Modernity against Tradition in Saudi Arabia: The Case of Neom

As featured in Edition 37, available here.


By REMI TROVO

In order to modernise the country and diversify its economy, the Saudi Arabian government (in collaboration with Egypt and Jordan) is planning to construct “Neom”, a mega-city that will attract investment from all over the world. This has led to clashes with the Huwaitat; one of the oldest tribes in the region. Can Saudi Arabia modernise without disrupt- ing traditional ways of life? Potentially. The word “Neom” can be translated as “New Future”. It is a fitting way to describe the ambitious plans for this city which were unveiled in 2017. Situated in North-West Saudi Arabia and in a part of Egypt’s Sinai region which has been leased for around $10 billion; it will cover 10,230 square miles, making it 33 times bigger than New York City. Officials have said that the city will “contain more robots than humans, mass electronic surveillance to tackle crime, drone operated air-taxis and a seaside luxury-resort, cruise and entertainment complex”. Neom will also contain “towns and cities, ports and enterprise zones, research centres, sports and entertainment venues, and tourist destinations”. Such facilities are intended to attract “more than a million citizens from around the world”. Expected to cost $500 billion, Neom forms part of the “Vision 2030” plan which aims to move Saudi Arabia away from its reliance on oil revenues. It also forms part of a broader goal to embrace modernity and fundamentally transform the face of Saudi Arabia. As Neom’s website puts it, it will “embody an international ethos and embrace a culture of exploration, risk-taking and diversity”.

Neom has the potential to bring a lot of economic benefits to Saudi Arabia. However, it has brought the government into conflict with the Huwaitat tribe, which has lived in the North-Western province of Tabuk for hundreds of years. Given that the tribe has lived there for longer than the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has existed (it was established in 1932), the prospect of more than 20,000 Huwaitat residents being evicted from their homelands to make way for Neom has triggered tensions. Hostilities have been exacerbated by the way the Saudi government is alleged to have gone about conducting displacements. According to local residents, envoys went to tribal ar- eas and told them that they would face eviction if they did not accept $3,000 of compensation per family and leave vol- untarily. Those who have resisted are said to have had their social media ac- counts disabled, been arrested and held in unknown locations without being able to contact anyone. It is also alleged that Saudi Security Forces have killed the most vocal opponents, such as Abdulra- him al-Huwaiti. Other methods, such as destroying homes, cutting off electricity and pressuring employers to make life difficult for residents, are also alleged to have been used to force them out. The UN has been called to investigate.

All this may not seem particularly surprising. Dawn Chatty, a professor of Anthropology and Forced Migration at Oxford University, argues that this kind of unilateral action “is typical of the way Mohammed Bin Salman operates.” That being said, the British drove natives off their ancestral homelands in places such as New Zealand and Australia while the American settlers did the same to the Native Americans. Evicting indigenous people to make way for ‘civilisation’ has always existed and sadly the practice will probably continue for a long time. The West would therefore be wise not to indulge in moral self-righteousness. There could be a way to integrate modernity and tradition in Saudi Arabia. Many members of the Huwaitat seem keen to contribute to the development of Neom.

Alya Alhwaiti, a representative of the Huwaitat in London, told Al Jazeera: “At the beginning of the project, the government told the al-Huwaitat tribe that they would be involved in Neom’s development and that their area would become one of the most famous in the world. The tribe was excited.” This suggests that incorporating the Huwaitat and their culture into the Neom project would be a far more effective way to realise it.

The controversy surrounding Neom represents a clash between modernity and tradition. Yet could the regime and the Huwaitat work together to bring much needed economic diversification while preserving traditional ways of life? It will certainly not be easy. Recent events have created an atmosphere of distrust within the Huwaitat. However, there is a lot to gain for all parties if they can put their differences to one side and work together. Self-interest may eventually generate collaboration.


Image: Unsplash / Yasmine Arfaoui