Saudi spends $1.7 million on NEOM megacity PR plan
Saudi Arabia has reportedly signed a year-long $1.7 million contract with public relations firm Ruder Finn, after bad press over its construction of the cross-border NEOM $500 billion megacity.
The PR firm will manage social media and implement "communication and marketing plans" during the construction of the futuristic city, according to a lobbying filing dated 10 June.
This campaign will characterise NEOM as "a place that is focused on setting new standards for community health, environmental protection and the effective and productive use of technology", according to the legal agreement posted by a number of PR blogs on Wednesday.
The PR company will also attempt to "shape US public opinion and members of Congress about the development of Neom", according to PR and Marketing Communications trade publication, O'Dwyer's.
It comes after growing controversy about NEOM, including reports that local residents - whose ancestors have lived in the area for centuries - were being evicted from their homes to make way for the Red Sea project.
Protests by the local Howeitat tribe against the move saw Saudi activist Abdul-Rahman al-Howeiti allegedly killed by authorities while resisting eviction in April.
NGOs have demanded that firms involved in the NEOM project to pull-out due to human rights abuses in the kingdom, according to an open-letter published on MENA Rights Group.
Even though Saudi Arabia has offered compensation for those being evicting from a 10,000-square-mile plot of land earmarked for development, there has been an outcry against the violent conduct of authorities.
After Saudi activist, Abdul-Rahman al-Howeiti, was killed his sister Alya Alhwaiti launched a social media campaign against the project and the violence. She also demanded an independent international investigation into the eviction of locals from the land.
Local tribes have also denounced the meager compensation plans, which they say is severely undervaluing the price of their land.
"Rather than consult with the local community and seek to integrate them in the region’s ambitious plans, the government has treated its citizens like disposable objects to be replaced by shiny, new cosmopolitan settlers," former Human Rights Watch Middle East director Sarah Leah Whitson and Saudi legal scholar Abdullah Alaoudh wrote in Foreign Policy.
Saudi Arabia unveiled the news during a press conference held by Prince Fahd bin Sultan bin Abdulaziz, the Emir of Tabuk, where the NEOM city will be built.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had agreed to allocate a free plot of land for all those covered by a compensation scheme, the emir said, without clarifying the exact conditions for eligibility. Lands will be distributed from the coast, Duba governorate, or the city of Tabuk he said.
In a series of critical public tweets, Alya Alhwaiti alleged that even the compensations were being forced through by authorities.
"Under intimidation, 18 people were brought in from Al-Hwait [tribe] to be given compensation for more than 800 years of history," Alhwaiti said, adding that Riyadh had also imprisoned and murdered members of the tribe.
Much of the local heritage has been bulldozed and residences demolished to make way for the new mega-city, while nearly 20,000 people are expected to be evicted.
"The NEOM project which is intended to become an imprint of civilisation is built on blood," Huwaiti said.
The city is being funded by Saudi Arabia's Public Investment Fund (PIF) - under the control of MbS - and is yet to be completed, with question marks over other Vision 2030 projects due to recent financial losses.
Failing to acknowledge the tribe's pleas, Prince Fahd bin Sultan spoke of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's optimism on NEOM, in spite of a current coronavirus-mandated halt on construction.
The Tabuk emir said that the crown prince was still adamant to see the futuristic city become reality by 2030.
NEOM's land mass is set to extend into Egyptian and Jordanian borders, rendering it the first private zone to span three countries, according to Saudi broadcaster Al-Arabiya.