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In July, Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman unveiled the first details of “The Line,” a smart city in the $500 billion economic zone, Neom. However, it faces numerous challenges that may cast shadows on its most ambitious goals, writes Elia Preto Martini.

Many experts were skeptical about the feasibility of Saudi prince Mohammed bin Salman announced the creation of the $500 billion economic zone, Neom, when it was first announced in 2017. This should come as little surprise given the leaked documents mentioning flying cars and even an artificial moon. Compared with similar projects in China and Europe, Neom has attempted to raise the bar. The Saudi zone is planned to be 100% powered by renewable energy sources while adopting advanced technologies—such as artificial intelligence—to improve daily life quality. In July 2022, international media focused on the project after Mohammed bin Salman unveiled the first details of “The Line,” a smart city built entirely within the Neom 26,500 square kilometers area.  However, the futuristic construction sector—widely known as the “smart city” industry—faces a number of challenges, such as higher-than-expected costs and environmental concerns, that may cast shadows on its most ambitious goals.

According to the first renderings released, The Line will be a city sandwiched between two long skyscrapers stretching 170 kilometers into the desert. Life will be organized between these walls with an "ideal climate all year round" and the capability to use a high-speed rail to move "with an end-to-end transit of 20 minutes." There will be no traces of cars, roads, or pollution—allowing the inhabitants to live in a city that integrates natural elements with a futuristic design.

Its supporters claim that this project will revolutionize urbanism worldwide, fostering the birth of a new way of living connected with advanced technologies while respecting the environment. Others, like the renowned architect Edwin Heathcote, portrayed The Line as a "dystopian nightmare." This project has fostered a debate on the role of urbanization in a post-pandemic world in which humanity is called to address the challenges shaping the world of tomorrow, such as climate change and digital disruption.

However, some issues risk undermining this project. First, human rights groups claimed that Saudi authorities deployed the military to illegally force more than twenty thousand members of the al-Huwaitat tribe to leave their homes in the Neom construction zone. The tribe tried to ask the United Nations for help, but UN authorities failed to mediate between the two sides—resulting in the displacement of the the al-Huwaitat. At the same time, their tribal leader Abdul-Rahim Al-Huwaiti was killed by Saudi security forces after he posted a video denouncing government abuses.

There is also a severe concern regarding data privacy and the growing integration of artificial intelligence within smart cities. The Line will use the data of its 9 million projected inhabitants to manage water, waste, security, and power. While it will supposedly reward the citizens for using this personal information, it is unclear how to implement this payout system. However, the fear remains that Saudi Arabia—a country with weak rule of law and a poor human rights records—will use this system to establish a mega-surveillance system evocative of George Orwell's “1984.” At a time when the Western world, particularly the European Union, wants to move toward greater personal data protection, The Line seems to be dangerously going in the opposite direction.

Additionally, Saudi authorities have not released reliable information on citizens' legal status within this new smart city. Considering that The Line aims to be a blueprint for a new standard of living, this is more than a speculative issue. So far, it is unknown if the inhabitants will be subjected to a more liberal legal system than the Saudi one. Restricted personal freedoms and arbitrary political repression are two of the most pressing issues the Saudi government must solve to safeguard the city's international appeal while maintaining internal stability.

Balancing data protection while adopting new technologies that rely on personal information is an urgent issue in authoritarian and democratic countries. It is important to note that the main difference between liberal and illiberal countries is not in their data collection processes—which are basically the same—but in its usage of the data that has been collected. For instance, the European Union decided to regulate some of the most controversial aspects of smart cities—such as facial recognition—with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), something that is unlikely within more authoritarian states. Although far from a definitive legal framework, this seems to be a step the right direction as it maximizes the benefits of smart urbanism while reducing its potential violation of individual privacy.

The Line is undoubtedly a revolution in urban planning aiming to solve critical issues. However, issues of data, governance, and social concerns as well as creating an organic, hyper-controlled community could be a nightmare for the defense of individual freedom—one of the greatest struggles of our era.

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Autor(en)/Author(s): Elia Preto Martini

Quelle/Source: Diplomati Courier, 16.09.2022

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