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Forced Displacement Threatens al-Huwaitat Tribe as Saudi Arabia Begins NEOM Project

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In January, the Government of Saudi Arabia announced plans to begin work on a project to build the “world’s most advanced city.” The project, called NEOM and led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, envisioned everything from flying cars to robotic butlers, and even plans to boast an artificial moon made of flying drones. Perhaps more incredulously, however, the realization of the project requires the forced relocation of thousands of people from their ancestral homes.


The land earmarked for NEOM is already inhabited, and has been for centuries, by tribes and peoples that do not count themselves members of the ruling al-Saud family. These people, chief among them the al-Hawatyat tribe, have lived off of and cultivated the land since long before the al-Saud family established ruling power and formed the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Despite their ownership long predating the existence of the country, however, the al-Saud family feels entitled to use their land to pursue its own passion projects. At least 20,000 persons associated with the al-Hawatyat tribe will lose their homes in the process.


The government is accomplishing its forced relocation of the al-Hawatyat tribe and other local residents through eminent domain, a process that belies the implied violence and real suffering that goes into such a campaign. Through eminent domain, the government claims legal authority over the land and offers compensation to the current possessors in exchange for title, all under the threat of the use of state force in the event of non-compliance. The name is innocuous, the process less so: take our payment, or we will force you off at gunpoint.


The rights of indigenous persons to the free enjoyment of their land are uncontested and well-established in international law. The Universal Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, for which Saudi Arabia voted in favor in 2007, states in Article 10 that “[i]ndigenous peoples shall not be forcibly removed from their lands or territories. No relocation shall take place without the free, prior and informed consent of the indigenous peoples concerned and after agreement on just and fair compensation and, where possible, with the option of return.”


Members of the al-Hawatyat tribe have attempted to negotiate with the government for a compromise that would allow them continued enjoyment of their land without adversely affecting the NEOM project. Shortly after the project was announced, local residents visited regional governor Prince Fahd bin Sultan to lobby for the right to stay. The prince stated that he could not help them defend their land from the government. In a social media campaign, activists from the region affirmed their support of the Crown Prince’s developmental vision, but argued that the NEOM project did not have to be realized at the expense of their ancestral home. Some activists took an even sharper tone with the government, steadfastly refusing government compensation and categorically refusing to be removed.


Beyond merely the Government of Saudi Arabia, however, several international companies are implicated in the forced eviction. According to leaks analysed by the Wall Street Journal, US-based Boston Consulting Group is involved in the campaign to relocate local residents. The Journal further reported that the Kingdom is funding the NEOM project in part from a USD 45 billion loan from the Japanese SoftBank group, as the government did not have the cash on hand to even begin its ambitious vision.

This is far from the first time that Saudi Arabia has bulldozed indigenous land in the name of “progress.” On Saudi Arabia’s other coast, the government destroyed the historical Mosawara district of al-Awamiyah in retaliation against ongoing protests in the region. Shortly thereafter, government agents seized control of the al-Ramis endowment in the same area, kicked hundreds of families out of the area, and set about demolishing it. It now plans the further destruction of several villages in the area.

The European Saudi Organization for Human Rights (ESOHR) stands with the al-Huwaytat tribe and the other local residents affected by the NEOM forced relocation campaign. We condemn the government’s forced evictions and denounce the international companies that are aiding and abetting the criminal campaign, calling upon them to distance themselves from the project until the government abandons its feudalistic practices and negotiates with local residents, including the al-Huwaytat tribe, towards a solution that allows local residents to maintain uninterrupted and undiluted rights to their ancestral land.


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