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

The Intersection of LGBT Identity and the Protest Movement in Iran

By Guy Fiennes

Image Credit: Sahar Ghorishi

President Raisi’s speech commemorating the 44th anniversary of the Islamic Republic was punctuated by his rejection of the ‘Zan, Zendegi, Azadi’ (or, Woman, Life, Freedom) movement. Raisi declared that the protests which erupted across Iran following the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini had nothing to do with women, life or freedom; and everything to do with an insidious campaign launched by Iran’s enemies to undermine the regime.

Rather, he charged, it was the West which was guilty of commodifying women and, he added, propagating the vilest form of obscenity – homosexuality.

This is not the first time that the Islamic Republic has pointed to queerness as a sign of Western moral deficit, centre-staging the spectre of homophobia to shore up conservative support. Raisi’s framing of queerness as a foreign degeneracy aligns with his conservative predecessor President Ahmedinejad, who proudly announced that Iran had no homosexuals in 2007, and further back to Ayatollah Khomeini, who justified the execution of a boy for same-sex activity with the words: “Corruption, corruption. We have to eliminate corruption.” The country remains one of the few in the world to retain the death sentence for consensual same-sex relations, and Iran’s LGBT community might reasonably be expected to keep to the shadows. However, this is not the case – younger Iranians are increasingly accepting of diverse sexual identities, and urban centres are home to lively queer scenes and community spaces. Online, across social media platforms, the Iranian queer community is active and politically engaged.

The killing of a young gay Iranian man, Alireza Monfared, by his family in 2022 sparked widespread outrage on social media, as did the arrests of prominent online LGBT activists Elham and Sareh, whose death sentences were first reported on September 4 – days before Mahsa Amini’s death on September 17. Since reformist President Khatami’s term ended in 2005, the country has been dominated by conservative elements who reject liberalising voices, prefer repression to accommodation, and opt for a hardline policy against the West.

Source: Amnesty International

There are many similarities between the regime’s handling of LGBT individuals/activists and those involved in the Mahsa Amini protests calling for more general liberalisation and freedoms, not least of which is the regime’s insistence that such opposition is a foreign innovation. As has been the case with homosexuality and LGBT rights activism, when the protests spread across Iran in the wake of Mahsa Amini’s death the regime pointed the accusing finger of blame squarely at morally decrepit Western states. Protesters and LGBT activists alike are charged with moharebeh ‘enmity against God’ or efsad-e fel arz, ‘corruption on earth’, both of which can carry the death sentence and have historically been used against any political opposition to the regime. Toomaj Salehi, an anti-regime Iranian rapper, was charged with efsad-e fel arz in November 2022, while Sareh was charged with it in January 2022, explicitly by way of ‘promoting homosexuality’. Thus, in judicial terms and the perspective of the conservative factions of the Islamic Republic, anti-regime democratic liberalisation sentiment and homosexuality/LGBT activism are located within a singular category: a political threat to the state and to society, fomented by the West and antithetical to authentic Iranian values.

A salient feature of the protests is how diverse they have been in their composition of different groups within Iranian society. From the ethnic minorities, Kurds, Baluch and Azeris, to women both religious and secular/liberal, the private sector, the working class, women’s rights activists, liberal dissidents and LGBT individuals, the protests have united an unprecedented cross-section of the Iranian public in an expression of discontent with their authoritarian regime. Mahsa Amini’s death at the hands of the morality police epitomises the brutal excess of a system based on state-enforced interpretations of conservative religious morality. Queer individuals and women alike are subject to surveillance, arbitrary detentions, beatings, forced confessions and torture by state security services, including the paramilitary basij and plain clothes officers. Their behaviour and dress is prescribed by conservative religious ideals and imposed both by their own family members and by the many unaccountable and castigating arms of the state.

The momentum of the protest movement has also spurred queer Iranians in exile to raise their voices online and tell their stories of abuse and liberation. Some explicitly refer to the intersectionality of their ideals; as one organiser of the Berlin-based collective Woman*Life Freedom quoted in online feminist platform gal-dem explains: “when we stand with the ethnic minority provinces in Iran such as the Baloch, the Azerbaijanis, the Kurdish and the Turkish people, we are also standing by the LGBTQIA+ people in those communities.” Queer rapper Saye Skye, also in Berlin, extends the intersectionality even further: “Jin Jiyan Azadi is not only about Iran, it’s a message of freedom for every single oppressed person around the world.” (Jin, Jiyan, Azadi is the original Kurdish phrase which translates into zan, zendegi, azadi.)

Indeed, the intersectionality of the protest movement is exemplified by its slogans and hashtags, among them #ما_همه_باهم_هستيم ma hameye baaham hasteem – we are all together, tweeted in a comment by the prominent protest account 1500Tasvir under a photo of two girls kissing, itself hashtagged #مهسا_امینی (Mahsa Amini). Thus – and in part because of the state’s interpretation of homosexuality as an act of political opposition – the public display of same-sex attraction becomes in and of itself an act of political defiance against the regime, just as removing the hijab in public is a political act which contests the regime’s legitimacy and authority over Iranian bodies.

The Islamic Republic is not alone inframing the LGBT community as a sinister foreign import and using it as a rallying issue in the culture war between the conservative regimes defending tradition and the imperial progressive-liberalism of the West. Putin’s Russia has acted similarly to portray itself as the bastion of traditional values against Western degeneracy, and some academics go so far as to cast homosexuals as agents of Western imperialism. As conservative regimes escalate repression and targeting of LGBT communities, it is important that activists and LGBT individuals are able to access asylum, and that they do not feel alone or forgotten by the international community when they risk retaliation in their countries by making their voices heard against injustice.

As it has become clear that the regime is opting for repression and retrenchment in lieu of accommodation and reform, it seems certain that repression of the LGBT community will only persist or escalate, as has been the case for ethnic minorities and women’s rights’ activists. Many Iranians who leave the country, including those who apply for asylum, cite abuse or fear of abuse related to their LGBT identity as a primary motivation. They are unlikely to feel emboldened to return to Iran in the near future, as the number of executions rises and the protest movement simmers under Raisi’s boot.

This piece was published as part of “Zan, Zindagi, Azadi”: A series of weekly articles and interviews that unpack different symbols and concepts at the heart of the most recent developments in Iran

Evin Prison: Iran’s Notorious “House of Detention”

By Insiya Raja

A massive fire broke out, supposedly coincidently, at one of Iran’s most notorious detention centres, Evin prison, located in the northern hills of its capital Tehran on October 18, 2022.[1] Accompanied by an infographic conveying basic statistics and information, this article briefly examines the systemic treatment of political prisoners in Evin, one of Iran’s most infamous and overcrowded prisons.

The Washington Post found that at least one of the fires seemed to be started intentionally at a time when prisoners would be locked in their cells. As prisoners tried to flee the fire, guards and other forces ambushed the prisoners with live ammunition, metal pellets, and explosives. As tall flames engulfed Evin prison, killing at least eight people and injuring over sixty-one, it is worth looking at who has been detained there and how they have been systematically dealt with in the recent past.

Evin prison’s horrific past can be traced back to the regime of the last Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who was overthrown by the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Run by Shah’s secret police, the SAVAK, Evin bore witness to thousands of Iranians arbitrarily detained, tortured, and executed. After the Revolution, it became a prison incarcerating not only pro-monarchists but also countless others who were seen as a threat to Ruhollah Khomeini’s regime. According to Human Rights Watch, the darkest period in Evin’s history came in the late summer of 1988 when thousands of mainly leftist political prisoners were executed after cursory trials, crushing dissent at the end of the Iran-Iraq War and paving the way for a smooth succession to the next Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei. [1] 

Iran has a history of taking dual national citizens as prisoners and holding them hostage on trumped-up and facetious charges of conspiracy against the regime and spying (see Reuters’ recent report for an analysis on which foreign nationals are held at Evin). Ana Diamond, a dual British-Iranian citizen, was detained at Evin as a result of hostile diplomatic and political circumstances. First, she was banned from travelling and then charged with spying. She was also the victim of a flawed judicial system that can detain and abuse anyone under the pretext of national security charges.

Many political prisoners are taken to Section 209 of the prison – suspected to be operated by the Ministry of Interior. First, they are blindfolded and taken downstairs into a basement, into a section consisting of ninety solitary cells in multiple rows. A light remains on twenty-four hours a day, and there is only one small window in each cell. The smaller cells have only a barred window to the corridor, and prisoners have described these as suffocating. For more details on the prison, see Tortoise project where former inmates have given testimonials and helped recreate a map of the prison.

In Ana’s experience, wardens and staff in prison constantly used different ways to humiliate the prisoner and make them suffer in their daily lives. For example, prison guards took all of Ana’s personal belongings and only gave her men’s clothes to wear and a single kitchen towel to use. She would be blindfolded everytime she had to go from her solitary cell to the bathroom, which is the norm in the prison. Women prisoners were denied or given rationed sanitary products. This prison now holds thousands of recently arrested protesters who have protested against the regime since the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini. In Ana’s perspective, the situation now is likely to be much worse within the prison due to overcrowding. Most famous amongst these are two journalists, Niloofar Hamedi and Elaheh Mohammadi, who were vital in reporting on Mahsa’s case in the immediate aftermath of her death. Evin is a massive compound where prisoners are driven from one place to another, and different security agencies are responsible for managing the various wards: the Ministry of Intelligence takes on national security prisoners and is known to be quite brutal; solitary confinement cells run by the IRGC usually hold political prisoners who are subjected to harsh interrogations and torture.

There is a joke amongst former inmates at Evin prison that illustrates painfully the situation:

Once an inmate goes to the library at Evin prison and asks for books to read; the librarian says: “We don’t have the books; but, we have the authors”

Special thank you to Ana Diamond for sharing her firsthand experience about Evin prison.

Resources used for infographic:

[1] It is hard to determine conclusively whether the fighting and the fire were directly related to the ongoing protests, given the lack of independent access to the prison.

This piece was published as part of “Zan, Zindagi, Azadi”: A series of weekly articles and interviews that unpack different symbols and concepts at the heart of the most recent developments in Iran