Civil Liberties

Saudi Arabia has one of the worst human rights records on the planet – and Neom’s boasts of mass digital surveillance to keep the region “safe from crime” should send a shiver down the spine.

Executions and horrific forms of torture await those accused of even minor infractions in Saudi Arabia, and there is little you can do to defend yourself if accused, thanks to an entirely unaccountable legal system.

People accused of robbery can have their hands and feet surgically removed. In 2015, blogger Raif Badawi was sentenced to 1,000 lashes and ten years imprisonment for “insulting Islam”. And these are just examples of the barbaric treatment of supposed criminals that are openly part of the criminal justice system. According to Amnesty International, which is not allowed to operate in the kingdom, former detainees talk of their experience of regular torture by police, none of whom are ever held accountable.

In the year January to May 2020, 40 people were executed in Saudi Arabia, an increase on previous years. Executions often take the form of public beheadings.

Amnesty also reports that between 2018 and 2020, nearly all prominent human rights activists in the country have either been imprisoned or have escaped the country. The fragile rulers say that with Neom and Vision 2030, they want to open up Saudi Arabia to the world – but they are too afraid even to allow basic human rights to be monitored.

You don’t need to have actually committed a crime to be detained in the country. Dozens of people, including human rights activists, have been kept in pre-trial detention for years, often without access to legal assistance.

And don’t think about taking to the streets to protest unless you are ready to accept the horrific consequences of doing so. Since 2011 any public gathering, including protests, have been classed as “inciting people against the authorities” and carry a jail term – or worse.

These draconian practises are made worse if you are not part of the male, Sunni elite. Women have few rights, and are legally subordinate to men on issues from leaving the house and driving to divorce and inheritance. Women who campaigned for the right to drive a car saw a huge amount of harassment from government-backed forces. Those of Shi’a background are also persecuted – with those taking part in anti-government protests during the Arab Spring in 2011 facing death sentences and imprisonment.

For all the boasting that the Neom project will be some sort of celebration of freedom and creativity, it will be set within a country run along these barbaric lines. Saudi leaders have said Neom will have its own laws – but if that is the case, and there is no reason to see why it would be, why do the super rich coming to this dystopian fantasy of a micro-state deserve better rights than the rest of the country? One thing is for certain – with de facto leader crown prince Mohammed Bin Salman boasting of mass facial recognition to monitor all Neom citizens at all times, this will not be the free-thinking liberal paradise that the Neom brochures want us to think it is.

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