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PoliticsSaudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia's Neom: A prestigious project with a dark side

May 18, 2023

The construction of the futuristic green Saudi city of Neom requires the resettlement of tribal people. Those who do not comply with the plans are sentenced to very long prison terms or to death.

A design plan for futuristic mirror-encased skyscrapers in a red dessert
The futuristic megaproject Neom is built on land that is traditionally inhabited by local tribes who are increasingly being evictedImage: NEOM/AFP

Saudi Arabia is pushing forward with the construction of Neom, a futuristic megacity and ecological prestige project, despite international criticism over human rights violations.

According to a recent reportby the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) people from the Howeitat tribe who live in the region earmarked for the city have been displaced and their homes demolished without adequate compensation. What is more, one Howeitat man has been killed and the death sentences of three further tribe members have been confirmed, while three more have been handed 50-year jail sentences on terrorism charges.

"Despite being charged with terrorism, they were reportedly arrested for resisting forced evictions in the name of the Neom project and the construction of a 170-km (106-mile) linear city called The Line," the report said.

All these human rights violations have happened despite the promise by Saudi Arabia's de facto ruler, 37-year-old Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman — better known as MBS — that people affected by the construction work will be included in the planning and implementation processes.

The $500 billion (€462 billion) construction of Neom is the embodiment of Vision 2030, as Saudi Arabia's economic and societal overhaul has been dubbed. This set of reforms was introduced by MBS in 2017 and has so far led to improvements in women's rights, increased tourist access to the country, and the opening up of alternative income sources in a bid to diversify the kingdom's economy and reduce its dependence on oil revenues.

According to the construction plans, Neom, which is projected to be opened in 2039, is going to take up 26,500 square kilometers of Saudi territory near the Red Sea coast. The Saudi government plans that the city will utilize cutting-edge technology with a focus on artificial intelligence, and feature an airport, high-speed trains, and drones, all powered by renewable energy sources solely. The project also serves as a broad platform for international investment.

Image of the city development of Saudi Arabia's futuristic mega city Neom
Mohammed bin Salman pushes the construction of the futuristic and green mega city which scheduled to be completed in 2039Image: Eliot Blondet/ABACA/picture alliance

Investment, not human rights, a priority

"Construction work on Neom has begun. However, the project is still very, very much at the beginning," Sebastian Sons, senior researcher for the German-based Center for Applied Research in Partnership with the Orient (CARPO), told DW, adding that many international consultants are currently at work in Neom. "There are several direct-flight connections from Neom to London or to New York, so the ambitions are evident: Saudi Arabia really wants to make Neom happen," Sons said.

He sees Neom as symbol for Mohammed bin Salman's plan to lead the country into a new modernity. "Due to its international appeal, there is enormous pressure to implement the project," he said. "If he were to fail with it, it would likely do considerable damage to the trust he enjoys among large sections of the population," Sons told DW. Moreover, failure would also damage Saudi Arabia's reputation as an international investment location.

"But the glossy brochures don't show that this is a city being built on forcible evictions, state violence and death sentences," Jeed Basyouni, Middle East director of the human rights organization Reprieve, told DW. For her, Neom epitomizes the "gulf between Mohammed bin Salman's professed 'vision' of Saudi Arabia and the repressive reality of his rule." 

Designs for a mirror-encased complex stretching across dessert and sea
Saudi Arabia plans to build a skyscraper that is 160 km long and starts at the Red Sea.Image: NEOM

'Neom is built with Saudi blood'

This view is echoed by Lina al-Hathloul, director of communication of the London-based Saudi human rights watchdog ALQST. "Our main concern is that Neom is built on Saudi blood," the sister of the famous Saudi women's rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul told DW.

"The trials against the tribe people were conducted behind closed doors. In order to advance the project, the judiciary is even prepared to execute people," al-Hathloul said.

Neom is not the only place in Saudi Arabia where people have been forcibly displaced. From January to October 2022, authorities in the port city of Jeddah had many houses demolished to implement urban development plans. In the process, thousands of people became victims of unlawful forced evictions, including foreign nationals, as Amnesty International reported.

"We have seen, time and again, that anyone who disagrees with the crown prince, or gets in his way, risks being sentenced to jail or to death, whether peaceful protesters, social media critics, or people unfortunate enough to live on land his regime wants to seize," Basyouni said.

Crown Prince of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed Bin Salman
Neom is said to be the pet project of the Saudi Crown Prince and de facto ruler Mohammed Bin SalmanImage: IMAGO/Le Pictorium

German companies also under obligation

On an international level, there are opportunities to influence the course of Saudi human rights policy, says Sebastian Sons. In the past, increasing international pressure has led to executions being suspended or human rights activists such as Loujain al-Hathloul being released from prison, even though they sometimes remain under rigid surveillance and travel bans. "That means that the higher the pressure becomes on the Saudi government to actually do something here, the more likely it might be willing to find a conciliatory, a face-saving solution," Sons says.

The dire human rights situation in the Saudi kingdom was a topic raised this week by German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock during her trip to the Gulf. Economic cooperation cannot be "considered in isolation from the rule of law, human rights and freedoms," she explained in talks with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan.

In fact, Sons says, it is also in Germany's interest to raise the social compatibility of Neom, "simply because German companies are involved in the project and possible human rights violations might not fall on the kingdom alone, but also on German companies."

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Edited by: Timothy Jones

Jennifer Holleis
Jennifer Holleis Editor and commentator focusing on the Middle East and North Africa
Kersten Knipp
Kersten Knipp Political editor with a focus on the Middle East