Al-Huwaitat tribe seeks UN help to stop Saudi forced displacement

Request for UN investigation comes after months of alleged harassment, arrests, and abductions by Saudi forces.

The tribe is refusing to relocate to facilitate the government’s NEOM mega-city project [File: Franck Fife/AFP]

Saudi Arabia’s al-Huwaitat tribe has sent an urgent communication to the United Nations calling for an investigation into allegations of forced displacement and abuse by Saudi authorities.

The request, submitted in late September, comes after months of alleged harassment, arrests, and abductions by Saudi forces apparently 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 allegedly abducted – apparently 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 criticised the Saudi government and the NEOM project on social media. Their whereabouts are unknown, according to members of the tribe.

Controversial project

NEOM (standing for “New Future”) is a planned mega-city in the northwest of Saudi Arabia which aims to be “an 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 kilometres (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, 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.

‘They don’t care about our lives’

Al-Hwaiti’s killing made news across the world. Alya Alhwaiti, who represents the tribe from London, told Al Jazeera how global attention helped the al-Huwaitat’s cause.

“If it was not for the publicity, there would be a dozen Abdul Rahim [al-Hwaiti] cases by now,” she said.

Indeed, Saudi Arabia is increasingly concerned about its global image.

From hosting a range of global sports events in the country, to the Vision 2030 initiative which in part aims to “enhance the image of the kingdom internationally”, Saudi Arabia is gradually expanding its profile on the world stage.

NEOM, often described by Riyadh as the “world’s most ambitious project”, is another endeavour towards this aim.

Alya Alhwaiti said the government’s narrative around the construction of NEOM has changed since its announcement in 2016.

“At the beginning of the project, the government told the al-Huwaitat tribe that they would be involved in NEOM’s development and that their area would become one of the most famous in the world. The tribe was excited.”

In January 2020, though, the Crown Prince allegedly sent an assistant to al-Huwaitat areas, who told the tribe to accept compensation – a sum of just $3,000 per family – and leave their lands, or face eviction.

The tribe has refused to move and they claim Saudi authorities have started to punish their stance in a variety of ways.

Since that ultimatum was set, the tribe says it has been subject to kidnappings, harassment and threats. Prominent tribe members including seven of Abdul Rahim Ahmad Mahmoud al-Hwaiti’s cousins were allegedly abducted and imprisoned incommunicado in the months preceding al-Hwaiti’s death.

The tribe says homes have been destroyed, electricity has been cut off randomly, and inexplicable fires have occurred. Tribe members’ employers have been pressured to make life difficult for the tribe.

“If a tribe member lives and works in the north, their employer may be ordered by the government to move them to the south,” Alya Alhwaiti said. “They don’t care about our lives.”

Neither NEOM nor the Saudi government responded to requests for comment.

Alya Alhwaiti said the tribe is united in its defiance and are staying in their homes despite being terrified about what Saudi security forces may do to them. “That’s their form of protest,” she said.

But after the most recent spate of abductions, during which 13 tribe members were abducted according to Alya Alhwaiti, the tribe decided to call on the UN to investigate the alleged abuses.

“What we want is for the world to support us in our case, to show them how the Mohammed bin Salman regime is abusing the people, terrifying the people,” Alya Alhwaiti said.

‘We have proof’

On September 23, a team of London lawyers working on behalf of the al-Huwaitat tribe sent an urgent communication to the UN urging them to intervene.

Rodney Dixon QC was one of the lawyers who submitted the communication.

“What’s happening there is certainly a violation of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights,” he told Al Jazeera.

“The rights of internally displaced people and Indigenous rights are enshrined in the UNDHR, which does bind Saudi Arabia. What we’re also focusing on is the human rights abuses – where people are being threatened, assaulted, and murdered. It’s also the violation of a person’s rights to life, and their right to wellbeing and safety.”

Dixon said UN action could change the tribe’s fortunes.

“At the moment there’s very little focus on it, but we’re hopeful that – through this UN action – attention can be afforded to it, [raising] sufficient profile for states within the UN, and the UN itself to take this case up,” Dixon explained.

If Saudi Arabia is found to be breaking human rights laws, then the Human Rights Council can make recommendations, although sanctions would have to be enacted by the general assembly and the security council.

The UN can also examine the implementation of human rights by companies.

Alya Alhwaiti said she is hopeful.

“We have proof of what the government is doing, we have evidence. There’s a big hope that we can get justice.”

Source: Al Jazeera