The Dark Side of NEOM: A Report Review

By Natasha Joseph

Underneath all the glitz and glam of Saudi’s “modernization reforms”, the darker underbelly of the kingdom remains shrouded in secrecy. Over the past few years, there have been several insights into the brutality and paranoia of the current regime manifested in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and the arrests of women activists right before the lifting of the travel ban. 

As the current regime embarks on realizing its Vision 2030, designed to bring Saudi Arabia to the modern day by diversifying economic investment and reducing the kingdom’s dependence on oil revenues, Neom megacity has emerged as Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman’s flagship project. 

However, as businesses consider investment into this seemingly attractive and uber-modern project, principles of corporate responsibility warrant a closer assessment of the ethical foundations on which this project is being built. This article draws on and reviews the recent research report published by the Saudi-focused human rights organization ALQST, “The Dark Side of Neom: Expropriation, Expulsion and Prosecution of the Region’s Inhabitants” which highlights human rights violations carried out by Saudi authorities in the form of forced displacements, arbitrary arrests, and continued persecution of members of the Huweitat tribe. 

Starting with land grabs and forced evictions of local residents in the al-Khuraiba, Sharma and Gayal villages in January 2020, Special Forces soon after raided the homes of those who resisted. This was followed by mass arrests, culminating in the killing of Abdul Rahim al-Huwaiti, a resident who resisted eviction and was killed during an exchange of fire where the government used disproportionate and excessive force. Without any prior warning or provocation, the Special Forces attacked al-Huwaiti’s house with heavy weapons, to which al-Huwaiti returned fire only briefly before being killed. 

Many of those belonging to the Huweitat tribe have been prosecuted under Saudi’s Counter Terrorism Law, with at least five people sentenced to death and another fifteen given prison terms of between 15 and 50 years. Many of those detained were subjected to various forms of torture and ill-treatment, including prolonged solitary confinement. Civilians were also tried in military courts. 

The report details how all these measures constitute clear violations of international law; although it seems that pointing out international legal obligations has not yet been an effective advocacy tactic against a state that spends billions in white-washing its image in the international community. 

However, what is much more informative is the detailing of the types of charges used to prosecute those who have been arrested, such as: “attacking the symbols of the state through social media, namely Twitter, Signal and Telegram, with the intention of destabilizing the security and stability of the society and the state”; and “supporting people with a terrorist ideology who seek to disturb public order and endanger its national unity, by possessing video clips of them and publishing them via the social networking site Twitter” (cite). The use of charges like misusing social media and constant references to terrorism, aided by the guise of a hyper-securitized narrative, are utilized frequently by authoritarian regimes to silence peaceful and legitimate expression throughout the Middle East, and beyond. 

This report also indicates a shift in the form of advocacy targeted towards Saudi Arabia which aims at the business community. By identifying the legal responsibilities enshrined in the UN’s Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, the appeals to the broader business community might have considerable leverage in influencing the behaviour of the current regime, and gain some concessions on their treatment of the local population that the project will forever impact. 

In its final recommendations, ALQST called on businesses involved in Neom, including companies provisioning consulting, energy, and construction services to the Saudi government for this project, to provide meaningful mitigations and engage in real consultations with the affected communities.

Overall, the report provides a timely and succinct brief on the violations committed during this project’s inception, and the reporting and analysis by ALQST will remain vital as the project moves forward at full speed in the next couple of years, especially as construction gets under way. 

To read the full report, visit here