The Neom project aims to attract hundreds of thousands of business people and tourists to its luxurious housing, hotels and resorts over the next decade. Construction has already started across the region, which spans the west coast of Saudi Arabia by the Red Sea.
But one thing standing in the way of Neom’s construction is the presence of the Huwaitat, a tribe that has lived in the region for centuries. Neom has made clear that in order for the project to be realised, they will have to go – around 20,000 of them – before 2023.
Of course, many of the Huwaitat people are not against Neom in itself. They would welcome the investment and development of infrastructure in the region, but the truth is that they are not welcome. And opposition to plans to clear the Huwaitat from their land has been met with the regime’s usual response to those who stand up to it – terror.
On 13 April 2020, Abdul Rahim al-Huwaiti, a member of the tribe in north-west Saudi Arabia, filmed a video claiming that the regime was attempting to evict his community from their land. He vowed to resist the eviction order. Chillingly, he also predicted that the regime would plant weapons in his house to incriminate him, and that his life was in danger.
Soon after posting the video, he was dead. Al-Huwaiti’s house was surrounded by security forces and he died in the shootout. The Saudi forces claimed that he had opened fire on them and that they had been forced to retaliate. The local Huwaitat community claims that this is untrue, as did human rights activist Alya Abutayah Alhwaiti, who is based in London, who said he was unarmed.
Alhwaiti claims she has faced a barrage of harassment online and by telephone after raising the issue to an international audience, including circulating the video by Al-Huwaiti.
She told BBC News that she had alerted British police after a phone call in which she was told: “We can get you in London… You think you are safe there, but you are not.” She added that she was also threatened with “the same fate that happened to Jamal Khashoggi”, the Washington Post journalist and Saudi dissident who was murdered by Saudi forces in the kingdom’s embassy in Istanbul.
Alhwaiti also said that since these bloody events, eight other members of the dead man’s family had also been detained for resisting the eviction order. She said that a legal challenge was being launched to aid them.
It did not have to be this way. Neom could have embraced the diversity of the region – just as it claims to in its publicity material – and allowed the tribes people to stay on the land they have called home for centuries, far longer than the state of Saudi Arabia has existed in its current form.
They could have negotiated with them, built around them, and allowed them access to the supposed utopian project.
But the Neom project is not for people like the Huwaitat. It is a land built for the world’s international elite, who can live in their luxury hotels, spend money on their resorts and lead businesses that will draw hundreds of billions of dollars into the Saudi economy. As it stands, Neom will be built on the blood of people like Al-Huwaiti and anyone else who stands in its way.