In a rare admission of culpability, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia recently acknowledged that, on April 15, its security forces killed a member of a Saudi tribe who had refused to leave his home for the Crown Prince’s pet mega-project NEOM—a $500 billion USD, futuristic, hi-tech, mega-city on the shores of the Red Sea.
Abdul-Rahim Al-Huwaiti had publicly protested the eviction of his tribe, which is spread through southwest Jordan, Sinai, and northwestern Saudi Arabia, from the land upon which they have lived for centuries. The tribe had refused offers of compensation. Up to 20,000 people could be forcibly removed from the area, without recourse, to make room for the Crown Prince’s “Jetsons-like” dream project, according to the Wall Street Journal in 2019.
Up to 20,000 people could be forcibly removed from the area, to make room for the Crown Prince’s “Jetsons-like” dream project.
Envisioned as a luxury city 33 times the size of New York City, over 10,000 square miles, with flying cars and taxis, robot servants, holographic teachers, artificial rain, and a giant artificial moon, NEOM is part of the Crown Prince’s Vision 2030. The name NEOM is a combination of the Greek word neos, meaning “new,” and the first letter of mustaqbal, the Arabic word for “future.” It is scheduled to be completed in 2025.
Al-Huwaiti had posted a number of videos condemning NEOM and accusing the Saudi government of forcibly displacing residents for a project “alien to the history and traditions of the region.” He criticized MbS as well as Saudi Arabian scholars, and called upon international legal experts to bring attention to the plight of his tribe, according to Dr. Khaled Abou El Fadl of the Usuli Institute and various news sources.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if they come and kill me in my home like they do in Egypt where they throw weapons in your home and call you a terrorist,” Al-Huwaiti said in one of his videos.
Ironically, he may have provided the playbook for his execution and murder to the Saudi government. On April 15, Saudi security forces stormed into Al-Khuraybah, about 1400 km northwest of the capital Riyadh, near the Jordanian-Saudi-Israeli border, and shot Al-Huwaiti dead.
The Saudi regime claimed that Al-Huwaiti fired shots at the Saudi security forces from behind sandbags at the top of the building, in a statement published by Saudi state news agency SPA.
“He did not respond to appeals to surrender and as a result of continued shooting and the throwing of Molotov cocktails, security forces neutralized the threat,” according to the statement. It further alleged that the security forces found a “cache of weapons, including pistols, machine guns, and a box of Molotov cocktails” at the site.
The Saudi government deployed Twitter bots to distort the narrative, predictably smearing Al-Huwaiti as a “terrorist.”
Amid an outpour of outrage and sympathy and the circulation of a hashtag on social media following his death, the Saudi government deployed Twitter bots to distort the narrative, predictably smearing Al-Huwaiti as a “terrorist”—a charge it frequently uses to discredit dissidents.
In the meantime, another member of the tribe living in London, Alya Abutayah Al-Huwaiti, told the BBC that she had received death threats for raising international awareness of the Saudi government’s plan to evict members of her tribe to clear the way for the 21st Century city. She believes that the threats are from MbS supporters, and she has reported them to the British police.
Threats were made in a phone call and on Twitter, according to Ms. Al-Huwaiti. “We can get you in London,” the caller warned. “You think you are safe there, but you are not.”
She said she has also been threatened with “the same fate that happened to Jamal Khashoggi.”
Khashoggi was the Saudi journalist brutally murdered by a hit squad of Saudi operatives inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in October 2018. While there is little doubt as to the identity of the operators who carried out the murder, the Saudis have never produced his body, nor has the mastermind of the operation—whom both the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and UN Special Rapporteur Agnes Callamard concluded was the Crown Prince himself—been held accountable either criminally or politically.
The kingdom has sought to rehabilitate its image by spending petrodollars on arms sales and international investments.
The failure of the international community to hold MbS accountable is hardly surprising as the kingdom has typically sought to rehabilitate its poor image and mitigate its appalling track record on human rights by spending its substantial petrodollars on critical arms sales and international investments important to foreign governments. NEOM is just one means of diverting attention, but with this latest killing of Al-Huwaiti, that appears to be backfiring.
Over the past year, however, the Crown Prince has launched a new strategy dubbed “sportswashing” by human rights groups. As hundreds of social media accounts tout MbS’ impending takeover of the UK’s Newcastle United football team at a whopping £300 million GBP (about $373 million USD), filling their Facebook and Instagram posts with Saudi flags and even wearing the Saudi keffiya (headdress), Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have called out Saudi Arabia for using the takeover as a public relations ploy to “sportswash” the kingdom’s deplorable human rights record.
Marc Owen Jones, a professor of Middle East Studies at Doha’s Hamad bin Khalifa University, warned, “Any takeover of a British football club, that exploits football fans’ love of their team, should not be conflated with the benevolence of one of the world’s most tyrannical despots.”
Indeed, Middle East Eye reported that the kingdom’s “sportswashing” has been so effective, it has led British sports fans to joke about and make light of serious human rights violations.
Human rights violations are no small thing, governments and leaders should be held to account for such atrocities.
But human rights violations are no small thing to be joked about, and governments and leaders should be held to account for such atrocities. Nevertheless, such violations are effective at sending messages and deterring opposition.
Indeed, a purported elder of the tribe, Sheikh Alian al-Zumaharri Al-Huwaiti, reportedly said after Al-Huwaiti’s death that he “does not represent the tribe.” To the contrary, the elder asserted, the tribe is loyal to the House of Saud and MbS and supports NEOM and the jobs it will bring.
Although NEOM is now on hold as a result of the COVID-19 crisis, Al-Huwaiti has been hailed as the “Martyr of NEOM” on social media. His death has highlighted some of the tensions over the NEOM project that have largely been kept under wraps by the Saudi government.
The international community should not whitewash the death of this Saudi activist but investigate it as yet another in a series of eliminations of someone who has inconveniently gotten in the way of MbS’ ambitions.