The Al Huwaitat tribe has appealed to the UN to stop Saudi Arabia’s forced displacement of people living in the area where it plans to build the megaproject.
It is supposed to be a techno-utopia where robots are just as big a presence in society as actual people.
There are plans for robot maids, robot MMA fighters, an island with robot dinosaurs, and an artificial moon with giant screens that will broadcast images of the cosmos, replacing the stars outshone by the neon lights of NEOM - Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s ambitious (to say the least) planned futuristic city on the corner of the Red Sea.
But like many dreams of utopia, it has already become a dystopian nightmare for those caught in its glare.
For the Al Huwaitat tribe, the city will destroy their centuries-old way of living. Members of the 20,000 strong community have been resisting Saudi attempts to force them out of the area designated for the $500 billion mega-project.
Tribe members have faced abductions and arbitrary arrest at the hands of the Saudi security forces.
In April, a leading activist from the tribe was killed in suspicious circumstances after refusing to give up his house to make way for construction.
Abdul Rahim Ahmad al Huwaiti was killed in a shootout with security forces, according to Saudi officials, who described him as a ‘terrorist’. But human rights groups say he was a victim of an extrajudicial execution by Saudi forces after criticising their heavy handed attempts to evict tribes in a widely circulated video posted online.
Organisations such as the MENA Rights Group and ALQST have since urged the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial executions to investigate al Huwaiti’s killing.
Activists say that the tribe and other residents oppose the manner of their displacement rather than the NEOM project itself. They object to the lack of consultation in the decision to make their resettlement compulsory, as well as the vague offers of compensation that have failed to reassure them that they can make ends meet.
Leaders of the tribe are now appealing to the UN for help to stop Saudi Arabia’s attempts to displace them.
NEOM is the centrepiece project of the Saudi crown prince’s (MBS) plan to transform the country’s economy away from oil.
Relying on green energy and technology that has yet to be developed, NEOM will be the primary platform for Saudi entrepreneurs to foray into the tourism and tech industries.
The city will encompass an area the size of Belgium and will include land leased from neighbouring Egypt, as well as Jordan.
While a number of tech giants and Western consultancies initially latched on to the project drawn by the lucrative windfalls but the crown prince’s brand has taken a beating over his human rights abuses since.
Most notorious was the brutal murder of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018 by a hit squad.
The murderers were sent by MBS, according to both Turkish and Western intelligence agency assessments.
Other examples of his public scandals include the kidnap and forced resignation of the Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri and a number of purges targeting members of his own family, such as former Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef and his uncle Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz.
MBS has also implemented an invasive surveillance infrastructure to spy on Saudis suspected of being critical of the government, as well as arresting civil society and religious figures that have fallen foul of his policies.
Any company wishing to partner with the Saudis on the NEOM project therefore faces the prospect of backlash.
In late September, London Mayor Sadiq Khan, as well as the mayors of New York, Paris, and Los Angeles, pulled out of a summit of 25 of the world’s largest cities, which was set to be held in Riyadh.
Reasons given for the withdrawal by the officials included the killing of Khashoggi, as well as Saudi Arabia’s record on women’s rights and other issues.
In another recent example, video game tournament organiser, RFRSH Entertainment, was criticised by leading industry figures for its partnership with NEOM.
On April 13, Abdul Rahim Al Huwaiti was executed after protesting against the forced eviction of his village to build the @NEOM megacity.— MENA Rights Group | منَا لحقوق الإنسان (@MENA_Rights) June 19, 2020
With @ALQST_En, we have raised his case with UN expert @AgnesCallamard, requesting an investigation into his death.https://t.co/bACm8xaXFC