Who wouldn't want to live in a city of the future? A place where the best of technology would utilize the best ideas in robotics, healthcare, energy generation and government? Some of the fun things the city would have are flying taxis, glow-in-the-dark sand, cloud seeding to make it rain in the desert, robotic maids, MMA-style robot cage fights, and, of course, a Jurassic-Park-like island, replete with robot dinosaurs. That's Neom, a megacity planned in Saudi Arabia that will supposedly bring the future to the modern world for a $500 billion price tag.
"This is the blank page you need to write humanity's next chapter," promises the commercial for the city on the Neom homepage.
The brainchild of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Neom will run on wind and solar energy, the city would also be a state-of-the-art center for technological and medical innovation, spearheading genetic engineering efforts to improve the human body. Neom is the shortened version of the Latin-Arabic term "Neo-Mustaqbal", which means "new future."
But there's very real human cost. Displacements, violence, and even bloodshed has followed in the wake of the project as the land they want to build on is part of local tribal lands. Advertising materials stressed Neom will be built on “virgin” land, ready to be conquered with futuristic technology. “In 10 years from now we will be looking back and we will say we were the first ones to come here,” declares a Neom staff member featured in the video. However, the Huwaitat tribe are facing eviction from the lands. “For the Huwaitat tribe, Neom is being built on our blood, on our bones,” says Alia Hayel Aboutiyah al-Huwaiti, an outspoken activist and member of the tribe living in London. “It’s definitely not for the people already living there! It’s for tourists, people with money. But not for the original people living there.”
Abdul Rahim al-Huwaiti, the young man who became the face of the tribes’ criticism of their forced eviction, voicing complaints in videos posted to social media, was killed by regional security forces.
Abdul Rahim al-Huwaiti made one of his last videos in mid-April. “They have begun the process of removing people, beginning with surveying homes with the intent of removing people and deporting them from their land,” he said, referring to the security forces in his town. “They arrested anyone who said they’re against deportation, they don’t want to leave, they want to remain [in] their homes, that they don’t want money.
“I would not be surprised if they come to kill me in my house now, and place a weapon next to me,” he added.
Later the same day, he shot a video from his rooftop of the police down below. “See them? The police have come to get me,” he said.
His supporters have described the shooting as “an extrajudicial killing”. So too have rights groups.
“They killed him to set an example – anyone opening their mouth gets the same treatment,” says Alia al-Huwaiti.
“MBS [Mohammad Bin Salman] began by telling the tribes: ‘We will develop your area, you will make money.’ They believed him at first. By 2019, they said ‘We will empty three villages, and force people to move,’” she says.
“There is nothing called a tribe for Mohammed bin Salman,” she adds. “He doesn’t care about the tribes.”
“We anticipated there might be problems, especially with as large of a land grab as Neom. It’s inevitable that there would be some kind of forced displacement happening,” says James Suzano, of the European-Saudi Organisation for Human Rights. “When the state has done this before, it was accompanied by human rights violations.”
Karima Bennoune, the UN special rapporteur for cultural rights, said that “historic buildings have been irremediably burned down and damaged by the use of various weapons by the military, forcing residents out of their homes and of the neighbourhood, fleeing for their lives”.
“It’s quite revealing that [Neom] is more of a vanity project targeting the domestic elite and an international audience in terms of a new Saudi, one that’s open and economically or socially liberal,” says Josh Cooper, of Al Qst. “But at the same time, not allowing the involvement of local actors or interests in these decision-making processes.”
“It shows the lack of platforms people have to express their opinions, even on less contentious matters than civil or political rights,” he says.