The true cost of Saudi Arabia’s $500 billion high-tech city

In the early hours of April 13th, Saudi citizen Abdul Rahim al-Huwaiti was killed in his own home a day after his video criticising the forced eviction of his tribe, the Huwaitat, went viral on social media. Saudi activists claim that al-Huwaiti was executed by Saudi special forces due his public refusal to give up his home. The story of Abdul Rahim al-Huwaiti is just one of the many cases which highlight the ongoing scandal of the forced eviction of the Huwaitat tribe to make way for the $500 billion project, known as NEOM (NEOM is a name coined by combining the Western prefix neo with the initial letter of the Arabic word mustakbal meaning future, ergo New Future). We at the Next Century Foundation are deeply saddened by this development that is taking place in the Huwaitat’s ancestral lands and we appeal to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to re-evaluate measures regarding to this matter.

NEOM, the high-tech city, NEOM, is an ongoing project aimed to be completed by 2025. As an attempt to diversify from income sources from oil, the new high-tech city plans to implement futuristic technology in its infrastructure while simultaneously functioning as a tourist and investment hub. Located in the north-western area near the Saudi Jordanian border, the project is built on land indigenous to the ancient nomadic Bedouin tribe, the Huwaitat. The tribe has resided in this very land for hundreds of years, in over 13 villages near the Red Sea. However Huwaitat settlements in the Middle East as a whole span four countries: Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Egypt. As one of the oldest Transjordanian tribes, the Huwaitat are culturally significant. They are also historically important because of their support for the Hashemites during the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire. Their actions were documented in T.E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom due to their pivotal role in the creation of the Jordanian state.

The project is being advertised as being built on ‘virgin land’, however this is certainly not the case as the Huwaitat have resided in this very land for hundreds of years. They have become collateral damage in the wake of Saudi Arabia’s recent reforms as they face harassment to drive them to relocate and in many instances forced evictions. And those who dare defy progress, like Abdul Rahim al-Huwaiti, may find themselves imprisoned or killed. The true cost of Saudi Arabia’s new project NEOM far exceeds the $500 billion bill.

Just recently in September, an appeal was sent to the UN in regard to the repeated harassment and forced displacement allegations made against Saudi forces in regard to their treatment of the Huwaitat to make way for NEOM. Actions have included electricity in the area being shut and the closure of schools to disincentivise locals from staying. Despite the scandal, members of NEOM advisory board have released statements saying that nobody has been removed violently from their land and compensation schemes are available for those relocating.

The Next Century Foundation has pressing and urgent concerns regarding the safety and the rights of indigenous people in Saudi Arabia. Such rights are enshrined under the UN Declaration of Human Rights. We appeal to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to be considerate to the Huwaitat and ensure that Abdul Rahim al-Huwaiti has not died in vain. We urge Saudi Arabia to take the compassionate route in regard to this matter.

This article was written by the NCF Research Officer Fara Maruf and does not necessarily represent the views of the Next Century Foundation.

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