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Neom shows that Saudi Arabia doesn’t want to democratise

By Wessie Du Toit

May 13, 2024

Credits @FFHR.CZ

On Thursday, the BBC reported a shocking but not especially surprising detail from Neom, Saudi Arabia’s vast project to build high-tech settlements in the desert. According to a Saudi intelligence officer who fled to Britain last year, security forces were ordered to use lethal force against members of the Huwaitat tribe who refused to surrender their land.

The forced eviction of the Huwaitat, whose villages have been flattened to make space for the new cities and resorts, came to the world’s attention after the killing of Abdul Rahim al-Huwaiti in 2020. Human rights groups say that dozens who refused to leave are still being detained, with some sentenced to execution.

The new revelations are unlikely to bring serious repercussions for the regime of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. For a brief period after coming to office in 2021, Joe Biden tried to hold the Saudi leadership accountable for its murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Yet these efforts ended in humiliating failure the following year, as Biden was forced to plead with MBS to increase oil production (he did the opposite). The Crown Prince’s position is even stronger now when one considers Israel’s ongoing war in Gaza, since Saudi cooperation will be crucial for maintaining political stability in the Middle East.

But could ongoing reports of Saudi brutality tarnish Neom in the eyes of investors? Or, for that matter, in the eyes of the many Western design, engineering and construction companies which continue to work on the project? These include high-profile architecture studios such as Morphosis, Bjarke Ingels Group, and Zaha Hadid Architects. Precious few have been willing to withdraw so far — although Neom, for its part, did cut ties with British architect David Adjaye following sexual misconduct allegations against him last year.

To a large extent, Neom has been able to overwhelm moral scrutiny thanks to its own powerful narratives of progress. These narratives — or perhaps we should say images, given their reliance on spectacular CGI renderings — combine the ecological and the technological. Neom promises to reinvent the city from scratch, churning out blueprints for state-of-the-art, sustainable and luxurious living. They include an “upside-down skyscraper” inside a mountain, a 450-metre “bridge hotel” spanning a lagoon, and Oxagon, a city floating on water. Then of course there is The Line, a megacity project to house nine million people in something resembling the imagination of a lazy sci-fi screenwriter.

As one can glean from the gushing interviews in last year’s Discovery Channel film, many of Neom’s creative contractors believe they are designing the future of humanity. But those making more cynical calculations about reputational damage are unlikely to withdraw either. Qatar showed that it was possible to ride out criticism and still score a publicity success, as it did with the 2022 World Cup.

More depressing still, global audiences are becoming increasingly accustomed to seeing the exercise of power in its most direct and brutal forms. After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and with the hellacious scenes emerging from Gaza, MBS’s despotic methods no longer appear as shocking as they did just a few years ago.

With Neom, Saudi Arabia is making an ideological claim on the future. It is trying to demonstrate that autocracy, not democracy and human rights, will be the driver of material progress in decades to come. A world that is becoming more familiar with the politics of lethal force — and one where strategic considerations trump more idealistic motives — will only encourage it in those ambitions.



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