Description and Details

Pro­posed as a har­bin­ger of the future, the $500 bil­lion NEOM project in Sau­di Ara­bia has already drawn con­cern from human rights advo­cates stem­ming from the evic­tion of the indige­nous Huwai­t­at peo­ple. Nick­named “The Line”, the city is envi­sioned as a 200-meter-wide, 170-kilo­me­ter-long city com­prised of 9 mil­lion peo­ple locat­ed off the Gulf of Aqa­ba in the province of Tabuk. the project backed by the Sau­di Fund for Devel­op­ment (SFD) and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman aims to bring a sus­tain­able and hyper­con­nect­ed ‘city of the future’ into real­i­ty. Yet, the pro­jec­t’s altru­is­tic desires have already clashed with real­i­ty as ear­ly devel­op­ment result­ed in the force­ful removal, impris­on­ment, and cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment of the Huwai­t­at tribe indige­nous to the project location.

Ini­tial­ly pro­posed in 2017, “The Line” is imag­ined free of cars and streets, with essen­tial ser­vices locat­ed with­in a 5‑minute walk from any­where, under­pinned by a high-speed tran­sit sys­tem as its cir­cu­lat­ing life­line. All these sys­tems will sup­pos­ed­ly have a net-zero car­bon foot­print and be pow­ered by arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence for opti­mal res­i­dent use, although to date, no tech­ni­cal details or pro­posed plans beyond con­cep­tu­al dia­grams and ren­der­ings have been released. At the core of these pro­mo­tions are inno­va­tion and tech­no­log­i­cal advance­ment per­mit­ting a pop­u­lat­ed ver­ti­cal city on a vast­ly reduced foot­print – pre­serv­ing the untouched desert land­scape it rests with­in. How­ev­er, this desert is far from untouched, as rough­ly 20,000 mem­bers of the Huwai­t­at tribe have inhab­it­ed these lands for cen­turies and have been bru­tal­ly evict­ed to make way for the megacity.

Detailed in the 2023 ALQST Report: “The Dark Side of Neom” acqui­si­tion of land in Tabuk for “The Line” project pre­ced­ed its announce­ment in 2017, as land trans­fers and license renewals were sus­pend­ed as the Sau­di Pub­lic Invest­ment Fund secret­ly acquired the title to Neom’s entire foot­print. 3 years lat­er, on Jan­u­ary 1, 2020, local author­i­ties issued a manda­to­ry evic­tion notice to res­i­dents of al-Khu­rai­ba, Shar­ma, and Gaya. Despite resis­tance and refusal from local Huwaiti peo­ple, the notice was enforced through raid­ing of homes by Spe­cial Forces and an SFD spe­cial com­mit­tee. The sit­u­a­tion result­ed in the detain­ment of at least twen­ty indi­vid­u­als, includ­ing instances where the Maba­heth secret police report­ed­ly detained a child for writ­ing slo­gans protest­ing the evictions.

In protest, 43-year-old res­i­dent Abdul Rahim al-Huwaiti filmed videos of his refusal to allow the SFD spe­cial com­mit­tee into his home and post­ed them to social media label­ing the act as state ter­ror­ism. The fol­low­ing morn­ing, Spe­cial Forces sur­round­ed his home in an assault that result­ed in his death. To make the sit­u­a­tion worse, author­i­ties denied access to his remains and funer­ary rites, deny­ing the fam­i­ly’s right to prompt­ly bury him accord­ing to Islam­ic tradition.

Fol­low­ing the death of al-Huwaiti, ALQST has doc­u­ment­ed 47 fur­ther arrests with­in the Huwai­t­at tribe for resist­ing or denounc­ing the evic­tions con­nect­ed to the NEOM project. Those detained face pros­e­cu­tions under the Counter-Ter­ror­ism Law, lead­ing to sub­stan­tial prison sen­tences. Fif­teen tribe mem­bers were sen­tenced to terms span­ning 15 to 50 years and a min­i­mum of five faced cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment, with 3 fac­ing a death sen­tence. For those evict­ed who were not detained, the pur­port­ed com­pen­sa­tion offered to evictees for self-relo­ca­tion was inad­e­quate. The amount not stat­ed was claimed to be insuf­fi­cient for decent reset­tle­ment of fam­i­lies, much less com­pen­sa­tion for the loss of their his­tor­i­cal home.

In response to crit­i­cisms from the Unit­ed Nations Human Rights Coun­cil and ALQST, The Sau­di gov­ern­ment has released a let­ter firm­ly refut­ing alle­ga­tions that the impris­on­ments, cap­i­tal pun­ish­ments, and al-Huwaiti’s death were relat­ed to the men’s crit­i­cisms of evic­tions for NEOM, instead label­ing the indi­vid­u­als as ter­ror­ists affil­i­at­ed with Daesh and Al-Qai­da. The gov­ern­men­t’s state­ment asserts that the infor­ma­tion in the UN com­mu­ni­ca­tion lacks accu­ra­cy, con­tains unsub­stan­ti­at­ed alle­ga­tions, and mis­rep­re­sents the true rea­sons behind the sentencing.

In con­clu­sion, the NEOM project sym­bol­iz­ing an inno­v­a­tive leap in city con­struc­tion, is steeped in con­tro­ver­sy over the treat­ment of the indige­nous Huwai­t­at tribe, whose land and rights have been super­seded by devel­op­ment pri­or­i­ties. Despite the Sau­di gov­ern­men­t’s rig­or­ous denial of any con­nec­tion between the puni­tive mea­sures against tribe mem­bers and their oppo­si­tion to the evic­tions, the harsh real­i­ty and strong evi­dence of unjust impris­on­ments and cap­i­tal sen­tences point to a grim dis­con­nect between the grandiose vision of NEOM and the stark infringe­ment the project has already had on human rights.

Discussion Questions

  • Who is respon­si­ble for, or most capa­ble of safe­guard­ing the rights of the Huwai­t­at tribe and oth­er poten­tial­ly endan­gered groups in the con­text of large-scale developments?
  • What mech­a­nisms or inter­na­tion­al inter­ven­tions might pro­vide recourse and jus­tice for the fam­i­lies affect­ed by the NEOM pro­jec­t’s evic­tions and alleged human rights violations?
  • What strate­gies could be employed to bal­ance the advance­ment of the NEOM project with the preser­va­tion of indige­nous rights, and could this expe­ri­ence serve as a prece­dent for future mega projects?


Pop­u­lar Media/News References:

The Dark Side of Neom: Feb­ru­ary 2023 Expro­pri­a­tion, expul­sion and pros­e­cu­tion of the region’s inhabitants

Sau­di Ara­bia denies Neom human rights abus­es in response to UN report

NEOM project sparks con­cern over human rights violations

NEOM ~ The Line

Opin­ion | Sau­di Arabia’s new mega-city may be built on a foun­da­tion of tyranny