Illustrated by Suresh Kumar

I remember very clearly when the ad for The Line first dropped on Youtube. Normally, I would have hit “Skip Ad” but there was something different about this one. For the next 60 or so seconds, I sat transfixed at the screen in awestruck silence. There was no way this could all be done. Imagine the cost, raw materials, logistics, and the whole idea of living in an isolated city in the middle of the desert. All the signs and warnings loomed ominously over this project, which I thought would never see the light of day.

But on that fateful day, October 16, 2022, a video was posted on Twitter that showed a drone shot of the construction of The Line, unofficially announcing that construction for the project had begun. To add some context, The Line is one among many sub-projects that will constitute what is know as NEOM, the world’s smartest city, located in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

The NEOM smart city project was officially announced by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman in 2017 as a modern and clean way of living. The city boasts some of the best standards of living, including easily accessible amenities, easy commutes, and clean transportation amongst other features. With so much going on in the forefront, it’s hard to ignore what goes on backstage. The sheer magnitude of the project calls for equally reliable technology, and when you drill down into the elements, you’ll notice that the driving force behind all this is, you guessed it, IT.

What makes a city smart?
While a smart city makes use of information and communication technology (ICT) to run its operations, this alone isn’t enough to make it a smart city. How this technology is used to improve its citizens’ quality of life and how effectively the governing bodies function with the aid of this technology are what makes a city smart.

The Smart City Index of 2023 places Dubai and Abu Dhabi as the smartest operational cities in the Middle East. Qualifying factors for this include smart and easy transportation, smart economy, smart governance, and, most importantly, the use of technologies such as AI, ML, and IoT to effectively support the running of these cities. With an average population of about two million between both cities, the promise of a better quality of life is what’s driving people from neighboring rural regions and even from overseas to move to smart cities like Dubai to seek better opportunities.

Sixty-four percent of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) is urbanized and this number is steadily growing. More ways to earn and spend money are attributing factors to this rapid increase. The NEOM project promises to deliver just this with unmatched efficiency, adding one more reason for the increase in urbanization within the region.

Studies have shown that rapid economic development and rapid urbanization go hand in hand. In 1950, about two-thirds of the world’s population lived in rural areas, and by 2021, 66% is now living in big cities. The reasons? Rapid progress in commercialization, employment opportunities, and the overall quality of life, which begs the question—will NEOM deliver?

What makes NEOM smart
According to the official project website, as of 2023, the NEOM project comprises four distinct regions—Sindalah, Trojena, Oxagon, and The Line. Each of these are unique in their own right, but by far, the biggest showstopper out of these four is The Line, which we’ll get in a bit.

The Public Investment Fund, largely responsible for transforming Saudi Arabia’s economy, is the key investor here and is said to be contributing close to $500 billion to bankroll this entire project. Located in the Tabuk province of northwestern Saudi Arabia, NEOM will expand across an area of 26,500 square kilometers. For some perspective, that’s about 15,959 soccer fields. Each region within this mega-project aims to serve a specific purpose.

Sindalah, for example, is set to become the first completed project within the NEOM megacity. Serving as a luxury getaway for affluent travelers and holiday-makers, this island will boast three luxury hotels along with sporting, social, and tourist activities. It is estimated that by 2026, about 2,400 people will visit Sindalah everyday, all using the island’s amenities and the supporting technology that keeps the show running in the backend.

The Line
Now it’s time to shine the spotlight on NEOM’s magnum opus—The Line. Marketed as the city of the future, The Line stretches 170 kilometers across the desert in the Tabuk province of Saudi Arabia and is shaped like, well, a line. This urban development is set to be an entirely walkable community where every amenity you’ll need is just a 5-minute walk away; however, smart autonomous transportation facilities will also be available for longer commutes. The city boasts a futuristic urban design, higher quality of life, and sustainable and renewable energy resources, powered by some of the most advanced technologies in the world.

According to the project managers themselves, the city expects to play host to nine million residents upon completion. The Line will open for occupation in phases and the first phase will be ready in 2025. As is the case with every city, The Line will play host to various educational institutions along with commercial and economic centers, creating an estimated 380,000 jobs. The digital infrastructure required to support such a massive undertaking will require high-speed internet connectivity, cloud services, and data centers. From what we know, NEOM plans to operate three hyper-scale datacenters from within the project to store large volumes of data that will be maintained and processed.

In a city that promises luxury supported by the world’s best advances in technology, cybersecurity will be paramount. Data owners and processors will have to regulate access control by restricting levels of access only to those who are absolutely required to view the data. Which such a heavy reliance on technology, network monitoring solutions that provide deep visibility into servers, routers, and storage devices will be implemented to provide a seamless living experience for its residents. This should be diligently followed up with regular audits and audit trails that will help in mitigating security breaches. Implementing effective data security solutions will most certainly help relieve IT departments of the mundane yet indispensable tasks that contribute to cybersecurity through strategic automation.

Although not officially announced, The Line is being positioned as a cognitive city, which means that most of the inputs and data collected within the city will be processed, analyzed, and used to optimize the city to enhance its residents’ quality of life and improve its operation. From NLP-enabled chatbots to using AI for IT operations management, IT will form the skeletal core of this futuristic linear behemoth of a city. With so much personal data floating around, cybersecurity should be given utmost importance and the role of IT in providing this security must certainly not be overlooked.

An ancient Greek philosopher advised us not to confuse a great city with a populous one. Great cities have great stories to tell and have always been associated with some of history’s most remarkable moments. However, the story of NEOM is just beginning to be written and in a few years, history will be made. An ambitious project by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to distance itself from its dependence on oil will soon manifest as the smartest and most futuristic city in the world.

NEOM, and The Line in particular, promises a clean and renewable way of living powered by smart technologies like robotics, AI, IoT, and automated transportation that will require one of the most sustainable energy sources—IT. The line in the desert sand has been drawn, but IT will be the boost it needs to go above and beyond.

David Simon
Marketing Analyst