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Saudi mega-project Neom: Can 170 km glass walls actually be constructed?

Saudi mega-project Neom: Can 170 km glass walls actually be constructed?

Written By Rajan Das

Saudi Arabia is known for its oil wealth, its conservative culture and its ambitious plans to diversify its economy. One of the most striking examples of these plans is Neom, a futuristic mega-city that aims to be a hub of innovation, technology and sustainability in the Middle East.

Neom is a metropolis with 16 proposed boroughs that will be built on the Red Sea in the Tabuk area of northwest Saudi Arabia. It covers an area of 26,500 square kilometers, almost the size of Belgium, and will have a population of around 9 million people. The name Neom means “new future” and is derived from the Greek word “neo” (new) and the Arabic letter “m” (future).

Neom is not just a city, but a special economic zone that will operate under its own laws and regulations, separate from the rest of Saudi Arabia. It will have its own tax system, labor laws, environmental standards and judicial system. It will also have 100% renewable energy, zero-carbon emissions, circular economy and revolutionary design.

Neom’s vision

The vision of Neom is to serve as both “a living laboratory for entrepreneurship” and “the most ambitious project in the world.” It aims to attract global talent and investment in various sectors, such as biotechnology, robotics, artificial intelligence, renewable energy, tourism and entertainment. It also hopes to address some of the global challenges humanity is facing, such as climate change, food security, health and education.

One of the most eye-catching aspects of Neom is the Line, a linear city that will stretch for more than 170 kilometers across the desert and mountain terrain. The Line will consist of two long mirror-encased skyscrapers that will be 500 meters high and 200 meters wide. It will be a car-free, carbon-neutral and walkable city that will provide residents with all their daily needs within a five-minute walk. It will also have artificial intelligence, flying taxis, robot maids and outdoor skiing facilities.

The Line is expected to open for visitors by 2024 and will be home to around 3 million people. It will have a year-round temperate microclimate with natural ventilation and will protect 95% of the surrounding natural landscape. It will also have high-speed rail that will allow end-to-end transit in 20 minutes.

The Line is part of Neom’s four regions that have been announced so far. The other three are Neom Bay, which will be a waterfront destination with luxury hotels and resorts; Aqaba Mountain, which will offer cultural and heritage experiences; and Ocean Oasis, which will feature some of the world’s most beautiful islands.

Neom’s estimated cost is $500 billion, which will be funded by the Saudi government and private investors. The project was first announced in 2017 by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is the main driving force behind it. Since then, Neom has hired several international experts and consultants to help design and develop the city.

The Details of Neom:

Neom, located in northwestern Saudi Arabia, spans an impressive area of approximately 26,500 square kilometers, equivalent to the size of Albania. It is bordered by the Red Sea to the south and the Gulf of Aqaba to the west. The developers have unveiled plans for ten distinct regions within Neom, with details released for four of them: The Line, Oxagon, Trojena, and Sindalah.

The Line is perhaps the most renowned region, envisioned as a 170-kilometer-long linear city that will accommodate a staggering population of nine million people. Stretching from east to west, it will feature two parallel skyscrapers standing 500 meters high, with a separation of 200 meters. The buildings will have reflective facades, adding to the visual allure. Oxagon, situated in the southern part of Neom along the Red Sea, is designed as an octagon-shaped port city. The ambitious project aims to create the world’s largest floating structure, serving as a port and logistics hub.

Trojena is a planned ski resort nestled in the Sarwat Mountains near Neom. Covering an area of 60 square kilometers, this year-round destination will offer skiing and various outdoor activities. Notably, Trojena has been selected to host the Asian Winter Games in 2029, highlighting its potential as a world-class winter sports venue. Sindalah, on the other hand, is envisioned as a luxurious island resort in the Red Sea. Spanning 840,000 square meters, it is designed to cater to the yachting community and will feature an 86-berth marina and multiple high-end hotels.

Finishing Date of the Project:

Neom is progressing with ambitious timelines, aiming to complete the majority of the project by 2030. Drone footage showcasing the site preparation for The Line was released last year, and Neom recently shared a video offering glimpse of ongoing work at the site.

The development of the luxury island, Sindalah, is the first to be finished, with Neom’s developers planning to welcome their inaugural guests in early 2024. Following closely, Oxagon, a port city, is expected to have its first residents by 2024, with the onshore portion of the city anticipated to be fully completed by 2030. The Trojena ski resort is scheduled to open its doors in 2026.

The Line, considered Neom’s centerpiece, will be progressively developed over the course of the next few decades, with a target of accommodating one million residents by 2030, according to the project’s creators. However, some skeptics have raised doubts about these ambitious timelines. Neom currently employs 2,400 individuals, as reported by the developers.

The In Charge Architectural Firms for Neom’s Design

Only a select number of architectural firms have been officially named as designers for the Neom project. The Neom website identifies Aecom, a US-based studio, as a partner in the venture. The developer of Neom has revealed that the Trojena ski resort is being designed by a consortium of renowned firms, including Zaha Hadid Architects from the UK, UNStudio from the Netherlands, Aedas from the US, LAVA from Germany, and Bureau Proberts from Australia. Additionally, Luca Dini Design and Architecture, an Italian superyacht and architecture studio, has been announced as the designer for the Sindalah resort.

While there are critics who express concerns about the environmental impact of the project, it undeniably holds the potential to shape the future by bringing brightness, innovation, and establishing itself as a leading global undertaking.

170km Glass Walls: A Controversial Proposal

One of the most talked-about aspects of Neom is the proposal to construct massive glass walls spanning a length of 170 kilometers. The concept behind this idea is to create a protective barrier, shielded from the harsh desert environment, while providing residents with stunning views of the surrounding landscape.

The feasibility of building such extensive glass walls raises several concerns. Firstly, the scale of construction required for a project of this magnitude is unprecedented. The engineering challenges of constructing, installing, and maintaining glass panels on such a colossal scale are immense.

Moreover, the extreme temperatures and sandstorms prevalent in the region pose significant challenges. Glass, being a fragile material, would need to be fortified to withstand the harsh conditions, including intense heat, high winds, and blowing sand.

Additionally, the sheer cost of such a venture is a matter of contention. The expenses associated with procuring and installing large quantities of reinforced glass, coupled with the infrastructure required for maintenance and repair, would be astronomical.

The Challenges and Criticisms:

Neom also faces many challenges and criticisms. Some of them are:

  • The feasibility and practicality of building such a massive and complex project in a harsh and remote environment.

– The environmental and social impact of displacing local communities and wildlife habitats.

– The human rights and labor issues related to the treatment of foreign workers and women in Saudi Arabia.

– The political and security risks of being located near volatile regions such as Yemen, Israel and Iran.

– The economic viability and competitiveness of attracting global investors and tourists in a post-pandemic world.

– The cultural compatibility and acceptance of introducing radical changes to Saudi society and norms.

Feasibility and Alternative Approaches

Considering the challenges, it is crucial to explore alternative approaches that may achieve the desired outcomes of Neom without relying on 170-kilometer-long glass walls. One such approach could involve utilizing advanced technologies, including advanced materials and nanotechnology, to create a durable and transparent protective barrier. This barrier could withstand extreme conditions while preserving the aesthetic appeal and panoramic views initially envisioned.

Another alternative could involve leveraging innovative architectural designs to create climate-controlled zones within Neom, ensuring comfortable living conditions without the need for encasing the entire city in glass. By focusing on strategic positioning and smart urban planning, specific areas within Neom could be sheltered from the harshest elements, providing a balanced environment for residents and visitors alike.

Furthermore, given the rapid advancement of virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) technologies, it is possible to create immersive experiences that allow residents and tourists to enjoy the natural beauty of Neom without the need for physical glass walls. Virtual replicas and interactive displays could offer the illusion of living within a vast glass enclosure, enhancing the city’s appeal while circumventing the challenges associated with building and maintaining extensive physical barriers.

Neom represents a bold vision for the future, aimed at transforming Saudi Arabia’s economy and redefining the concept of urban living. While the proposal of constructing 170-kilometer-long glass walls surrounding Neom is captivating, it faces numerous feasibility challenges, including engineering complexities, environmental factors, and exorbitant costs.

To achieve the desired goals of Neom, it is crucial to explore alternative approaches that incorporate advanced technologies, innovative architectural designs, and virtual experiences. These alternatives offer potential solutions to create a protected and visually appealing environment without the need for extensive physical glass barriers.

By leveraging advanced materials and nanotechnology, a durable and transparent protective barrier could be developed, capable of withstanding extreme conditions while preserving the panoramic views initially envisioned for Neom. Additionally, strategic urban planning could enable the creation of climate-controlled zones within the city, providing comfortable living conditions in specific areas without encasing the entire city in glass.

The rise of virtual reality and augmented reality technologies presents an exciting avenue for immersing residents and visitors in Neom’s natural beauty. Through virtual replicas, interactive displays, and simulated experiences, individuals can enjoy the illusion of living within a glass enclosure without the challenges associated with physical construction.

While the concept of 170km glass walls may capture the imagination, it is essential to approach the development of Neom with a pragmatic perspective. The project’s success lies in finding sustainable, cost-effective, and technologically advanced solutions that align with its core principles of innovation, sustainability, and economic diversification.

Conclusion

In conclusion, Neom is an ambitious mega-project that aims to redefine urban living and promote economic growth in Saudi Arabia. While the proposal of constructing 170-kilometer-long glass walls is captivating, its feasibility raises significant concerns. Exploring alternative approaches, such as advanced technologies, innovative architectural designs, and virtual experiences, can offer viable solutions to create a protected and visually appealing environment within Neom. By embracing innovation and flexibility, Neom has the potential to become a symbol of progress and a testament to the possibilities of sustainable development in the 21st century.

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