Analysis: Saudi Arabia’s Brand New Futuristic City
By Ramanath Jha
In 2017, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, announced the launch of the nation’s futuristic and fully automated business zone, NEOM. This hi-tech business hub, to be located in the Tabuk province in the northwestern part of Saudi Arabia along the Red Sea coast, is to be established at a cost of US $500 billion (INR 37.5 lakh crore). The region has been selected in view of its relatively mild climate. Most of Saudi Arabia has a desert climate with extremely oppressive day temperatures of above 45° Celsius. The project’s total area is slated to be 26,500 square kilometre and will link Jordan and Egypt via Saudi territory. The project is expected to generate 380,000 jobs and contribute US $48 billion (INR 36,000 crore) to the kingdom’s GDP by 2030.
More recently, in Jan 2021, the Crown Prince also announced that, as part of the NEOM project, a zero-carbon city called ‘The Line’ would be set up. The Crown Prince labelled the city project as a “civilisational plan that puts humans first”. ‘The Line’ is crafted as a linear city for one million people, running 170 kilometre long, with a width that would be walkable in five minutes. It is anticipated that people from all over the world would be drawn by the city’s excellent environment, state-of-the-art infrastructure and superior quality of life.
‘The Line’ is not designed to be a conventional city but a futuristic one. A city’s usual amenities such as schools, hospitals, and gardens will be carefully crafted in view of the residents’ expected proclivity towards the availability of top-quality education, health, and recreation. Additionally, the city would position itself as a top tourist destination. The Saudi administration also seeks to dispel any misgivings about the governance model that ‘The Line’ would follow. The entire NEOM area, including ‘The Line’, will be a free trade zone with its own tax structure and an autonomous legal system.
The technological and environmental plans of the “zero cars, zero streets, and zero carbon emissions” city have drawn the most attention. Drawings of ‘The Line’ show the city infrastructure and services arranged in three layers. The top layer, above ground, will be a pedestrian layer. It will be supported by two underground layers. The one immediately below ground will be the service layer of physical infrastructure. And further below the service layer will be the spine layer for transport. Project proponents stated that “High-speed transportation, utilities, digital infrastructure and logistics will be seamlessly integrated in dedicated spaces running in an invisible layer along The Line”. The high-speed transit is being designed to reach people anywhere in the city within 20 minutes. Alternately, people could walk to conveniences within five minutes. Artificial intelligence will have a critical role in the city. ‘The Line’ would be powered by 100 percent clean energy, rendering the city pollution-free, healthy, and sustainable. The city would be run totally on smart city technologies. Robots will play a key role in the areas of security, logistics, home delivery, and provision of care.
It is expected that the city infrastructure would cost between US $100 to 200 billion (INR 7.5 to 15 lakh crore). Investments are planned to be drawn from the US $500 billion allocated for NEOM, the Public Investment Fund (PIF) which is the Saudi’s sovereign wealth fund, and local and global investors over 10 years. Construction on the project’s first phase has already begun. NEOM Bay, some hotel complexes, and luxurious apartments have been completed. In 2019, the NEOM Bay Airport was inaugurated. A huge complex of palaces for the Saudi king, prince, and royal family members has also been started.
NEOM and ‘The Line’ are projects with a larger objective. As the world moves towards a non-oil-based future, Saudi Arabia, as the largest producer of oil, finds its economy threatened unless it finds alternate sources of wealth creation. Global trade and tourism would be the key areas for Saudi’s new economy. NEOM, backed by ‘The Line’ as the first fully automated city, could emerge as the leading global destination. In this, there is commonality between Saudi Arabia and the other gulf countries. Bahrain (Economic Vision 2030), Oman (Vision 2040), Qatar (National Vision 2030), UAE (Vision 2021) and Saudi Arabia (Vision 2030) are all seeking to diversify their economies and reduce dependence on oil.
Information on many areas in regard to ‘The Line’ are scarce. However, based on the material available, a broad assessment is possible. Firstly, the history of megaprojects in Saudi Arabia has not been happy. “The Saudi landscape is already dotted with failed or abandoned megaprojects”. Furthermore, such projects do not always turn out the way they are planned. Adverse turns in the global economy, cost overruns, and reduced financial returns on investment are some of the most common failings. Even if the above cited observations are dismissed as speculation, the fact is that this urban endeavour incorporates certain technologies that do not exist. Robot maids, dinosaur robots, and flying cars are still in the making. Neither are high-speed transits today capable of speeds of 512 kilometre per hour, which the city would require for end-to-end travel in 20 minutes.
Furthermore, irrespective of whatever kind of city one builds, a city’s foundational philosophy ought to remain the same. The quality of a city rests on its economy, its environment, and its equity. A city that overstates one to the detriment of the others imbalances itself and over time becomes unsustainable. The project proponents have talked profusely about the economic, technological, and environmental angles, but nothing is known about how equitable the city would be and who could afford to live there.
NEOM and The Line, as cited earlier, would be governed by a set of laws different from Saudi Arabia. But given the nature of the Saudi polity, where some of the governance practices are among the most regressive, uncomfortable incongruities for residents may surface. Since the city is looking for people to move in from the rest of the world, such concerns may not enthuse populations to move in. Saudi Arabia is not very kind to dissent; hence, very few voices of disagreement from inside the country have emanated. Some have mildly sought to remind the Saudi administration that there is no point spending billions of dollars on a totally new venture when the already existing Saudi cities were in a state of disrepair and needed fixing.
The Saudi administration highlights its environmental concerns and is planning to build a totally eco-friendly city. As the Crown Prince said, “Why should we sacrifice nature for the sake of development? Why should seven million people die every year because of pollution? Why should we lose one million people every year due to traffic accidents?” However, this does not seem to be practiced on the ground. The city’s construction is cutting “through its surroundings, forcing its way through tough terrain rather than embracing natural features such as the coast line.”
The Saudi administration also faces criticism on account of the attempt to evict the 20,000-strong Howeitat tribe from its centuries-old homeland that falls within the territory of NEOM. The tribe is resisting eviction. When leaders of the tribe protested, several from the leadership found themselves behind bars. The most vocal critic of them all, Alya Abutayah Alhwaiti, lost his life. The negative publicity was sought to be countered through a public relations exercise, crafted by an American PR company. However, much of the disquiet around the project remains.
SAN FRANCISCO, California — Historically, the indigenous, tribal peoples of the Middle East, called the Bedouins or the Bedawi, have often been excluded or overlooked compared to the settled populations within the Levant region. Although a majority of the Bedouin community reside in the Negev desert, which is located in southern Israel by the border of Egypt, Bedouin individuals also live across the Levant, sometimes traveling into Palestine, Syria, Egypt and Iraq, among other countries. Bedouins come from a diverse range of ancestors, with a portion of the Bedouin community in Palestine originating from Sudan and other African nations.
The Modern Plight of the Desert Dwellers
Unfortunately, poverty and food insecurity are prevalent in Bedouin communities. The families within these groups are largely unable to access government programs and resources to aid them financially due to their nomadic lifestyles. Although research materials on the Bedouin community are difficult to find, some studies have been executed to investigate the population’s economic situation. As part of a study performed in 2008, Suleiman Abu-Bader and Daniel Gottlieb found that less than 9% of Bedouin females were part of the workforce in 2004 and more than three-quarters of the population experienced poverty in unregistered villages.
The nonprofit organization Bedouins Without Borders, created in 2015, aims to create awareness of the Bedouin community and advocate for the rights of Bedouins. As with other indigenous populations, the Bedouin people’s records are difficult to find, and thus, it is more difficult for them to access the resources they need. Therefore, part of the Bedouins Without Borders’ mission is to survey the Bedouin population and analyze the challenges they face in daily life.
Creating Bedouin Records
To aid in better serving the community and keeping track of the resources that families need, Bedouins Without Borders has established the Bedouin Data Bank for collecting basic information and the Bedouin Map to maintain a better understanding of the Bedouin movement over time. In working with mobile communities such as the Bedouin community that are always passing from place to place, it is necessary to log the activity of each tribal group and assess how their current circumstances shape factors such as food security.
The Bedouin youth themselves run these documentation programs, receiving training under the ALFURSAN initiative that Bedouins Without Borders developed to empower and motivate young people in the community. Organizational efforts such as these are crucial in providing the future skills that the Bedouin youth may need for their careers and bridging the cultural gap between the Bedouin community and other communities, making it beneficial on two fronts.
How Bedouins Without Borders Helps
One example of a program that Bedouins Without Borders offers to encourage development is Guardians of the Desert. Like the ALFURSAN program, Guardians of the Desert centers on self-empowerment and community strengthening efforts simultaneously through the youth’s direct engagement. Each of these programs offers valuable leadership positions to Bedouin teenagers and gives young Bedouin individuals the chance to spread awareness about their community and advocate for expanding economic opportunities.
As the Bedawi way of life shifts due to climate change, water shortages and the commercialization of desert areas, community leaders must rise to meet the challenge and tackle the economic issues faced with new methods. In response to increased financial insecurity, young adults in the Bedouin community have opted to become tour guides and implement their knowledge of the environment to educate others and produce revenue in the process.
In this pivot toward sustainable development and practices, ecotourism has become integral to creating a balanced way of life for the Bedouin people. To describe this economic sector succinctly, ecotourism is a method of promoting increased tourism to more remote areas of the world such as the Sahara Desert while also protecting the local ecosystem and informing visitors of how to support conservation efforts. In this manner, Bedouin nomads can produce the income needed for their daily lives without endangering the spaces they inhabit.
Thanks to the Bedouins Without Borders organization, Bedouin leaders and volunteers have designated specific regions as environmentally protected. The goals of establishing a protected area such as the Oasis include preserving land for animals to feed and ensuring that the Bedawi food sources remain abundant and plentiful despite climate change.
The Road Ahead
As a relatively new organization, Bedouins Without Borders has already established a dedicated group of volunteers and launched some promising projects to support its cause. As settlement conflicts continue in Palestine and Israel, Bedouins Without Borders remains diligent in protecting Bedouin interests and ensuring community safety. Currently, Bedouins Without Borders proceeds in its mission to inform people about the community and raise awareness by spotlighting young voices in the Bedouin Monitor section of its website. In 2021, it is hopeful that Bedouins Without Borders will further develop its environmental conservation and poverty reduction efforts for a better tomorrow.
The Red Sea is no longer a baby ocean by Helmholtz Association of German Research Centres comes as quite a surprising assertion if one is not familiar with the subject. It gives a fairly good picture of this most historical strip of sea water.
The feature picture above is of the Red Sea as showing on its Facebook page.
It is 2,250 kilometers long, but only 355 kilometers wide at its widest point—on a world map, the Red Sea hardly resembles an ocean. But this is deceptive. A new, albeit still narrow, ocean basin is actually forming between Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. Exactly how young it is and whether it can really be compared with other young oceans in Earth’s history has been a matter of dispute in the geosciences for decades. The problem is that the newly formed oceanic crust along the narrow, north-south aligned rift is widely buried under a thick blanket of salt and sediments. This complicates direct investigations.https://d1b7959727b37f996fc1656abcaeb098.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html
In the international journal Nature Communications, scientists from GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel, King Abdullah University for Science and Technology in Thuwal (Saudi Arabia) and the University of Iceland have now published a study that makes a good case for the Red Sea being quite mature and having an almost classical oceanic evolution. “Using a combination of different methods, we can show for the first time that the structures in the Red Sea are typical for a young but already fully developed ocean basin.” says Dr. Nico Augustin from GEOMAR, lead author of the study.
In addition to information from high-resolution seafloor maps and chemical investigations of rock samples, the team primarily used gravity and earthquake data to develop a new tectonic model of the Red Sea basin. Gravity anomalies have already helped to detect hidden seafloor structures such as rift axes, transform faults and deep-sea mountains in other regions, for example in the Gulf of Mexico, the Labrador Sea or the Andaman Sea.
The authors of the current study compared gravity patterns of the Red Sea axis with comparable mid-ocean ridges and found more similarities than differences. For example, they identified positive gravity anomalies running perpendicular to the rift axis, which are caused by variations in crustal thickness running along the axis. “These so-called ‘off-axis segmentation trails’ are very typical features of oceanic crust originating from magmatically more active, thicker and thus, heavier areas along the axis. However, this observation is new for the Red Sea,” says Dr. Nico Augustin.
Bathymetric maps, as well as earthquake data, also support the idea of an almost continuous rift valley throughout the Red Sea basin. This is also confirmed by geochemical analyses of rock samples from the few areas that are not overlain by salt masses. “All the samples we have from the Red Sea rift have geochemical fingerprints of normal oceanic crust,” says Dr. Froukje van der Zwan, co-author of the study.
With this new analysis of gravity and earthquake data, the team constrains the onset of ocean expansion in the Red Sea to about 13 million years ago. “That’s more than twice the generally accepted age,” Dr. Augustin says. That means the Red Sea is no longer a baby ocean, but a young adult with a structure similar to the young southern Atlantic some 120 million years ago.
The model now presented is, of course, still being debated in the scientific community, says the lead author, “but it is the most straightforward interpretation of what we observe in the Red Sea. Many details in salt- and sediment-covered areas that were previously difficult to explain suddenly make sense with our model.” While it has thus been able to answer some questions about the Red Sea, the model also raises many new ones that inspire further research in the Red Sea from a whole new scientific perspective.
As a response to a millennial scarcity of water that characterises the new world as impacted by climate change, the author proposes that Blue is the new Green.
With its dominant ochre colour and millennial water scarcity, the water situation in the MENA region would not require specific down-to-earth Blue vs Green solutions for all water, energy, and food security key to MENA stability are getting rarer by the day. Anyway, here is Adam Smith, the managing director at Polypipe Middle East.
Blue is the new green
“We must come together as an industry to actively encourage the design and installation of safe and reliable water management systems”
Sustainable water management is both an art and a science. It is a practice that involves using the Earth’s most precious resource – water – in a way that safely meets current social, economic and environmental needs without compromising the ability to meet those needs in the future. Essentially, it means ensuring that supply of clean water is meeting demand, using a water delivery process that is as efficient as possible.
It allows for a ‘source control’ water strategy – capture, store, treat and re-use – rather than a traditional linear system, in which water is treated as a waste product. This multifunctional approach supports the creation of Green Infrastructure.
The process of sustainable water management can have a deep impact in society on so many levels, helping to address sustainability initiatives on a global scale. For example, the UN has outlined 17 Sustainable Development Goals to be achieved by 2030. Goal 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities, seeks to make cities more inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable through measures that include improving water quality and quantity. Sustainable water management systems can play a key role in this transformation.
In fact, given the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, the role of sustainable water management has become more important than ever before. Perspectives on urban life are shifting from a traditional view towards smarter cities that place wellbeing and sustainability at their core. A more circular economy, that prioritises urban resilience, allows for the creation of safe and reliable public health systems. These systems can actually reduce the indoor transmission risk of diseases and eliminate leaks and toxic odours that can be harmful to human health.
Adam Smith, the managing director at Polypipe Middle East
So, what makes a water management system ‘sustainable’? First and foremost, it’s important to recognise that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. I believe that we must come together as an industry to actively encourage the design and installation of safe and reliable water management systems, based on the specific needs of the project or location. In my experience with Polypipe Middle East, the key is early-stage engagement, working collaboratively along the supply chain from conception to delivery to understand the unique needs of each project.
However, there are some basic principles of sustainable water management that pertain across applications. The basic tenet is using methods to safely capture, store and reuse water. The process of capturing water and then reusing it allows us to save on our usage of potable water, instead of wasting it. This is the sustainable water management cycle – a process that more closely mimics the natural water cycle of the Earth’s ecosystem.
Systems that function based on our natural water cycles are called Sustainable urban Drainage Systems (SuDS). These systems are integrated into our buildings and infrastructure to capture storm, surface or AC condensate water, and use it passively to irrigate surrounding areas. These systems are capable of collecting stormwater runoff at the source for filtration or reuse, removing the need for traditional long drainage networks.
They are also effective at coping with water stress. Many cities in the region do not possess the necessary infrastructure to cope with increased rainfall. Stormwater travels fast, causing high volumes to flow into urban areas in a short space of time, potentially overwhelming drainage systems or collecting in puddles and becoming stagnant, which can create public health issues.
Flooding is not only an inconvenience but a serious danger to human life. For property planners, architects, developers, contractors and local municipalities involved in urban development, it is essential to ensure that infrastructure is becoming better equipped for rainfall.
This is where SuDS come in – they are effective at maximising sustainability and profitability of projects. They play a key role in creating greener infrastructure and supporting a circular economy model by helping to better manage resources, reduce wastewater and offering innovative ways to encourage biodiversity and enhance water management in urban spaces.
Another global trend that enables sustainable water management is the creation of green or blue roofs. Green or blue roofs are starting to be incorporated into the region as not only a sustainable way to manage water, but as positive urban ‘green spaces’ that can offer social and economic benefits.
By adding these to the empty roofs of buildings, we can convert an unused rooftop into a multifunctional space that supports health, wellbeing and sustainability.
First and foremost, they can reduce the risk of flooding by 80%. They also help to combat another challenge in the region which is Urban Heat Island (UHI) effect. This is a phenomenon that causes cities to have warmer temperatures due to dense concentrations of concrete and increased human and industrial activities.
By using green spaces that absorb heat, green roofs can directly reduce cooling loads and costs, potentially reducing AC energy usage by up to 75%.
These spaces can become green sanctuaries in the urban jungle that are our cities. They can be integrated with health and wellness amenities as well as spaces for urban farming to increase biodiversity. All in all, they can impact a building’s carbon footprint, moving us closer towards making our spaces zero net carbon and also helping us to increase LEED ratings and even property value.
For businesses operating in the construction industry in the Middle East today, it is clear that a genuine commitment to sustainability is becoming essential. There is knowledge and intent to increase sustainability, however, often the mechanism to implement it lacks. This, fortunately, is changing, as we see the emergence of more robust legislation and regulation, in line with national and global goals for sustainable development.
The key aspect of supporting sustainability is implementing solutions that safely addresses challenges in the region and help us create resilient cities.
The future of our industry is not just product driven. The barriers we must overcome are not in innovation, technology or product manufacturing. The solution is collaboration.
I believe industry leaders must come together to encourage collaboration in the construction industry by promoting good practices and educating communities on the importance of safe and sustainable systems.
We must look beyond our current economic model to redefine growth. Why is this change necessary?
As societies globally move towards a more circular economy, we too must start to build for the future needs of our planet and our people by helping to close the gap between production processes and the Earth’s natural ecosystems.
By embracing sustainable systems, we can create smarter, greener cities. Implementing sustainable systems, not just for water management, but across our cities is what will enable us to make an impact on our communities, one building at a time.
Several heritage organisations reacted to the fact that protected sites don’t play an important role in the EU Green Deal’s strategy against climate change, even though historic buildings represent a significant share of the stock in Europe. It is a story about how cultural heritage challenges a sustainable future and it is on YourIs.com.
Buildings and the construction sector are responsible for over one-third of global final energy consumption and nearly 40% of total direct and indirect CO2 emissions. This percentage alone is enough to account the sector on the priority list of the European Union, which aims at being the first climate-neutral continent by 2050.
The European Green Deal, a growth strategy launched by the EU Commission at the end of 2019, considers the renovation of both public and private buildings as an essential measure in this context. Nevertheless, a crucial point is missing in this plan: the words “heritage”, “art”, “culture” and “landscape” do not appear in this document.
One of the experts of the Green Paper’s advisory group is Antonia Gravagnuolo, a researcher at the National Research Council in Napoli, Italy, and coordinator of the EU projects CLIC and Be.CULTOUR. She stresses the fact that the historic buildings and sites represent a significant share of all existing buildings in Europe. Under the Green Deal, the European Union launched a Renovation Wave Strategy that will address 35 million buildings by 2030 and create up to 160,000 additional green jobs in the construction sector.
In this context, according to Gravagnuolo, it will paramount to applying the circular economy principles as stated in the Green Paper: “Heritage conservation is the antithesis to the consumer society ethos of single-use disposability. It fights for the repair, use and reuse of existing buildings, landscapes, knowledge, and resources.”
This will reduce the ecological footprint and the environmental costs of demolition and construction. “The renovation of the historic buildings can be feasible in terms of costs and energy savings, if we approach it in a longer-term life-cycle perspective. The investments required for the upgrade and retrofit of the historic buildings absolutely need public and private sector cooperation, and the engagement of the present and future generations. The mindset of the current self-centric organisation of society should switch to a ‘we-centric perspective’, in which the synergy between people and nature is central,” considers Gravagnuolo.
An ambitious attempt to supply a historic town with green energy is rolling out in Évora, a medium-sized city in Alentejo, Portugal, which was included on the World Heritage sites since 1986. Historic buildings are bound by UNESCO to preserve their original look and maintain the same materials of the facades and roofs. Their transformation into energy efficient edifices is one of the most challenging tasks of the EU project POCYTIF, which is committed to involve cities with heritage sites in Europe’s renewable energy transition.
“We are not allowed to install the standard photovoltaic panels available on the market. All buildings, historic or residential, have the same restrictions,” explains Nuno Bilo, mechanical engineer at the Évora City Council.
The solutions proposed by the project are photovoltaic glasses, canopies and clay tiles, which provide a look similar to the one existing in the historic center. “We are using PV shingles that are not business as usual PV models, despite having a similar technology when it comes energy generation. Their shapes are now more aesthetic pleasing, so that it can fit the cultural heritage site,” explains João Formiga, Évora site manager.
The demonstration activities, which also include energy storage facilities in buildings, smart lighting and air quality monitoring installations, will be tested in eight municipal buildings (including schools, a theater, a market, an arena, the town hall among others) and one parking lot. These however must have the approval beforehand of the National Authority of Culture.
“The expected power to be generated by the PV systems integrated in the municipal buildings will exceed the consumption – this means that a surplus of energy can be used by the surrounding buildings. In this way, we believe that in the future, the historic center of Évora could produce its energy locally, using innovative technologies, while preserving the heritage value of the buildings and the city,” adds Bilo.
Additionally, for the inhabitants of the historic center, a community solar farm is to be installed in the outskirts. Therefore, people can own a share of the renewable energy community and receive energy from this solar farm. “Another important aspect is that they are much more aware nowadays about issues like sustainability and decarbonisation, and want to play a role in this societal change,” assets Formiga.
Preserving old buildings can be more expensive than constructing new edifices from scratch. Still, some scientists believe that it may be worth doing, as societies value their historic past and the buildings associated with it. Professor Mark Maslin, from the University College London’s Department of Geography in the U.K., assumes that “maintaining our cultural heritage is important for people’s identity and feeling of wellbeing. Even though it will be more expensive to retrofit these historic buildings, it will also develop new jobs and skills sets – many of which have been lost. The blending of new and old technology will be a whole new profession, and there are still many things that we can learn from the historic buildings about their adaptation to the extremes of climate.”
Other scientists propose an assessment of the historic buildings in order to preserve only those which serve best the future generations’ needs. For Cornelius Holtorf, professor of Archaeology and UNESCO Chair on Heritage Futures, Linnaeus University, in Kalmar, Sweden, the biggest challenge of sustainable heritage management is on how to make it absorb changes: “What kind of cultural heritage will be needed in the next 20 to 30 years in order to make the life better? What can we do today about the heritage to maximise its benefit for the future? In some cases, that entails preservations, while in others, it demands us to choose some heritage more than others, or to create new heritage over time,” he figures out.
Holtorf fears that sometimes, the preservation of our cultural heritage and the deep connection of our collective identities to our ancestral traditions, make our risk to push for changes and adaptive measures more difficult. Therefore, we should not only preserve “some buildings in some places for certain uses” but also keep an eye on the challenges of the future and make the behavioural changes, in relation to the energy use, mobility, food, circular economy and sustainable financing systems. That can improve the life quality of the generations to come.
The United Nations (UN) celebrated on May 10th, 2021, the first edition of the International Day of the Argan Tree, an endemic tree in Morocco.
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