Saudi Arabia's Mega Projects

An Interview with Faisal Alzaibag

This Feature interview appears in Vol. 74, No. 1, "Global Urbanization: Nations, Cities, and Communities in Transformation" (Fall/Winter 2021).

Faisal Alzaibag is a Saudi Arabian engineer with a career focused on the planning, implementation and management of a variety of mega-scale sector projects, from inception and development, to commissioning and operations, and holds an executive qualification in planning smart cities from MIT. The Journal of International Affairs spoke with Mr. Alzaibag about Saudi Arabia’s plan to build a new city called NEOM.

Journal of International Affairs (JIA): Saudi Arabia recently announced “The Line,” a major component of its NEOM mega project. What makes The Line project so unique and what vision does it lay out for the future of smart cities?

Faisal Alzaibag (FA): By 2045, around 3 billion people will live with no access to infrastructure. Cities and how we build them today cannot sustain in the face of the growing demands of our future. The announcement of The Line records a revolutionary and transformational moment in history. Designed from the ground up to address the most critical urban challenges facing mankind’s sprawl, The Line redefines the way we look at and live in cities. This bold initiative brings to life what a smart city is; a city that embodies design, innovation and technology, built on the five new pillars that make a city a smart one—proximity, density, diversity, mobility, and sustainability. Globally unmatched, The Line is the first city built and integrated to be smart from its foundations, as opposed to a surface layer of technological quick-fixes.

We’re on the cusp of major changes that will shape cities as we know them. Taking a step back and examining the notion of cities and how they evolved helps us understand why. Cities are clusters built around relatively dense and thriving populations, essentially, multi-use zones. Historically, cities evolved within the environmental and technological constraints of their eras and sprawled around bodies of water to support living, agriculture, and trade. These features were necessary to foster organic growth and allow inhabitants to live and work efficiently in-between these different multiused areas. Later, during the early 1900’s and onwards, the automobile and industrial revolutions influenced cities and how we developed them. This approach, compounded by single-use zoning, or Euclidean zoning, has put a great toll on both our cities and the environment. The Line provides a blueprint for cities that addresses our future challenges. A vital aspect of The Line is the centralized decision-making, which enables quick and efficient action and policymaking processes that yield results, as compared to the lengthy process of consensus and passing bills to rectify 150 year-old building codes.

JIA: Planned megacities are something we see in the Gulf states but not in many other places. What are the benefits of planning and building a city from the ground up and why do you think Gulf states have led the way in this regard?

FA: Gulf States and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia are ambitious and fast developing countries that aim to establish themselves on the global map. The 2030 vision has put the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia on a trajectory of becoming a leading world country on many fronts.

The opportunity to build a city from the ground up, versus the quick-fix approach to conventional infrastructure systems, makes all the difference. Cities have been developed too far away from what they need to be—smart and efficient—and simply adding a tech layer to conventional and inefficient systems does not make them any smarter. Moreover, conventional and inefficient city plans are obstacles in creating a smart city blueprint capable of withstanding the growing demands of our future. Walkable, multi-use ecosystems made up of superblocks with zero roads and zero emissions, connected via a spine that acts as a mass transit system, provides the perfect makeup for a smart city where second and third-fix technological applications can be optimally utilized.

A smart city plan, capable of integrating innovative, technological and economical solutions like decentralized and bottom-up infrastructure and microgrids, blockchain in a fractionalized ownership token economy, and machine learning and AI in algorithmic zoning and grid development of cities, better positions cities to address the challenges of our future, where our current cities and how we build them cannot.

There will be no roads or cars in The Line, which positions it to be the first smart city project to solve a problem known as the fundamental law of congestion. The law states that when huge amounts of money are spent on new infrastructure to cope with expansion, within about five years’ time, demand will increase in proportion to the added infrastructure and more—and so, back to square one. We can see how this model becomes inefficient and unsustainable. As we face rapid urbanization, we will continue to see this cycle and it will spin faster and faster. If we do not deploy the right solutions to enable expanding cities sustainably, no urban growth can be accommodated within our cities. Some projections indicate that 3 billion people may be living with no access to infrastructure by 2045.

JIA: How do you approach planning these cities? What aspects must be prioritized?

FA: Cities must be built on certain pillars with certain strategies to achieve certain goals. These pillars in today’s science are density, diversity, proximity, mobility, and sustainability. For a city to be truly smart, it must tackle these five major pillars. However, for a city-plan, it is not a one size fits all. Cities must be designed and built differently, according to their function, environment, and surroundings.

Apart from housing a population, cities are where people create value. Smart cities must recognize that much of the new innovation, business, and value comes from young talent. If we are driving young people out of cities due to high housing prices, how can innovation and businesses flourish? In a smart city, we need to bring youngsters in and not drive them out. Driving them out not only drives innovation out, which is already counterintuitive to a smart city, but also puts great stress on our infrastructure since they may need to commute in and out of the city.

However, as a real estate owner, what are your incentives to rent cheap? What policies can cities implement to make real estate and more affordable and diverse? These are some of the diversity challenges and questions that smart cities are geared to address using models and policies like token economies and incentivized fractionalized ownership.

JIA: In a recent interview, you also mentioned blockchain and fractionalized ownership as a way to redefine the use of real estate and urban spaces. Can you discuss the role of these technologies in the smart city in greater detail?

FA: Space is becoming scarcer and more valuable, making single-use and inefficient spaces less viable. Space must be multi-use, transformable, and smart. If deployed correctly, these strategies dramatically reduce city size and produce efficiencies. Multi-use space can utilize blockchain or even space robotics, which sounds like science fiction, but it really means a mechanical system that moves partitioned walls to transform a space for multiple usages. An apartment can have the same number of rooms, but with a smaller urban footprint. Moreover, smart cities will utilize blockchain to run real estate transactions and will also embed many of the city incentive packages for real estate owners.

A real estate firm with buildings in different cities that use blockchain and fractionalized ownership can rent out space per unit of time in any of its locations. For example, I can pay a membership fee, and based on a prearranged schedule, I can stay in different cities, buildings, and areas that belong to one entity. Through blockchain technology, ownership, vacancies, and revenue can be more easily transferred as well. Blockchain technology can also foster pre-tax barter systems that solve inefficiencies. You could sell energy, parking space, or office space to the building next to you via blockchain technology. If you are producing surplus solar energy and the micro-grid in your building is storing more than required during a day, you could sell it to the building next to you that might be covered in more shade.

JIA: There are plenty of planned cities that failed to live up to expectations, either because they were not carried out as planned or because people didn’t find them attractive or livable. What gives you hope that NEOM will hold up to its expectations?

FA: NEOM’s approach is truly unique. What I see didn’t work in other cities in the Gulf is that they were attempting to make an attractive hub by building a futuristic looking district and then hoping that would attract people. In their defense, Dubai was being developed with the latest concepts and technologies of the day. Other Gulf cities could incorporate more of this new-age strategy, innovation, and technology to become sustainable and smart. You need to create a natural attraction and gravitational energy, driven by new-age innovation and prosocial strategies. For example, an innovation district plays a distinct role in the future smart city. Building this district has a number of economic, urban and social requirements and must be centered around smart infrastructure—necessarily elements to create gravitation that will sustain a flourishing smart city.

The horizontal stretch of the modern city requires inhabitants to use automobiles and commute long distances. This creates traffic that puts pressure on infrastructure and harms the environment. The automobile industry is shifting from heavy fossil fuel internal combustion engines to autonomous and electric. We are now witnessing a new advancement in mobility technologies: Choreographed Autonomous Vehicles. Choreography is vital to effectively transition to electric and autonomous vehicles. Once you have a fleet of thousands of vehicles in a city center, they must be choreographed, as standalone, vehicular decisions will create traffic and inefficiencies. Choreography has already been implemented in a number of industries and will play a breakthrough role for the future of mobility in our cities.

JIA: The NEOM project has been compared to Dubai as a planned, futuristic megacity. What lessons do you take from the development of Dubai that could be applied to NEOM?

FA: When examining a city’s sustainability, we must also consider its efficiency and viability. A true sustainable city is environmentally, economically, and financially sustainable. Dubai managed to lure in major companies and became a major zone for economic transactions. But the downfalls were visible during the global financial crisis and now the COVID-19 pandemic. Companies are making remote work widely available, reducing the number of people that may seek to reside in Dubai.

We must remember that Dubai was planned back in the 1990s and early 2000s. The landscape was much different, the demand to build sustainable cities was different, and the technology back then was also different. Though there were some similarities: Dubai built more than what was demanded and hoped the supply would come. Instead, we’d like focus on attracting innovation, diversity, and ultimately density in an organically and economically sustainable city and policy built to make them stay. The current city plan shows how The Line will be a series of super blocks connected via a mass transit system. This is a different ball game from the previous Gulf cities and drives forward the true vision for a sustainable future city.

JIA: With the climate changing, the Middle East is expected to face dangerously high temperatures on a regular basis. How do you address this challenge in a way that doesn’t further exacerbate climate change?

FA: Addressing the challenges of climate change in urban planning is one of the KPIs of a smart city. A zero-car zero-road policy not only solves pollution, but also proximity. In a smart city, daily activities are satisfied within a relatively small, mixed-use, and shaded area. For example, I can exit my building and walk the block to get to my work, gym, and on my way back stop by the convenience store or a medical center. We’re already achieving groundbreaking proximity KPIs in some cities today and they provide a working model where pedestrians can go about their day by walking just a couple of blocks to get to where they need to go; The Quarter-mile or 5-Minute Walk.

JIA: Cities are path dependent. We see this in the massive avenues that were built to accommodate New York City’s automobiles at the turn of the century. Today, amid these hurdles, what concerns do engineers have as they develop large-scale and sustainable urban development projects?

FA: As in the case of New York, city planners devised solutions such as massive avenues in the city-plan to accommodate for future demands using statistics and technology applications of those days. Similarly, in planning smart cities today, we use information and technology to solve future challenges categorized under the notion of the 5-pillars which make a city a smart one. While planning cities of the future, we look to integrate innovative strategies combined with state-of-the-art engineering technologies to build cities that are truly smart and sustainable.

We can resemble the comparison between a city that is smart and a city that is not by taking the example of a car from the 1980s or 1990s vs a new car from today’s production lines and technologies. Older cars are heavy polluters and use a ton of gas, whereas our modern cars are lighter, more environmentally friendly, technologically advanced and sustainable.

First, technological advancement is vital for environmental sustainability. If you look at a power grid, water grid, or other infrastructure of older cities, they have similar shortfalls to the cars we used to build decades ago. Water and power run on inefficient centralized systems, which require large plants with large grids, which then require continuous expansions to sustain urban growth. This produces an inefficient and unsustainable cycle as cities continue to grow. Second, in the case of a decentralized infrastructure system, water processing and power generation occurs locally in households rather than in a centralized system elsewhere in the city. Such a system relieves much of the pressure loads on our infrastructure, eliminates large sections of the costly city-grid, is self-sufficient, and generates economic value. For example, while cities pay large sums for waste processing, a smart city designed locally generates energy and other beneficial byproducts from household waste, instead of undergoing the costly process of moving waste around the city and treating it. This is just one of the many set of solutions geared towards addressing major issues of our cities and building the blueprint of the city of the future.