Saudi Arabia does not shy away from harsh measures when it comes to reforms and diversifying its economy. Over the past few years, a general trend can be seen in Saudi Arabia with regard to silencing dissent in the name of modernisation. This not only applies to the crackdown on communities but also the use of the SCC and intimidation and silencing of peaceful activists.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has started the construction of their 500-billion-dollar NEOM project, which is the prime focus of Prince Muhammad Bin Salman’s plan to diversify the economy. NEOM consists of an area roughly the size of Belgium, with the Line as a central construction. The Line is a 170-kilometres long, 200 meters wide futuristic ‘city’, with the goal of accommodating 9 million people. It claims it will run on 100% renewable energy and 95% will be preserved for nature. Besides the Line, there will be space for additional futuristic cities, including a ski resort-style development for the 2029 Asian Winter Games.
In spite of NEOM’s promising sustainable and inclusive appearance, the way the project has obtained the land is less admirable. The region in which NEOM is developing, the north-western province of Tabuk, is home to the Huwaitat tribe. The Huwaitat are a nomadic tribe who settled in villages and inhabited the area for centuries. Government committees were set up to order acquisitions and to list and measure land plots without input from tribe members.
Tensions rose in 2020 when the Saudi government ordered the eviction of 20,000 tribespeople from their ancestral lands to make room for NEOM. Alya Abutayah Al-Huwaiti, a human rights activist who is now living in London, stated that the tribe was open to discussion with the government about compensation and possible housing locations. However, Saudi forces used fearmongering and influence over tribe leaders to ensure that opposition was contained. One of the tribe leaders, Abdul Rahim Al-Huwaiti, said in a video that he vowed to defy the government’s eviction order. He expected the authorities to plant a weapon in his house to incriminate him; Saudi security forces later killed him. Saudi security forces stated that Abdul opened fire on them, to which they retaliated. Other tribe members were also arrested, receiving various prison sentences ranging from 20-50 years, and recently three of them were sentenced to death in Special Criminal Court (SCC).
After the death of Al-Huwaiti, human rights groups such as the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre and ALQST for Human Rights have written an open letter condemning three international consultancy companies affiliated with NEOM:
“(…) the undersigned NGOs are concerned that your involvement has failed to prevent the adverse human rights impact on the local population, and wish to highlight your moral and legal responsibilities under the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. This includes the requirement of businesses to “seek to prevent or mitigate adverse human rights impacts that are directly linked to their operations, products or services by their business relationships, even if they have not contributed to those impacts” (13b), and to “involve meaningful consultation with potentially affected groups” (18b)”
Furthermore, the European-Saudi organisation for Human Rights states that the forced eviction of the Huwaitat tribe breaches article 10 of the Universal Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP): “Indigenous 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.” Saudi Arabia signed in favour of UNDRIP, however it is a non-legally binding resolution therefore it is difficult to hold them accountable.
Other than the Huwaitat Tribe, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has been successful in internally displacing other communities: in 2017, UN experts protested the demolition of a 400-year-old neighbourhood in Awamia, and recently whole neighbourhoods in Jeddah were torn down. Saudi Arabia does not shy away from harsh measures when it comes to reforms and diversifying its economy. Over the past few years, a general trend can be seen in Saudi Arabia with regard to silencing dissent in the name of modernisation. This not only applies to the crackdown on communities but also the use of the SCC and intimidation and silencing of peaceful activists. According to Amnesty International, SCC’s judges have presided over grossly unfair trials, handed down prison sentences of up to 30 years and numerous death sentences. Even people who use social media to discuss issues in Saudi Arabia are vulnerable to prison sentences. One notable human rights defender is Salma al-Shehab, a Saudi PhD student, as she was sentenced to a 34-year prison sentence for criticising the worsening women’s rights in Saudi Arabia.
ACHRS supports the Huwaitat tribe in their right to ancestral land and condemns the Saudi kingdom for forcibly removing them from their land. Communities should be able to have adequate housing and subsequently be protected by the government, as stated in Article 11.1 of the UN International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights: “the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing and housing”.
Two important values of ACHRS are the right to life and the right to speak, hence ACHRS calls for the incarcerated tribesmen to be released, and the death penalty for three of them to be overturned.
ACHRS condemns the use of the Special Criminal Court, as this is used by Saudi Arabia to incarcerate or put the death penalty on human rights defenders and peaceful activists who oppose the government. It is clear that the SCC is a tool to silence dissent against the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, without legitimate reasoning.
Picture Source: NEOM
Map: The Economist