World’s biggest construction project gets a reality check

By Eliot Brown and Rory Jones | Wall Street Journal

For weeks, thousands of trucks and diggers had worked 24 hours every day, scooping millions of cubic feet of sand at the world’s biggest construction project known as Neom in Saudi Arabia. But the workers had dumped the massive pile of dirt—now hundreds of feet wide—in the very spot where architects planned to dig a waterway out to the Red Sea. 

So, the trucks and diggers went back to work, picking it all back up and making a new mountain of sand nearby in a costly hiccup that epitomizes the Saudi project’s turbulent journey from an audacious concept to a sprawling operation that has faltered in its execution. 

Defying skeptics, Saudi Arabia is barreling ahead with hundreds of billions of dollars in projects at Neom, a built-from-scratch region the size of Massachusetts, typified by sci-fi architecture, an arid ski resort and a laundry list of flashy projects meant to attract a population larger than New York City’s. 

None is more brazen than a multitrillion-dollar pair of skyscrapers taller than the Empire State Building designed to run 105 miles long and house nine million people, the flagship development dubbed “The Line.” Its champion, Saudi Crown Prince and de facto ruler Mohammed bin Salman, has likened the project to Egypt’s Great Pyramids. 

The kingdom in recent months downsized the Line’s first phase, facing the reality of costs at a time the country is spending far more than it is taking in. Now organizers plan to initially build around 1.5 miles of the structure by 2030, rather than the roughly 10-mile first chunk that had previously been envisioned, multiple people briefed on the plans said. Still, even that truncated section would be by far the world’s largest building, the equivalent of more than 60 Empire State Buildings of square footage. 

Asked in a CNBC interview last month about a Bloomberg report on the scaled-back first phase, Saudi Minister of Economy and Planning Faisal Al Ibrahim signaled the long-term ambitions for the Line remain the same. 

“There is no change in scale—it is a long-term project that is modular in design,” he said, adding that “today, the economy in the kingdom is growing faster, but we don’t want to overheat it.”


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May 2024