The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is pioneering the idea of smart cities in the Gulf region with its NEOM megaproject and The Line, though old cities are not forgotten either.
Smart cities may sound like a concept straight out of futuristic movies, but in fact they are not that different from conventional cities we are used to, except that IT-powered solutions will make the lives of citizens much easier in smart cities.
Surveillance cameras and various other online sensors are now so ubiquitously installed around most cities that it will be a waste to not use them for running the cities more efficiently.
Both traditional software and AI-powered ones are employed by urban planners to create a better “user experience” for citizens based on the huge—and still growing—volume of data they have at their disposal.
A simple example is predicting the traffic behavior based on past data and readjusting the time tables of various activities across the city to rid the city of traffic jams and minimize the crowding on public transport.
Saudi Arabia, as the largest economy of the Gulf region and one of the top twenty in the world, is well-positioned to invest in smart cities.
Aside from the Saudi Vision 2030 that demands the implementation of “smart city” projects in major urban areas, Saudi Arabia is currently constructing a futuristic new city, The Line in NEOM. As the new city is designed and implemented in a top-down manner, it is an ideal candidate for going smart.
And, you can rest assured that this has been noticed by Saudi urban planners.
HH Mohammed bin Salman, Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, who also happens to be the chairman of the NEOM company, has said the following lines about The Line, NEOM’s linear smart city:
“I present to you THE LINE, a city of a million residents with a length of 170 km that preserves 95% of nature within NEOM, with zero cars, zero streets and zero carbon emissions.”
Based on such comments and what the kingdom has disclosed about the project, it is fair to assume that The Line will heavily rely on digital solutions for urban planning purposes, with internet of things (IoT) facilitating the interaction of The Line’s future citizens with the artificial intelligence that essentially runs the city.
This much is also confirmed by some of the advisers to NEOM and their comments. “NEOM is not about building a smart city, it is about building the first cognitive city, where world-class technology is fueled with data and intelligence to interact seamlessly with its population,” notes Joseph Bradley, NEOM mega project’s head of Head of Technology and Digital.
Saudi Arabia’s interest in seeing its cities go smart is not limited to planned, futuristic cities. In line with Vision 2030, many existing cities will take a digital turn, too, saying goodbye to bureaucratic headaches wherever possible and replacing them with smart solutions.
By 2020, smart urban initiatives were emerging in the cities of Riyadh, Jeddah, Makkah, Al-Madinah, and Al-Ahsa. It is expected that with the soaring of oil prices in 2022 to over USD105, on average, the kingdom will have more financial resources at its disposal to redirect to its ambitious projects for smart cities, which can interestingly put an end to Saudi Arabia’s petroleum dependence.
A group of researchers from across the Arab world expressed their view that Saudi Arabia is moving in the right direction in as early as 2019.
After much consideration, Rahma Doheim (et al) revealed in a scholarly article in the journal Smart Cities: Issues and Challenges, published by Elsevier, that “the findings suggest that the Kingdom has a clear vision of how to manage the transformation of these cities into smart cities, while at the same ensuring that each of them retains its specificity.”