While in São Paulo the zoning of the metropolis is being debated, which has suffered from serious urban problems for years, in the Middle East the conversation is different. Countries like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt are now planning the cities of the future — which they say will be modern, sustainable and exuberant, with hanging gardens and even flying cars.
Since being announced in recent years, these projects have received plenty of praise. Criticism, too. They can solve urbanization challenges, such as overpopulation, and help governments promote themselves on the international stage. They can also be unfeasible attacks by authoritarian regimes that today monitor, control and repress their citizens.
The most iconic case is the Neom economic zone, which Saudi Arabia plans for the northwest of the country, close to Egypt. The idea is to occupy an area of 26.5 thousand kmtwosimilar to that of the Brazilian state of Alagoas, with an investment of US$500 billion (R$2.4 trillion, at current prices).
The name Neom is a mixture of the Greek “neo”, which means new, and the Arabic “mustaqbal”, “future”. The word seems appropriate. The site should house, among other sumptuous projects, The Line (the line, in English). If successful, it will be a linear construction 170 kilometers long and 200 meters wide, housing nine million people.
Judging by the images released by the Saudi monarchy, the exterior of this entire line will be mirrored. Without cars, transport will be by train. And all energy will be clean: solar and wind.
“Neom is a symbol of the future, with a timeless design, comparable only to Brasilia,” says Mohammad al-Saidi, a professor at Qatar University who researches futuristic projects in that region.
There are several explanations for the construction. One of them is the desire to relieve Saudi cities and spread development better. Another is to project an idea of modernity, he says. This notion is reflected not only in the images of futuristic buildings but also in the promises of quality of life. “For the people of the region, the future is not just robots, but also clean energy, security and entertainment,” he says.
Countries like Saudi Arabia are also interested in diversifying their economy, considering that oil reserves will one day dry up — and the world is discussing a future without this fuel for environmental reasons. This means creating new sectors and stimulating tourism, attracting the world’s elite with these modern siren songs.
There is also the geopolitical issue. In an article published by the Carnegie think tank, researcher Ali Dogan used the term “Neom diplomacy” to refer to the tactics of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known as MbS. Megaprojects like The Line serve to boost the economy and improve the country’s image.
And improvement is necessary. Saudi Arabia, after all, has one of the most conservative and repressive regimes in the world, where women still negotiate their existence in society. The crown prince is accused, among other things, of having journalist Jamal Khashoggi killed in 2018. According to international investigations, Khashoggi was killed and dismembered inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. The country’s authorities deny this.
Other authoritarian regimes in the region, such as the United Arab Emirates, have similar projects. One of the most recent is the vertical airport for air taxis in Dubai, announced this year as clean transportation.
Another important case in the Middle East is Egypt, which is building a new capital 45 kilometers from Cairo. The project is not dizzying like the linear city, but it also includes promises for the future, with the plan to have the largest skyscraper on the African continent.
In this case, the government’s main motivator appears to be the overpopulation of Cairo, which has almost 10 million inhabitants. It’s difficult to get your car out of the garage and not get into a traffic jam. The idea is to house more than 6 million people in the new city, which has yet to be named.
How well these megaprojects will work is still uncertain. Construction has been stretching for years. In the case of The Line, the few images released by the Saudi regime generally show crazy excavators turning over piles of sand in a desert that is currently inhospitable. Based on the projects, some architects even doubt its viability.
There is, after all, the precedent of Masdar City, which the emirate of Abu Dhabi announced in 2006, promising to be the most sustainable city in the world. The release date, which was 2016, has been postponed.
For now, Masdar will apparently be much smaller and less futuristic than expected. In part because oil prices have since hurt the country’s economy.
“Masdar has not reached its potential,” says Professor Saidi. “But that’s normal. That’s the case in Brasília too,” he says, referring to the development of the Brazilian capital, which diverged from the pilot plan.