The mega cities of the Middle East

Brid-Aine Parnell

Tuesday 28 November 2017

From NEOM to Masdar City, ambitious, multibillion-dollar projects to build cities from scratch are popping up all over the Middle East. And each one promises to be a glittering, technology-fuelled city of the future.

The Middle East is no stranger to ambitious projects, but none are as astounding as their plans to build cities from scratch.

Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are among the nations taking on these multibillion-dollar projects to construct new city hubs. And because they are starting from nothing, they give governments an unprecedented opportunity to fill the cities with cutting-edge smart technologies.

These are three of the most interesting projects in the works:


In October this year, Saudi Arabia announced the most monumental city project yet – NEOM, a city stretching for 26,500 square kilometres across Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman envisions the project as a “civilisational leap for humanity”, a $500 billion investment that will be a hub for advanced manufacturing, biotech, media and airlines.

“We want the main robot and the first robot in NEOM to be NEOM, robot number one,” the crown prince said in an interview with Bloomberg. “Everything will have a link with artificial intelligence, with the Internet of Things – everything.”

Every technology imaginable will be used in the project’s construction. According to the city’s website: “Repetitive and arduous tasks will be fully automated and handled by robots, which may exceed the population, likely making the NEOM’s GDP per capita the highest in the world.”

Vast fields of solar panels and wind turbines will power the city itself and store power for other regions. Transport systems will be “100 per cent green” and “glide smoothly and safely in three dimensions”. It promises to innovate on an open-source platform and give inventors the opportunity to use the city itself as a test ground for urban innovations

The city, whose name comes from “neo”, Latin for new, and a contraction of the Arabic word “mustaqbal”, meaning “future”, will be a separate economic zone and is part of Saudi Arabia’s vision to see its economy survive its dwindling oil resources.

King Abdullah Economic City

But NEOM isn’t even Saudi Arabia’s first stab at a massive city project. That honour goes to the King Abdullah Economic City (KAEC), which was announced in 2005 by King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, the late king.

Although much smaller than NEOM at 173 square kilometres, it’s still due to be larger than Washington D.C. when completed. Located on the coast of the Red Sea, less than an hour by train from Mecca, Medina and Jeddah, the city is just one of a planned five announced at the same time.

KAEC will eventually be home to over two million people and will cost around $100 billion to construct. It was originally due for completion in 2020, but that date has been pushed back to 2035. However, companies like Total and Pfizer are already in residence.

The city features a deep-water port, a proposed logistics and manufacturing hub called Industrial Valley and a state-of-the-art high-speed rail network. The masterplan was redrawn (again) in 2016 to include newer technologies like driverless cars and the Internet of Things (IoT).

Masdar City

The UAE has some experience in building cities up, having grown Dubai from little more than a fishing town to a massive tourist metropolis in just over 60 years. Masdar City is its planned city project in Abu Dhabi, which aims to be a hub for clean-tech companies

It’s a relatively small project compared to Saudi Arabia’s ambitions (but the UAE is a much smaller country). Masdar City will cover just six square kilometres and will cost an estimated $22 billion to construct, although it has faced delays and complications in completion.

The original plan was to build a city on its own grid with full carbon neutrality, but the project was later tied into the national network after the managers realised it would never reach that goal. The city has replaced most cars with driverless electric vehicles. It has also reduced the need for air conditioning by 55 per cent through intelligent building design and uses movement sensors to turn on taps and lights, leading to a cut in electricity consumption by 51 per cent and water usage by 55 per cent.

In addition to these three ventures, other projects include the UAE’s Dubai South, Qatar’s 38 square kilometre Lusail City (which will host the 2022 FIFA World Cup) and the hugely ambitious 250-square-kilometre Madinat al-Hareer in Kuwait, announced in 2006, but put on hold in 2014.

These are upscale, years-spanning construction projects, which helps explain why they haven’t always been smooth sailing. But even if some of these projects are only half-completed, these cities will be key testing grounds for leading-edge, smart technologies. They will be the early adopters of what AI and the IoT can do for urban landscapes, and among the greenest cities on the planet. Ultimately, they could put the Middle East in pole position for a technology-driven global economy.