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

Abdul-Rahim al-Howeiti was reportedly killed while resisting deportation for the NEOM project [Twitter]

Date of publication: 14 April, 2020

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Abdul-Rahim al-Howeiti, of the large Howeitat tribe that inhabits southwest Jordan, Sinai and northwestern Saudi Arabia, was allegedly shot dead by Saudi security in Al-Khuraybah

A Saudi tribal activist has been allegedly killed by Saudi security forces in the northwest of the kingdom after refusing to leave his home slated for demolition to make room for the construction of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s controversial megacity project NEOM in the area.

Abdul-Rahim al-Howeiti, of the large Howeitat tribe that inhabits southwest Jordan, Sinai and northwestern Saudi Arabia, was allegedly shot dead by Saudi security in Al-Khuraybah, more than 1400 km north west of  the capital Riyadh, close to the intersection point of the Jordanian-Saudi-Israeli border.

The tribe has lived in the area for hundreds of years and was mentioned by T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) who worked with its elders in the area during the Great Arab Revolt in the First World War.

Al-Howeiti was known to the activist community in Saudi Arabia thanks to his videos protesting the mega development project and the forced displacement ordered by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman of his tribe from the area for the NEOM project.

In his videos, he has accused the government of displacing his people for the sake of a project alien to the history and traditions of the region.

Map of the village and its position in the NEOM plan. Click on the map to enlarge

Read more: Saudi Arabia's Neom megacity: desert destination or futuristic flop?

Abdul-Rahim al-Howeitat was a known tribal activist opposed to NEOM

Grainy videos and images shared by Saudi activists under the Arabic hashtag “Martyrdom of Abdul-Rahim al-Howeiti" show the alleged moment and then the aftermath of the shooting.

The videos appear to show Saudi police cars surrounding the area, followed by sounds of gunshots and locals shouting in anger as news of the incident spread.

The images appear to show bullet holes on the outer walls of his house.

The New Arab was not able to independently verify the authenticity of the report or the images and videos but a representative from Human Rights Watch told The New Arab the organization is aware of the reports and is attempting to verify them.

The New Arab has reached out to several Saudi human rights activists for comment and is still awaiting a response.

Saudis sympathetic to the tribespeople expressed immediate outrage on social media, decrying the ‘thugs of Mohammad Bin Salman’ for the presumed murder in reference to the security forces, and hailing the man as a martyr.

But in a move that may corroborate the chain of events shared by activists, what appears to be Saudi government Twitter bots have been deployed to hijack the sympathetic hashtag and distort the narrative, in the direction of smearing Al-Howeiti as a ‘terrorist’, a charge often used by the Saudi regime to discredit dissidents.

Saudi local media did not cover the event yet but in an apparent attempt to contain the story, quickly carried a statement by an alleged elder of the Howeitat tribe disowning the man as “a lone individual who doesn’t represent the tribe”.

The elder, named by pro-government newspaper Okaz as Sheikh Alian al-Zumaharri al-Howeiti, said the tribe was loyal to the House of Saud, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, and expressed support for NEOM and the jobs it would bring to the area, according to the statement.

Since the launch of the NEOM project, Howeitat tribespeople who have lived in the area for centuries have expressed dismay at plans to relocate them without any consultation, launching campaigns to raise awareness about their plight, most recently in January (Arabic).

While the Saudi government has offered them monetary compensation, the longstanding tribe have reportedly refused and vowed to resist the plan, including by force if necessary.

According to a Wall Street Journal report in 2019, up to 20,000 people could be forcibly removed from the area to make room for the Crown Prince’s dream project, with no recourse to force the government to alter its plans.

Mohammad bin Salman announced the city called NEOM - a portmanteau of the Greek word for "new" and the first letter of the Arabic word for "future" - in 2017 as part of his flagship Vision 2030 scheme.

The 2030 plan aims to reduce the ultraconservative kingdom's dependency on oil. The most costly of the Vision 2030 projects is NEOM itself, at an initial estimated cost of $500 billion.

The city will be the centerpiece of the project - a borderline sci-fi city packed with factories, tech companies and resorts.

The city will be built along Saudi Arabia's Red Sea coast in the northwestern Tabuk province, close to the kingdom's borders with Egypt and Jordan. It will also reportedly include the formerly Egyptian Tiran and Sanafir islands, as well as a southern portion of Egypt's Sinai Peninsula.

However, it was announced last week that the coronavirus outbreak ravaging the kingdom has forced all work on the city to be suspended, even as deteriorating oil prices stall the crown prince’s economic schemes and fantastical plans.

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