On April 13, Saudi security forces killed an activist named Abdul Rahim al-Huwaiti. When authorities came to raid his house and arrest him, he opened fire, Saudi officials claimed.
It’s the first death connected to Neom, a proposed $500 billion city in a remote northwestern corner of Saudi Arabia that is a signature project for the country’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. The de facto Saudi ruler says the metropolis will be stunningly futuristic, with residents’ every need met by robots and the so-called internet of things, and unique in the ultraconservative kingdom for relaxed social norms and laws. “You have no one there, so the regulations will be based on the needs of companies and the investors,” the prince, known as MBS, said in 2017.
But 20,000 people were there, mostly members of the ancient Huwaitat tribe ― including al-Huwaiti, who spent months speaking up for them in online videos before his government shot him to death in his own home.
As MBS’s international reputation has swung between wunderkind and tyrant, his rich foreign friends, including powerful Americans, have consistently pushed one narrative. They argue that his economic reforms for Saudi Arabia, the biggest economy in the Arab world, are worth supporting regardless of his human rights abuses.
It’s now becoming clear that his repression is inseparable from his plans for the Saudi markets.
After al-Huwaiti’s death, prominent Saudi rights advocates began sharing a hashtag on Twitter ― one of the most popular social networks in the kingdom ― calling him a martyr. Another activist from the tribe, Alya Abutayah Alhwaiti, told HuffPost, other media outlets and her followers that she received threats of government retribution for her posts.
For some of MBS’s most important allies, it could be time for a reckoning, if only for the sake of public perception. Neom’s board of advisers boasts big names: Rob Speyer, the head of real estate company Tishman Speyer; Masayoshi Son, the chairman of SoftBank; Timothy Collins, the CEO of private equity firm Ripplewood Holdings and chairman of the board of advisers for Yale University’s School of Management; Marc Raibert, the chairman of Boston Dynamics; John Rossant, the NewCities Foundation chairman; Alexandra Cousteau, the president of the Oceans 2050 Foundation; noted MIT professor Carlo Ratti; former DowDuPont chairman Andrew Liveris; and top chemist Jean Fréchet.
Those nine individuals have been on the board since Riyadh first announced its formation in 2018 ― one week after Saudi agents murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi. As other board members announced they were stepping down, Ratti’s office told Fast Company he would decide how to proceed following U.S. investigations. Weeks later, the CIA concluded MBS ordered Khashoggi’s killing. Ratti appears to have stayed on the board anyway.
None of those nine listed Neom advisers responded to HuffPost’s inquiries about their involvement and whether they had heard about al-Huwaiti’s death. The only board member to do so was the tenth, Ali Shihabi, who joined the group earlier this year. Previously known as an advocate of MBS in the U.S., Shihabi said via email that the government responded appropriately and questioned al-Huwaiti and his tribe.
Their decision likely isn’t about income ― Shihabi wrote that he wasn’t aware of compensation for the role other than for travel expenses.
Instead, board members are likely grappling with the same dilemma facing hundreds of other individuals, businesses and even governments over their relationships with MBS: how close to remain to a partner who is sometimes useful for his wealth and influence, but seemingly always just days away from another reprehensible, embarrassing move.
Leaders in global business stuck by the prince despite his responsibility for Khashoggi’s murder and a Saudi military intervention in Yemen that’s caused thousands of deaths. Will they do the same as he launches crackdowns on behalf of projects that bear their names?
‘We Want To Be Part Of This Successful Thing’
Filming videos in his hometown of Khuraybah, al-Huwaiti portrayed MBS as out of touch with Saudi citizens. Members of the Huwaitat tribe were not prepared to move on behalf of Neom, he suggested, and they worried the government would persecute them for their refusal.
The community initially saw the potential of the project but soon became anxious, said Alhwaiti, who lived in the area as a child and now resides in London. They were given few details about the compensation they would receive for being displaced and worried that authorities would destroy their homes without even considering if they were empty. Alhwaiti amplified Twitter hashtags critical of Neom for months, as well as al-Huwaiti’s videos.
Al-Huwaiti repeatedly told his viewers he expected to be targeted.
Then officials came to his home last month and he filmed himself describing their arrival, apparently on his roof. What happened next is disputed. Saudi authorities say he shot at them instead of surrendering himself as a “wanted” man. Alhwaiti, who is in touch with members of her tribe who are on the ground, says he did not have a gun and shared photographs of a shot-up building.
“They made an example of Abdul Rahim. … That’s what the government does,” she said.
The heavy-handed approach reflects the man now running Saudi Arabia day to day.
And his backers insist there’s no scandal in either the shooting or the displacement. Shihabi, the Neom board member, claimed al-Huwaiti was armed and forced police to call in special backup, though he said he was not sure if the activist shot first. (The Saudi state narrative does not mention a second team being called in.)
A similar sequence of events would have occurred in the U.S., Shihabi suggested.
“Police shoot people for much less than threatening them with an AK-47,” he wrote.
He also defended MBS’s approach to the land. Saudi households have received government requests for their property for decades, Shihabi wrote, saying his own family had sold land to the state. Plus, he asserted, “the Huwaitat is not particularly ‘native’ to that spot” since the tribe has members in multiple countries.
Limiting citizens’ ability to protest displacement is important in the kingdom, Shihabi argued. “If the [government] allowed a [Western-style] process to take place every time they exercised eminent domain Saudi would not have been built in 50 years,” he wrote.
In the past, however, the process of the government taking land typically involved a negotiation, said Yasmine Farouk, a visiting fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“Opposition is not tolerated but it doesn’t always get this violent,” she said.
But MBS has little appetite for the tactics of his forebears
“MBS has been destroying all sources and dynamics of traditional legitimacy on which his family has relied,” Farouk said. “One of them was the respect for the tribal social fabric.”
Al-Huwaiti referenced “the rule of children” in his videos ― a seeming nod to not just the 34-year-old prince’s age but also his style of leadership.
While some Huwaitat leaders reiterated their allegiance to MBS and his father, King Salman, in the weeks after al-Huwaiti’s killing, according to Saudi media reports, Alhwaiti believes that was simply further evidence of bullying by the regime.
She wants MBS and Neom officials to prevent harassment tied to the development. “It’s very simple,” she said. “Don’t move us from our home. We want to be part of this successful thing.”
The region’s residents are ready for a long fight, she believes.
“He wants to vanish anything original here,” Alhwaiti said. “He will be very stubborn, but we are as well.”
A lawyer representing Alhwaiti wrote to the entire Neom board on April 28 asking it to ensure the development respects Saudi citizens’ rights, but received no response.
A New Headache For A Beleaguered Leader
This was supposed to be MBS’s year. Prior to the coronavirus outbreak, he was scheduled to host a summit of international leaders in November, a public relations coup for a young ruler who just recently risked global pariah status.
The world seemed to be getting accustomed to the prince’s pugnacity. MBS’s arrest of two rival princes in March drew little international condemnation compared to his previous assaults on royal family members, or his even more audacious targeting of Khashoggi, Lebanon’s prime minister and Yemeni civilians.
Neom is central to his strategy of winning international approval and investment to wean Saudi Arabia off of oil. Along with the new city’s modern features, Saudi authorities have promoted plans to tie it closely to neighboring Jordan and Egypt ― the only two Arab states to recognize another Saudi neighbor that’s also a stone’s throw from Neom, Israel. Washington has been eager to encourage cooperation between the Israelis and the Saudis, its two closest regional partners.
Headlines tying the project to a killing and a David-and-Goliath-style struggle threaten the prince’s pitch.
Al-Huwaiti’s killing drew global media attention. It came as MBS received a new, separate wave of criticism from influential Americans, one of his most important audiences. Republicans slammed him for hurting U.S. fossil fuel companies by driving oil prices down. This was a shift: Most GOP members traditionally support the kingdom and follow President Donald Trump’s example of backing the prince, while most Democrats have already been skeptical of MBS for years over human rights concerns and pledged to get tougher on him.
At home, bad news about Neom wouldn’t ordinarily represent a big problem. Citizens in major Saudi cities like Riyadh and Jeddah often overlook, or hear heavily controlled information about, sparsely populated corners of the country, Farouk said.
“To Saudis, Neom is one of the things that Mohammed bin Salman has used in a very systematic way to sell his vision to the West more than to inside,” she said.
But the timing of the trouble with the Huwaitat is unhelpful for MBS within the kingdom. It’s one more sign of a mismatch between the prince’s proposals and what many of his people actually need, according to Annelle Sheline, a research fellow at the Quincy Institute.
“People have yet to see any benefits from new cinemas. … Those things don’t matter for a rural population where there’s still not enough jobs,” she said. “It highlights that so much of what MBS has done so far is aimed at this Saudi young elite and also aimed at the global elite with his use of all their catchwords ― and a lot of it is smoke and mirrors.”
As Saudis hear their government warn of less spending and a reduced standard of living because of the downturn in the global economy and the end of a period of historically high oil prices, it’s clear to them the prince’s “Vision 2030” plan has not overhauled their country ― and that when their leader did have income to experiment with, he spent it on expensive boondoggles like Neom. Experts now say the city and similarly ambitious projects should be wound down to save money.
For MBS, downgrading the city would be hard to swallow. “All authoritarian leaders want to talk of big things … want a big thing linked to their name that lasts forever,” Farouk said. “He still doesn’t have this kind of legacy.”
Most of his fellow citizens face even more visceral disappointment.
“It’s unfortunate that so many of his promises are failing, because many Saudis were excited for a new approach,” Sheline said.