Saudi Arabia has quietly sentenced three indigenous men to death after they refused to move out of their homes to make way for the new futuristic city of NEOM, a pet project of the kingdom’s young Crown Prince, according to a UK-based rights group.
The three members of the Howeitat tribe were given death sentences by Saudi Arabia’s special courts on the 2nd of October
The men were first arrested in 2020 for protesting against being evicted from their homeland, which will be the setting for NEOM, a sprawling, $500 billion mega-project.
ALQST, an independent group monitoring human rights in Saudi Arabia, reported that Shadli, Attaullah and Ibrahim al-Howeitat – of the Howeitat tribe from the northern Tabuk province – were sentenced to death earlier this month at a Saudi criminal court. In September, other Howeiti people were sentenced to 50 years in prison by Saudi Arabia's Specialised Criminal Court, which tries terror-related cases, but it is mainly used to charge human rights activists and dissidents in the oil-rich kingdom.
Their brother, Abdul Rahim al-Howeitat, was shot dead by Saudi special forces in April 2020 after he criticised the compulsory eviction in his final social media post, in which he accused Saudi Arabia of “state terrorism”. Howeitat, 43, became a prominent figure in Saudi for his vocal opposition to NEOM, and his refusal to give up his land. He started by putting out a series of videos on social media decrying the order, and his cousins followed suit.
The government described his death as the result of a shootout with the security forces, saying that he had to be “neutralised” after “he barricaded himself in his house” and threw “molotov cocktails” at the security forces. The authorities kept his body for weeks before handing it over to his family.
But reports citing eyewitness accounts claim his death was an “extrajudicial execution”. The Saudi government has closed the case without releasing any further details, and had offered to pay other figures in the community to condemn Howeitat’s actions.
Those who spoke out against the compensation scheme were quickly silenced. The country, which has zero tolerance for public dissent, has cracked down on people voicing concern and arrested an estimated 150 members of the community of 20,000. The Howeitat people live in small villages and towns in the northwest of Saudi Arabia.
The utopian city of NEOM is the brainchild of Mohammed bin Salman, the 37-year-old Saudi Crown Prince and de-facto ruler of Saudi Arabia.
NEOM will take up 26,500km of Saudi territory, and will include an airport, high-speed train and 24/7 surveillance by the Saudi government using the latest artificial intelligence. It will cost an estimated $500 billion to complete.
The video-game-loving prince has intensified his efforts to build the city, which he claims will wean the country off its dependency on oil, and make it a destination for foreign investment and tourism. Most of the technology that will be used is yet to be developed, and some funds for the mega real-estate project will come from outside investors.
Flashy 3D videos of NEOM created by the project managers have raised questions about how realistic it is to build a linear city across the desert. Despite the disruption the city will cause to the environment and the desert ecosystem, NEOM’s management has insisted it will be “a zero-carbon city.”
Crown Prince Mohammed was praised at the start of his tenure for introducing liberalising policies, such as allowing women to drive cars, but the positive atmosphere soured after he was accused by of ordering the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul. Despite denying any involvement in the gruesome killing of the Washington Post columnist, repeated reports, including by intelligence agencies such as the CIA, said the future Saudi king had ordered the assassination of one of his most vocal critics.
In Saudi Arabia, any form of opposition to the royal family is punishable by death or lengthy jail sentences.
In 2022 alone, the Saudi authorities carried out 122 executions, according to rights groups. In March, 104 prisoners were executed, including 81 on a single day, ALQST says.
Saudi Arabian state media rarely reports on court decisions, and the cases that led to the young prince are kept quiet.