Even the Saudi Crown Prince Is Investing in an Oil-Free Future

Mohammed bin Salman is building an emissions-free city called The Line

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman
Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammed bin Salman speaks during the second day of "Davos in the Desert" in 2018.

If I told you some wealthy tycoon is planning to build a futuristic city with “zero cars, zero streets and zero carbon emissions” that will be home to one million residents, a city where all necessities will be within a five-minute walk, but extended travel will occur in autonomous vehicles and high-speed rail that travel underground — who would you guess is the tycoon? Elon Musk? Richard Branson? Maybe Akon

All good guesses, but all woefully off the mark. The city planner in question is none other than Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia. On Sunday, the prince announced The Line, a massive urban development project in the northwest part of the country that is touted as a “revolution in urban living” and hopes to be “a blueprint for how people and planet can co-exist in harmony.” Construction on the city is expected to begin within the first quarter of this year, and is part of the country’s larger $500 billion Neom initiative. 

“Neom is a major part of Prince Mohammed’s plan to diversify the economy of the world’s largest crude exporter,” Bloomberg reported. “Announced in 2017, the project spans more than 10,000 square miles in a remote area of the country’s northwest. It’s described on its website as ‘a bold and audacious dream’ that will become a hub for new technologies and businesses.”

While Neom sounds like a logical extension of the oil-rich country’s financial future, The Line itself — a radical investment in a future free from oil and carbon emissions — seems less so. But even Saudi Arabia seems to be waking up to the destruction being forecasted (and currently being caused) by the climate crisis. And while the city is expected to cost between $100 to $200 billion, it doesn’t hurt that these investments are projected to add 380,000 jobs and $48 billion to domestic GDP by 2030.

In a press release, Prince Mohammed also justified the post-oil city this way: “After the Industrial Revolution, cities prioritized machines, cars and factories over people. In cities that are viewed as the world’s most advanced, people spend years of their lives commuting. By 2050, commute durations will double. By 2050, one billion people will have to relocate due to rising CO2 emissions and sea levels. 90% of people breathe polluted air. 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? And why should we accept wasting years of our lives commuting?”

Also a good question: Why should a world looking to solve the multifaceted climate crisis — a problem that includes disinformation financed by supposedly climate-friendly groups — champion the work of Prince Mohammed, who the C.I.A. concluded had “most likely ordered the killing” of journalist Jamal Khashoggi? 

As we’ve seen in the last couple years of climate change advocacy, many activists are unwilling to see it as a one-topic issue. It’s not just about carbon emissions or pollution or straws; it’s about all that, plus environmental racism, public health, immigration and many other facets. That being the case, the crown prince is going to have a hard time taking up the mantle of Captain Planet when he’s got the brutal murder and dismemberment of a member of the press on his hands.


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