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Neom: UK facilitating deals in Saudi Arabia's mega-project despite rights concerns

British government encouraging investment in megacity where kingdom is accused of sentencing critics to death
A projection of 'The Line', a 170km straight line city to be built in the new megacity Neom, seen at an exposition in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on 15 November 2022 (Reuters)
A projection of The Line, a 170km straight-line city to be built in Neom, seen at an expo in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia in November 2022 (Reuters)
By Rayhan Uddin in London and Dania Akkad

The UK government is facilitating collaboration between British businesses and the planned Saudi megacity Neom, despite allegations of serious human rights abuses taking place to make way for the project. 

The Saudi government has been accused of forcibly displacing members of the Howeitat tribe, who have lived for centuries in the Tabuk province in northwest Saudi Arabia, to make way for the $500bn city. 

At least 47 members of the tribe have been either arrested or detained for resisting eviction, including five who have been sentenced to death, according to a report by the UK-based Alqst rights group.

On Wednesday, UN experts expressed alarm at the imminent execution of three members of the tribe who reportedly "resist[ed] forced evictions in the name of the Neom project".

Recent job and event advertisements seen by Middle East Eye show the UK Department for Business and Trade encouraging British companies to learn about opportunities at Neom and invest in the project.

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But the department would not say what steps, if any, it had taken to ensure that its efforts are not contributing to human rights abuses at Neom.

'Opportunity' for UK business

Last year, the government recruited a senior trade adviser with the specific responsibility of helping UK companies invest in projects in northwest Saudi Arabia, principally Neom. 

"The main purpose of this job is to support UK companies seeking to develop their business through trade with Saudi Arabia, with a particular focus on Neom," the job ad said. 

The successful candidate would be required to "operate from within close proximity to Neom". 

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The start date of the job was November 2022. The department would not confirm if the position has been filled, stating that it did not comment on human resources matters. 

On the department's exporting guide for Saudi Arabia, it lists Neom among several "giga projects... which offer opportunities for UK businesses", and adds that solar and wind renewable energy projects were at the tendering stage in Neom. 

The guidance lists a number of areas to consider when doing business in Saudi Arabia, including tax, intellectual property, trade barriers, Sharia law and business licensing. There is no mention of human rights. 

A department spokesperson told MEE the "government supports UK businesses operating in Saudi Arabia on projects that align with UK objectives" and that "issues with the Saudi authorities" were regularly raised. 

They added that the UK had a positive relationship with Neom and Saudi Arabia, but that this "does not prevent us from raising allegations of human rights violations around Neom".

"We will continue to monitor any further reports," the spokesperson said. 

The department would not confirm whether allegations of rights abuses in Neom had been investigated by the UK government, or if it had given guidance on human rights to companies working on Neom. 

'Key western partner'

MEE also found that the trade department invited British companies to an event showcasing Neom's "ambition to work with the UK as a key western partner".  

The event was said to be geared towards space, robotics, artificial intelligence and emerging technologies sectors, aimed at "identifying supply chain opportunities" in Neom. 

The UK government has separately announced that at least two British companies are working with Neom in the solar energy sector: Solar Water Plc and Space Solar Ltd. 

Solar Water is providing fresh water to the megacity as part of a carbon-neutral hydro-infrastructure that involves chanelling sea water into glass and steel domes. 

'British businesses that win contracts to develop this site risk complicity in such abuses'

- James Lynch, FairSquare

Meanwhile, the UK announced in January it had held talks with the Saudi government about British-based Space Solar collaborating with Neom on collecting solar energy using large satellites in geo-stationary orbit.

Space Solar and Solar Water Plc did not respond to MEE's request for comments on whether they were aware of human rights abuses in Tabuk, and what guidance they had received from the government. 

James Lynch, director of UK-based rights group FairSquare, said the government "seems to be scrambling to secure contracts for British companies in Neom" without any proof of due diligence efforts. 

"We have no evidence that they have carried out human rights impact assessments or seriously engaged the Saudi authorities on the gross human rights violations that have marked the site's development," he told MEE.

He noted the former residents who peacefully protested against the project and are now on death row or serving decades-long sentences, documented by the researchers at the Alqst rights group.

"British businesses that win contracts to develop this site risk complicity in such abuses, yet their government is recklessly pushing them towards these risks," he said.

In April 2020, activist Abdul-Rahim al-Howeiti was shot dead by security forces shortly after making videos protesting against his eviction to make way for the megacity.

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Alqst's report lays out how authorities evicted Howeitat residents, often against their will, in contravention of international law. 

In March 2020, authorities sent in special forces, sometimes 40 vehicles at a time, to raid the homes of those resisting eviction and intimidate them. 

The report found that 15 members of the tribe had been sentenced to between 15 and 50 years in prison, while five were sentenced to death. A further 19 were detained with no further information on their fate, while eight were released. 

"Despite being charged with terrorism, they were reportedly arrested for resisting forced evictions in the name of the NEOM project and the construction of a 170km linear city called The Line," the UN experts said on Wednesday, in relation to three members of the tribe facing execution.

"Under international law, States that have not yet abolished the death penalty may only impose it for the 'most serious crimes', involving intentional killing," they said. "We do not believe the actions in question meet this threshold."

The $500bn megacity, which organisers claim will be 33 times the size of New York City, is planned to include a 170km straight-line city, an eight-sided city that floats on water, and a ski resort with a folded vertical village.

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