Neom: Ancient Saudi tribe in danger of ‘disappearing off face of the earth’ to make way for vanity project

New $500bn Neom city-state pits country’s future against its past

Borzou Daragahi,Bel Trew
Monday 05 October 2020 17:39 BST
Authorities initially promised local tribes they would be involved in the Neom development
Authorities initially promised local tribes they would be involved in the Neom development

It is a pet project of Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler: a vast new $500bn (£385bn) hi-tech city that is supposed to attract foreign investment and jumpstart the kingdom’s non-oil economy.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Neom city-state will include an enormous artificial moon, glow-in-the-dark beaches, robot maids and flying taxis, according to leaked documents.

But one thing stands in the way: one of Saudi Arabia’s oldest tribes, the Huwaitat, who have been toiling as farmers and shepherds in the same locale for centuries.

Pushing ahead with the massive project, Saudi authorities in recent months have allegedly arrested, harassed, hounded and even killed members of the tribe for questioning their plans and refusing to sell their ancestral land to the state.

“When they started Neom in the beginning of 2016, Mohammed bin Salman promised them to be part of it and share in the development and improvement of the area,” says Alya Alhwaiti, a London-based activist who is a spokesperson for the tribe. “But in 2020, they are forced to leave their land without places to stay. And the minute you open your mouth or say something on social media, you disappear from the face of the earth.”

Two years after Saudi goons loyal to the crown prince kidnapped, tortured, murdered and dismembered journalist Jamal Khashoggi, repression in the kingdom is as severe as ever. The Huwaitat, a tribe that includes branches in Jordan, Egypt and Palestine as well as Saudi Arabia, are among the most brutalised. Last Thursday, two members of the tribe were detained, one plucked from university, in an attempt to silence and intimidate their outspoken families, says Alhwaiti.

Members of the tribe have called upon the United Nations to investigate their plight, arguing that what the Saudi kingdom is doing amounts to destruction of an indigenous people. “Contrary to promotional videos released by the marketing team for Neom, claiming that it is being built on ‘virgin land’, the Huwaitat tribe have been living on various tracts of that land for hundreds of years,” a press release said.

Even though construction of the project has slowed because of the global economic meltdown, Saudi authorities continue to evict the Huwaitat tribe from their land, which includes 13 villages along the Red Sea. Last April, one member of the tribe, Abdul Rahim al-Huwaiti, was killed in an encounter with Saudi authorities after he refused to be relocated.

Alhwaiti, who originally spent seven years as a professional equestrian employed by Saudi tycoon Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal, says she has received repeated death threats for speaking out for her tribe. She was once warned that she could suffer “the same fate that happened to Jamal Khashoggi”, and also received messages from people threatening to kidnap her, to gouge her eyes out and to douse her in acid.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman

Originally, she says, the tribe was promised that it would be handsomely compensated for the project, with jobs and benefits. At some point, however, the authorities “changed their mind” and opted instead to hound the Huwaitat out. “The crown prince is forcing people to move, and terrifying and scaring them to move.”

“Neom is built on our bones and our blood,” she says.

Families have been offered pittances of $3,000 to relocate, and perhaps one out of every 30 families have accepted. Schools have been closed. Electricity has been cut. Mysterious fires are set.

“They say you have to accept the deal, and if you don’t we’re going to kick you out and you won’t get a penny,” she says. “The atmosphere in general is so terrifying and so scary.”

The Saudi authorities have said little about the alleged evictions, but the security forces said that Abdul Rahim Al-Huwaiti was killed after he opened fire on security forces, forcing them to retaliate.

They say you have to accept the deal and if you don’t we’re going to kick you out and you won’t get a penny

Alya Alhwaiti

Members of Neom’s advisory board tell The Independent that no one has been hounded or violently removed from their lands.

“Saudi Arabia has a history of taking land from everybody to build the state,” says Ali Shihabi, a Saudi political analyst and board member. “The government has always compensated people above market; in this case, there is nothing unique.”

“They are offering people new housing anywhere they want in Saudi Arabia,” he adds, highlighting alleged other benefits including 1,000 overseas scholarships.

But London attorney Rodney Dixon, who is representing the tribe, describes “systematic” attacks on the Huwaitat that amount to potential crimes against humanity and merit international attention. He says he doubts that there is any paper trail showing an effort to destroy the tribe, but points to video evidence showing brutality.

“People are being forced to leave and not being allowed to return to their indigenous lands,” he says. “People are being intimidated. They’ve been threatened. It is gratuitous, and needless threats are being used in order to build this big city.”

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