The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has been noted to make efforts to improve its international image, yet the al-Huwaitat tribe is once again seeking help from the UN. Urgent communication is being sent by members of the al-Huwaitat tribe pertaining to claims of abuse and displacement, in connection with the NEOM mega-city project unveiled by the Saudi government in 2016.
The NEOM project drew international attention in 2018 when several NEOM Advisory Board members withdrew their involvement, including prominent British architect Norman Foster. Their main reason for doing so was the Saudi government’s alleged implication in the slaying of Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post journalist.
In April of this year, a Saudi citizen and al-Huwaitat tribe member were slain by Saudi security forces, while the government reported that the two were killed in the course of a gun battle.
Last September, an appeal to the United Nations was made by the al-Kuwaitat tribe as several members have been arrested or abducted because they continue to lead in the tribe’s defiance of relocation orders that would make way for the NEOM project. The arrested members are being held incommunicado by Saudi security forces. Matters have taken a turn for the worse as the whereabouts of two tribe members arrested last October 1, 2020 remain unknown.
The Controversy Surrounding the NEOM Mega-City Project
Based on 2016 information materials disseminated by the Saudi government in unveiling the NEOM project, the plan is to build a mega-city on virgin lands. However, it later turned out that the supposed “virgin land” is located in northwest Tabuk province, which include settlements occupied for a number of centuries by the al-Huwaitat tribe.
Today, an estimated 20,000 al-Huwaitat tribal members are facing eviction to make way for the NEOM project.
Dawn Chatty, a professor of Anthropology and Forced Migration at Oxford University, spoke with the Al Jazeera and said
”The Saudi government is not even trying to settle the issue with the tribe, pretending that the al-Huwaitat settlement does not exist at all.”
Touted as the New Future, the planned NEOM mega-city is one of the projects envisioned by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman. According to NEOM website info, it is one of the Crown Prince’s initiatives in reinvigorating and in diversifying Saudi’s economy. The total projected cost is $500 billion and will be funded by the government’s Public Investment Fund.
At the start, the NEOM project stirred excitement among members of the al-Huwaitat tribe because the government said the tribe will take part in the city’s development. It even included a projection that the tribe will become the most famous indigenous group in the world.
However, in January 2020, the Crown Prince had allegedly sent an emissary to speak with the al-Huwaitat tribe, giving them notice to leave their lands. In return, each family will accept compensation of $3,000. In Saudi Riyal the compensation is roughly equivalent to SR 11,000 only. Those who refuse will simply face eviction measures.