Wednesday, July 24, 2024

Opinion | Saudi Arabia’s new mega-city may be built on a foundation of tyranny

Opinion | Saudi Arabia’s new mega-city may be built on a foundation of tyranny

Dictators have always had a thing for megaprojects, from Benito Mussolini’s fascist designs for a new, grander Rome, to the communist building mania of Romania’s Nicolae Ceaucescu — who razed one-fifth of his capital, Bucharest, to accommodate a gargantuan government palace and apartment blocks for the party elite.

Yet no strongman has ever attempted a vanity project quite like Neom, the vast new settlement Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, also know as MBS, plans to put on a Belgium-size but heretofore lightly developed stretch of northwestern Saudi Arabia, just south of Jordan and just east of Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, across the Gulf of Aqaba. The price tag: $500 billion.

Funded by the kingdom’s oil wealth, Neom is nevertheless supposed to set the country in a more diverse and environmentally sustainable economic direction. Proposals include everything from luxury tourist resorts to manufacturing plants. “No roads, cars or emissions,” the project’s official website says. “It will run on 100% renewable energy and 95% of land will be preserved for nature. People’s health and well-being will be prioritized over transportation and infrastructure, unlike traditional cities.” Neom’s signature architectural feature, however, is The Line, an astonishing structure that would be roughly 100 miles long, 1,600 feet tall and 650 feet wide — and house 9 million people. Other futuristic features could include an artificial moon, robots to do housework and state-of-the art electronic surveillance to ensure security.

We’ll believe it when we see it. With MBS having committed not only vast sums but his own prestige to Neom, however, leading companies from around the world are lining up to help the Saudi dictator create this utopia.

There is an inconvenience, of course: The people who live on the future site of Neom, and who — like inhabitants of previous places upon which authoritarians have imposed grandiose building plans — must be relocated. Specifically, the Huwaitat tribe has inhabited the Neom area for generations. An estimated 20,000 members of the tribe could be displaced. Saudis have said those who leave voluntarily are compensated, but human rights groups charge that the government has dealt harshly with some who have protested. One tribal activist was shot to death by Saudi security forces in 2020, after he posted a video online complaining that the regime was trying to kick him off his land. Saudi officials said its personnel were shooting back after the man opened fire, a charge his family denies.

Now comes news, via Saudi dissident groups based abroad, that death sentences meted out last year to three other members of the tribe on dubious “terrorism” charges have been upheld on appeal. Another three reportedly received prison sentences ranging from 27 to 50 years. On May 3, a panel of United Nations-affiliated human rights investigators denounced the death sentences, citing an “imminent risk” that they could be carried out. “We urge all companies involved, including foreign investors, to ensure that they are not causing or contributing to, and are not directly linked to serious human rights abuses,” they said.

The Biden administration should demand that Riyadh call off any executions and offer transparency about how it has dealt with the Huwaitat generally. The world needs full disclosure about the potential human costs of MBS’s castles in the sand.

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Members of the Editorial Board and areas of focus: Opinion Editor David Shipley; Deputy Opinion Editor Karen Tumulty; Associate Opinion Editor Stephen Stromberg (national politics and policy); Lee Hockstader (European affairs, based in Paris); David E. Hoffman (global public health); James Hohmann (domestic policy and electoral politics, including the White House, Congress and governors); Charles Lane (foreign affairs, national security, international economics); Heather Long (economics); Associate Editor Ruth Marcus; Mili Mitra (public policy solutions and audience development); Keith B. Richburg (foreign affairs); and Molly Roberts (technology and society).

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