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Saudi Arabia: tribesmen jailed for refusing NEOM displacement

The Silver Spirit cruise ship is pictured anchored off the Sindala island, one of two islands which form Saudi's planned NEOM megaproject on on 29 September 2020 [ANUJ CHOPRA/AFP/Getty Images]
The Silver Spirit cruise ship is pictured anchored off the Sindala island, one of two islands which form Saudi's planned NEOM megaproject on on 29 September 2020 [ANUJ CHOPRA/AFP/Getty Images]

Saudi Arabia has handed a 50-year prison term and a 50-year travel ban to two members of the Huwaitat, a large nomadic Bedouin tribe which lives on both sides of the Saudi-Jordanian border. The men have refused to be displaced from their ancestral homeland to make way for the $500 billion NEOM megacity.

According to the British-based human rights group, ALQST, the Specialised Criminal Court of Appeal handed down the lengthy jail term to Abdulilah Al-Huwaiti and his relative Abdullah Dukhail Al-Huwaiti for supporting their family's opposition to being removed forcibly from their homes.

The ruling came in the same month, August, that Salma Al-Shehab, a Saudi woman was sentenced to 34 years imprisonment for tweets critical of the government.

Osama Khaled, a writer, translator and computer programmer was given a 32-year sentence for "allegations relating to the right of free speech," ALQST added. "These recent rulings signal a new phase of flagrant human rights violations in Saudi Arabia, especially since the visit of US President Joe Biden in July."

The rights organisation has attributed the increase in human rights abuses to Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman's rise to power in 2017. "In addition to wide-scale arrests and harsh jail sentences, victims are also placed under travel bans once their jail terms are completed, and their family members are routinely harassed," it explained. "Sometimes prisoners have been killed, either deliberately or by being singled out for medical and administrative neglect."

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A US-based human rights organisation, the Freedom Initiative has also claimed that a third Huwaiti member was handed a 23-year sentence for tweets about rising prices and the displacement of her tribespeople.

The Huwaiti tribe have previously had run-ins with the Saudi authorities over the planned smart city in Tabuk. It's the brainchild of Bin Salman and his Vision2030, and includes a controversial linear city consisting of two mirrored buildings known as "The Line".

In April 2020, Saudi security forces shot and killed Abdul Rahim Al-Huwaiti in the north-western town of Al-Khuraybah after he posted a video online criticising the NEOM project and exposed areas where his neighbours had been forcibly evicted and accused the kingdom of carrying out "state terrorism". He also refused to vacate his home and rejected state compensation.

According to state media, he was killed after refusing to surrender, and then opening fire on security forces. His killing prompted social media users to highlight his death, referring to him as the "martyr of NEOM".

Last year the Saudi Leaks website reported that the Saudi Arabian military had imposed a strict siege on the tribe in a bid to expel its members from their lands after they turned down the government's "unfair financial compensation".

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