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Doubts about Neom, the “ecological gigaproject” that Saudi Arabia plans to build in the middle of the desert

Doubts about Neom, the “ecological gigaproject” that Saudi Arabia plans to build in the middle of the desert

Beaches that glow in the dark. Billions of trees planted in a country dominated by desert. Levitating trains. A fake moon. A car and carbon free city built in a straight line over 170 kilometers in the desert.

These are some of the plans for Neom, a futuristic eco-city that is part of Saudi Arabia’s plan to go green. But will it be too good to be true?

It is advertised as a “model for tomorrow in which humanity progresses without compromising the health of the planet.”

It’s a $500 billion project, part of Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 plan to wean the country away from oil, the industry that made it rich.

Covering a total area of ​​more than 26,500 square kilometers, larger than Kuwait or Israel, the developers claim that Neom will exist entirely outside the confines of the current Saudi judicial system, will have a autonomous legal system to be drawn up by investors.

Ali Shihabi, a former banker now on Neom’s advisory board, says the mega-territory will include a 170km-long city, called The Linewhich will extend in a straight line through the desert.

If that sounds unlikely, Shihabi explains that it will be built in stages, block by block.

“People say this is a crazy project that will cost billions, but it will be built module by module, in a way that meets demand,” he says.

Just like the traffic-free “superblocks” of Barcelonaexplains that each square will be self-sufficient and will have services such as shops and schools, so that anything people need will be within a five-minute walk or bike ride.

When complete, travel along The Line It will be done through high-speed trains, and the longest journey “will never be more than 20 minutes,” say the developers.

Additionally, Neom will be home to Oxagon, a city 7km above water, making it the largest floating structure in the world.

Neom CEO Nadhmi al Nasr has said the port city will “welcome its first manufacturing tenants in early 2022.”

Further up the Red Sea coast from this “industrial hub,” Neom has announced plans for the world’s largest coral reef restoration project.

Its website, which at times seems like something out of a science fiction novel, claims that the first phase of the mega-territory will be completed in 2025.

That is the vision. The reality, for now, is more modest.

A satellite image shows that a single plaza has been built in the desert.

In addition to rows of houses, it has two swimming pools and a soccer field.

Ali Shihabi says this is the camp for Neom personnel, but we’re not on the ground to verify that.

But how feasible is it to build a cutting-edge city that lives up to its green credentials in the middle of the desert?

Dr Manal Shehabi, an energy expert at the University of Oxford, says there are many things to take into account to assess how sustainable Neom can be.

For example: will the food be produced locally in a system that does not use excessive amounts of resources or will it rely on food imports from abroad?

The website claims that Neom will become “the most food self-sufficient city in the world”.

It lays out a vision for greenhouse and vertical farming, revolutionary for a country that currently imports around 80% of its food.

There are questions about whether this can be done sustainably.

Critics accuse Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, the driving force behind Neom, of “greenwashing” or greenwashing: making big promises about the environment to distract from reality.

The ‘ecological gigaproject’ is part of the crown prince’s vision for a greener Saudi Arabia.

A week before the negotiations of the United Nations Climate Change Conference 2021 (COP26), held between October 31 and November 12 in the Scottish city of Glasgow, it also launched the Saudi Green Initiative, announcing the objective to achieve net zero emissions by 2060.

That was initially seen as a big step forward in the climate community, but it didn’t stand up to scrutiny, says Joanna Depledge, an expert on international climate change negotiations at the University of Cambridge.

It notes that to limit warming to 1.5°C, global oil production needs to fall by about 5% a year between now and 2030.

However, Saudi Arabia has promised to increase oil production just weeks after making big green promises for COP26.

Energy Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman reportedly said the Saudis would not stop pumping: “We will remain the last ones standing and we will pump out every single molecule of hydrocarbon.”

“I find it very shocking that Saudi Arabia still seems to think that it can continue to exploit and extract this oil in this current context,” Depledge says.

A country’s emissions come from the fuel it burns, rather than the fuel it produces. So if a country like Saudi Arabia produces millions of barrels a year and ships them to other countries, the kingdom doesn’t have to count them.

Even at the national level, Saudi Arabia has a long way to go: Although its latest target calls for 50% of electricity to be generated from renewable energy by 2030, only about 0.1% of electricity was generated this way. in 2019.

‘Creative thinking’

Neom proponents say there is a need to start over and build a smart, sustainable city powered by wind and solar energy, with water provided by carbon-free desalination plants.

Saudi Arabia needs some creative thinking, because the Middle East is running out of water”, says Ali Shihabi, from the Neom Advisory Council.

Saudi Arabia is an arid country and about half of its water is produced through desalination plants, an industrial facility that extracts salt from water, which runs on fossil fuels.

It is an expensive process and the by-product, a slurry of brine and toxic chemicals, is discharged into the sea, with detrimental consequences for marine ecosystems.

Neom’s desalination process will be powered by renewable energy and the brine, instead of being dumped into the sea, will be used as an industrial feedstock.

There is only one problem: the use of renewable energy with desalination plants has never been successful.

Shihabi admits that Neom “is a pilot experimental project, but if we can solve the water problem in the Middle East, if this project works, everything Neom has done will be worth it”.

But climate experts worry that relying on unproven technologies could be a form of climate retardation, getting in the way of meaningful action against the effects of climate change. It is sometimes described as “technological optimism”.

And there are big questions about who Neom is for.

The desolate terrain between the Red Sea coast and Jordan’s mountainous border may have seemed like the perfect blank canvas for building a mini-state. However, there are already people living there, members of the ancient and traditionally nomadic Huwaitat Bedouin tribe..

The project promises to create jobs and generate wealth in this underdeveloped region, but so far the local population has not seen any benefit.

Human rights activists say two villages have been cleared and 20,000 Huwaitat forcibly expelled, without adequate compensation, to build the megacity.

“Efforts to forcibly displace indigenous people violate all norms and standards of international human rights law,” says Sarah Lea Whitson, executive director of Democracy for the Arab World Now.

One man was even killed. In April 2020, Abdulrahim al Huwaiti refused to be evicted from his house in Tabuk and began posting videos online. Days later, he was shot by Saudi security forces, as he had predicted would happen.

The spokesman for the Saudi embassy in Washington DC, Fahad Nazer, disputes the accusations of forced removal of Huwaitat, although he did not dispute the killing of Al Huwaiti, dismissing it as a “minor incident”.

tourists and rich

Neom’s clever public relations efforts, part of a push to attract tourists to diversify the Saudi economy, have also drawn criticism.

Striking promotional videos show off all the glitz and glamor of a cosmopolitan city with its own laws and security forces, an independent territory of the old guard ruling Saudi Arabia.

But critics say the project will primarily cater to the very wealthy..

Palaces have reportedly been built for the country’s royal family.

Satellite images show a helipad and golf course among the first construction projects.

Ali Shihabi claims the city will house everyone “from workers to billionaires”, although he admits that is not how it has been perceived.

“I think Neom’s problem is that it has failed in its communication strategy,” he says. “People think he’s just a rich man’s plaything.”

Difficult decision

“Starting this journey towards a greener future has not been easy, but we are not avoiding difficult decisions,” said Mohammed bin Salman. “We reject the false choice between preserving the economy and protecting the environment.”

Neom is clearly part of this vision. But so far, the Saudis are avoiding the hardest decision of all: move away from fossil fuel production.

Turning off the taps will be tricky, says Manal Shehabi, an energy expert at the University of Oxford.

“I think it would be very difficult from an economic perspective to expect a country that is so dependent on oil and gas to suddenly stop using it and exploiting the resources that it has.”

The Saudis say they are responding to the world’s energy needs.

“The reality is that the demand for hydrocarbons around the world is still there,” says Saudi Embassy spokesman Fahad Nazer.

Behind the scenes, the Saudis and other fossil fuel-dependent countries have constantly tried to water down the language on international climate commitments, Depledge notes.

So it was at COP26.

“Saudi Arabia intervened very intensively trying to point out uncertainties, costs, natural impacts, to minimize the urgency of the climate change problem,” says Depledge, who closely followed the negotiations in Glasgow.

“This is very much the kind of rhetoric and the kind of language that Saudi Arabia has been promoting since the beginning of the climate change negotiations.”

But Fahad Nazer, the government spokesman, denies the greenwashing accusations and insists that Saudi Arabia is headed for a green future.

And while doubts remain about whether Neom will keep its promises, Ali Shihabi invites us to book a condo in The Line“before others do”. (I)

Source: Eluniverso

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