The human cost of Saudi Arabia's dystopian Neom megacity

Western firms complicit in the human cost of Saudi Arabia's dystopian Neom megacity
5 min read
05 June, 2020
The killing of a tribal activist has shone a spotlight on the Western firms helping to build Saudi Arabia's Neom megacity.
Around 20,000 Huwaitat tribespeople will be displaced to construct the $500 billion megacity. [Getty]

Three major global consulting firms have come under fire for helping Saudi Arabia establish a high-tech city in the north of the kingdom while trampling on the Huwaitat tribe that has lived there for generations.

Campaigners this week hit out at the Boston Consulting Group (BCG), Oliver Wyman, and Mckinsey & Co, which have struck multi-million dollar deals linked to the construction of a futuristic city called Neom in the northwestern province of Tabuk.

Saudi officials are accused of forcing some 20,000 Huwaitat tribespeople to leave their homes and for a shootout in April in which a tribesman and campaigner against the $500 billion project, Abdul Rahim al-Huwaiti, was killed.

The case has shone a spotlight on the Western consultants who help Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's ambitious bid to reshape the economy while he cracks down on those who stand in the way of the so-called Vision 2030 reform agenda.

Josh Cooper, deputy director of ALQST, a Saudi human rights watchdog, said big Western consulting firms were complicit in al-Huwaiti's death, the arrests and evictions of tribespeople and the "silencing of any voices that speak out" against Neom.

Global consulting firms have come under fire for helping Saudi Arabia establish the high-tech city while trampling on the Huwaitat tribe that has lived there for generations.

"We've identified several international consulting firms who have been contracted on the Neom development, and we make a simple call - for them to openly condemn these violations on the ground," Cooper told The New Arab.

"Such companies are bound by responsibilities which we believe are not being met, including to prevent adverse human rights impacts of their business dealings, and to consult potentially affected groups."

BCG and McKinsey & Co also sit on the board that is preparing for the Saudi-hosted G20 meet of major world economies in Riyadh in November, meaning they could "send a powerful message to the Saudi authorities" about looking out for the Huwaitat tribe, added Cooper.

Read more: Saudi security 'kill tribal activist who resisted
eviction' to make room for NEOM megacity project

An open letter detailing the concerns was signed by a dozen groups, including ALQST and other monitors and campaigners from the Middle East, North America and Europe, including the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies and the Gulf Centre for Human Rights.

Neither Oliver Wyman nor Mckinsey & Co answered TNA's request for comment. In a letter, BCG said it took "human rights violations" seriously but said nothing specific about its work in Saudi.

"BCG adheres to strict guidelines and high standards for the work we do for governments, companies and not-for-profit organizations around the world," Mark Rosenthal, one of the group's lawyers, wrote in a letter that was shared with TNA.

"We engage where we believe our work can contribute to positive economic and societal transformation."

Billed as a "bold and audacious dream" city, Neom is set to be built from scratch along the kingdom's Red Sea coast as a cosmopolitan hub of commerce complete with everything from drone-operated flying taxis to robot housemaids.

Announced in 2017, Neom would be a Silicon Valley-style technology hub for Saudi Arabia spread across some 10,230-square-miles of mansions, skyscrapers and a seaside luxury resort, cruise, and entertainment complex.

The killing of a tribal activist has shone a spotlight on the Western consultants who help MBS's ambitious bid to reshape the economy while he cracks down on those who stand in the way

As economists expressed misgivings about the project amid falling oil prices and a tightening Saudi economy, the crown prince also faced blowback from the 20,000 Bedouin tribespeople and others who have called the region home for centuries.

Some Huwaitat tribespeople worry that government promises of new homes, university scholarships and job training schemes will amount to little and that their heritage is being bulldozed to make way for a city of skilled expats.

Saudi Arabia's state security agency said al-Huwaiti was a "wanted" well-armed man who died in an exchange of fire after he resisted arrest. ALQST says that security forces have arrested other anti-Neom protestors.

Before the shootout, Al-Huwaiti posted a series of scathing videos against his tribe's forced eviction and "state terrorism".

After his death, Al-Huwaiti was lionised as the "martyr of Neom" on social media and likened to the country's most famous dissident, Jamal Khashoggi, another critic of the crown prince who was killed and dismembered by a government hit squad in Turkey in 2018.

Mohammed bin Salman uses his Western business relationships to hide the underlying brutality of his vision

A spokesman for United Nations secretary-general Antonio Guterres told TNA that the world body was keeping tabs on events in Tabuk and described conflicting versions of events over the shootout and Al-Huwaiti's death.

"State security confirmed his death, alleging that he had opened fire on security forces and that they had been forced to retaliate," the spokesman wrote in an email to TNA on Wednesday.

Read more: Rare Saudi resistance threatens to upend
Crown Prince MBS's plans for futuristic megacity project

"This version of events has been questioned by other members of the Howeitat tribe and a London-based human rights activist alleges that she has received death threats after she had raised international awareness about the Saudi government's plan to evict members of her tribe for the Red Sea development project, Neom."

Sunjeev Bery, director of the anti-autocrat campaign group Freedom Forward, said that Huwaitat tribespeople were among many Saudi groups to face everything from jail to torture and extrajudicial executions for getting in the way of the crown prince's agenda.

"Mohamad bin Salman uses his Western business relationships to hide the underlying brutality of his vision," Bery, another signatory to the letter of complaint, told TNA.

"Western businesses like McKinsey and BCG will face increasing reputational costs if they continue to ally themselves with a monarchy that jails or kills everyone who criticises its decisions."

James Reinl is a journalist, editor and current affairs analyst. He has reported from more than 30 countries and won awards for covering wars in Sri Lanka, Congo and Somalia, Haiti's earthquake and human rights abuses in Iran.

Follow him on Twitter: @jamesreinl