take the fortitude to invest tremendous amounts of money into the reality of this effort by the Kingdom.

Finding people and investment: At a time when the world is cautious about investing in Saudi Arabia, this project will require a massive infusion not only of capital, but of people and companies willing to make a hallmark investment here in order to make it work.

Making things real with realistic timelines: One of the challenges for a project like this is the challenge of delivering a ton of development quickly while also satisfying numerous bureaucracies along the way. Making this project real will require real commitment and real estate delivery expertise.

Innovating without letting bureaucracy get in the way: Saudi Arabia must commit to a spirit of innovation and creativity that gives it the freedom to hire the best people and enlist the best ideas, free from any bureaucratic constraints or arbitrary limitations.

We’ll continue to observe the public elements this effort with interest.


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