Saudis Propose Carbon-Free Sharia-Ruled 75-Mile-Long “Side”-Scraper
Designers of the Mirror Line propose two parallel structures traversing mountains and desert as part of a futuristic development to transform the kingdom.
What urban planners came up with in response are plans for the world’s largest structure: two buildings up to 1,600 feet tall, running parallel for 75 miles in a line across coastal, mountain and desert terrain, connected via walkways, according to hundreds of pages of confidential planning documents that lay out the idea for the first time in detail.
The project—dubbed the Mirror Line—builds on a previous announcement by Prince Mohammed of plans to create a linear community and is expected to cost up to a trillion dollars and house about five million people when fully completed, according to people aware of the plan and the documents, viewed by The Wall Street Journal.
A high-speed train will run under the mirrored buildings, the documents, which are from last autumn, show. To feed its residents, the project plans vertical farming integrated into the buildings. For entertainment, the Mirror Line plans a sports stadium up to 1,000 feet above the ground. It will also boast a marina for yachts that lies underneath an arch in the two buildings.
The Mirror Line is one of a series of high-profile projects that make up Neom, a development the size of Massachusetts conceived by Prince Mohammed to diversify the kingdom’s economy from its reliance on oil. Owned by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign-wealth fund, Neom wants to attract foreign investment and create thousands of new jobs.
But raising significant foreign interest and cash has been hard so far, with many Western countries and companies boycotting the kingdom and Prince Mohammed, its de facto ruler, over Riyadh’s record on human rights following the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents in 2018.
That isolation by the West ended after last week’s high-profile summit between Prince Mohammed and U.S. President Biden, potentially paving the way for more foreign investments to come into Neom.
Importantly, the kingdom is also enjoying windfall revenue from high oil prices, which has allowed Prince Mohammed to press ahead on ambitious projects such as Mirror Line aimed at turning his country into one of the world’s top destinations—although plans for the project could still change.
If Saudi Arabia succeeds in building it, the structure would be like nothing else in the world. It is already challenging the urban planners who are designing it. For instance, they are facing a 2030 completion deadline imposed by the prince’s national transformation plan and must resolve many questions, such as how to manage the migration of millions of birds across corridors that the Mirror Line will intersect.
An initial impact assessment of the Mirror Line produced in January 2021 said the development would have to be constructed in stages and could take 50 years. Neom employees in the document raised concerns that people might avoid living in a high-rise environment following the pandemic and that the sheer size of the structure would alter the dynamics of groundwater flow in desert wadis and restrict the movement of birds and other animals.
The Mirror Line designs are reminiscent of the go-go property era ahead of the global financial crisis in neighboring Dubai, a city Prince Mohammed has praised for the speed and the ambition of its development. The emirate built the world’s tallest tower at 2,700 feet, a palm-shaped island of villas and apartments, and an archipelago constructed to resemble the world map.
But as in Dubai, not all of the planned developments in Saudi Arabia will necessarily be completed. During the last oil boom, Saudi Arabia planned the world’s tallest skyscraper, later put on hold. Neom already has cycled through master plans and an exodus of foreign employees frustrated at the pace of development and the management culture, The Wall Street Journal reported.
The Mirror Line is designed by the U.S.-based Morphosis Architects, founded by Pritzker Architecture Prize winner Thom Mayne, and involves at least nine other design and engineering consultants, including Montreal-based WSP Global and New York’s Thornton Tomasetti, among others. They propose building it in stages by creating 2,600-foot-long structures that will connect along a line, with varying heights up to 1,600 feet, higher than the Empire State Building.
Morphosis didn’t respond to requests for comment. WSP and Thornton Tomasetti declined to comment.
“They are going for something that has never been done before,” said Javier Quintana de Uña, chief executive at the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, a Chicago-based nonprofit.
If fully completed, the Mirror Line will run from the Gulf of Aqaba and bisect a mountain range that extends alongside the coast. It will continue east through a mountain resort and complex housing Saudi Arabia’s government to an “aerotropolis” in the desert plains, planning documents say.
The entire 105-mile linear plan is known as The Line. It is a concept that has interested urban planners for more than a century. In 1882, Spanish architect Arturo Soria y Mata proposed building an elongated urban development that inspired the “Ciudad Lineal” district of Madrid.
Prince Mohammed first unveiled his idea for a linear city, with no cars and zero pollution, in January 2021. In a video, he framed the idea as an evolution in human achievement, akin to the discovery of penicillin and the moon landing, and a way to save lives lost to pollution and traffic accidents.
“The Line is a project that is a civilizational revolution that puts humans first,” he said in the video.
Only a year before, Neom faced criticism from human-rights groups for forcibly moving tribes from the land, leading to security forces shooting dead a resident. In the video, Prince Mohammed said that The Line aimed to allow one million residents to meet daily within a five-minute walk and to travel end-to-end in 20 minutes. The project would be powered by renewable energy and protect nature in the untouched northwest, with details to follow, he said. Urban planners initially envisaged communities dotted along The Line.
But in a private meeting, the prince told people working on The Line to think boldly about the architecture, saying “I want to build my pyramids,” The Wall Street Journal reported last year.
Urban planners have mulled how to increase the population of The Line to up to six million, including up to five million inside the Mirror Line buildings, according to the documents. To feed people, vegetables will be “autonomously harvested and bundled” and moved into “community canteens” and “co-living kitchens,” the documents show. Residents will pay a subscription to be served breakfast, lunch and dinner.
One of the biggest challenges for a structure made of two tall buildings running parallel to each other is the shade created. Lack of sunlight could be detrimental to health, the documents say.
The development also faces one challenge unique among construction worldwide: the curvature of the Earth.
Because the earth arches about 8 inches per mile, the documents say, designers propose leaving a gap at the top of the 2,600-foot modules to “bend” the structures around the world.
—Stephen Kalin contributed to this article.