Saudi Arabia’s al-Huwaitat tribe has sent an urgent communication to the United Nations seeking help to stop forced displacement and abuse by Saudi authorities.
The request, submitted in late September, comes after months of harassment, arrests, and abductions by Saudi forces due to the tribe’s refusal to relocate to facilitate the government’s NEOM mega-city project.
Suleiman Mohammed al-Taqique al-Hwaiti, a prominent activist from the Indigenous tribe, was arrested and imprisoned in the week starting September 21, and his social media accounts were deactivated.
Thirteen other tribe members were reportedly abducted by the security forces around the same time and are still being held in incommunicado in prison, according to an al-Huwaitat activist that spoke to Al Jazeera.
On October 1, a further two tribe members were arrested, one taken by Saudi security forces outside Fahad Bin Sultan University after they had criticized the Saudi regime and the NEOM project on social media. Their whereabouts are unknown, according to members of the tribe.
NEOM (standing for “New Future”) is a planned mega-city in the northwest of Saudi Arabia which aims to be a so-called accelerator of human progress, according to its website.
The project is one of the cornerstones of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s Vision 2030 initiative, which aims to reinvigorate and diversify the Saudi economy.
The planned mega-city would cover an area of 26,500 square kilometers (10,232 square miles) in the northwest of Saudi Arabia, also covering part of Egypt’s Sinai region which the Saudi government has leased from Egypt for a fee of about $10bn.
The total cost of the city is estimated to be more than $500bn, with financial backing supplied by the government’s Public Investment Fund.
Some 20,000 al-Huwaitat tribe members face eviction to make way for the project.
Though early marketing materials on the NEOM project claimed it would be built on “virgin land”, the al-Huwaitat tribe has been settled in the northwest Tabuk province for centuries, as well as in areas of Jordan and the Sinai.
“Mohammed Bin Salman [MBS] has decided to place this project in the northwest corner of Saudi Arabia – the mainstay of the al-Huwaitat tribe,” Dawn Chatty, Professor of Anthropology and Forced Migration at Oxford University, told Al Jazeera.
“But it’s not even trying to settle the tribe, it’s pretending they don’t exist. This is typical of the way Mohammed Bin Salman operates.”
This is not the first time the project has faced controversy.
In 2018, several members of the NEOM Advisory Board, including architect Norman Foster, suspended their involvement due to the Saudi government’s alleged involvement in the killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
In April this year, a Saudi citizen and al-Huwaitat tribe member Abdul Rahim Ahmad Mahmoud al-Hwaiti was killed by Saudi security forces. Al-Hwaiti was a vocal online presence who had denounced the NEOM project on numerous occasions.
The Saudi government claimed he was killed in a gun battle, and that security forces had found numerous weapons inside his house.
Two weeks after al-Hwaiti’s death, the Saudi Press Agency sent out a press release claiming people of the al-Huwaitat tribe had expressed support for MBS and the NEOM project.