NEOM: How MbS' megaproject enraged a tribe and created a martyr

NEOM: How MbS' megaproject enraged a tribe and created a martyr
Comment: The displacement of a tribe in Saudi Arabia to pave the way for a future megacity signifies the crown prince's drive for control over tribal forces, writes Courtney Freer.
5 min read
23 Apr, 2020
Al-Howeiti, killed by Saudi police after refusing to leave his home for NEOM construction [Twitter]
Last week news emerged that Saudi activist Abdul-Rahman al-Howeiti of the Howeitat tribe had been killed by Saudi security forces after refusing to leave his home on land that is slated to house the megacity project, NEOM

Al-Howeiti had previously recorded videos protesting the NEOM project that would displace him and many of his family, charging that the project had nothing to do with local Saudi traditions. The hashtag #استشهاد_عبدالرحيم_الحويطي (Martyrdom of Abdul-Rahman Al-Howeiti) emerged after his death, while the official Saudi response has been that security forces were deployed against al-Howeiti, whom they dub a terrorist. 

Notably, after the killing of al-Howeiti, an alleged elder of the al-Howaitat tribe was quoted in the pro-government Saudi newspaper Okazproclaiming loyalty to the House of Saud, particularly to Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MbS) and praising the NEOM project, since it would revitalise his region of the country economically.

as early as January, members of the tribe began publicising their plight against the government, which is said to have offered tribe members monetary compensation provided they leave their ancestral home. Following the announcement of the megaproject, local residents lobbied regional governor Prince Fahd bin Sultan to assert their right to stay in their homes, but the prince said he was unable to defend their property.

In a social media campaign that resulted, activists from the area stated their support for MbS' projects, yet said that NEOM did not need to be on the site of their ancestral lands.

The power of tribes cannot be overlooked in the Arabian Peninsula

A 2019 Wall Street Journal report estimates that up to 20,000 people could be forcibly removed from the area to make room for the $500 billion megacity whose future remains all but certain given the dive in global energy prices since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. Indeed, it seems strange timing for security forces to focus on relocation when the project will very likely be stalled.

As it stands currently, relocation work was not set to be completed until 2025, with the city, set to be 33 times the size of Manhattan, planned for completion in 2030. All of this, however, is highly unlikely to materialise with oil prices per barrel now reaching record lows (-$37.63 per barrel), and work on NEOM is said to be halted at present. 

The Howeitat tribe, in addition to living in northwestern Saudi Arabia, also inhabits much of southwest Jordan and the Sinai. In fact, it is the transnational coherence of tribes that has often led governments to fear them. Notably in Jordan, a member of the tribe, Maarik al-Tawaya, also a soldier, was involved in 2016 in killing three American soldiers and one Jordanian soldier in the al-Jafer military base in Maan.

The tribe protested al-Tawaya's sentencing to life imprisonment by blocking roads and barricading the entrance to the US Embassy, as they maintained that al-Tawayeh acted to defend Jordanian military and the country itself. This incident highlights how many countries in the Middle East rely on tribal portions of their population to staff military instalments and how their interests often do not align with those of the state.

Read more: 
Saudi Arabia returns body of slain tribal activist who resisted NEOM eviction following intense pressure

The power of tribes cannot be overlooked in the Arabian Peninsula. Indeed, they represent one powerful source of independent political and social authority that MbS has not yet completely co-opted or crushed, in the same way he has members of the business elite, members of the ruling family, and the official clergy. MbS has also co-opted or imprisoned members of independent Sunni Islamist movements and members of the Shia minority who previously protested for change. Tribes may be the next segment of the population to be taken under his control. 

Notably, the incident with the al-Howaitat is hardly the first time that tribal interests have clashed with state interests under MbS. In October of last year, Shaykh Faisal bin Sultan bin Jahjah bin Humaid, a leader of the al-Otaiba tribe, which is large throughout the Arabian Peninsula, was arrested after criticising living conditions and poverty in Saudi Arabia as the government spent increasingly large amounts on entertainment. Interestingly, though, he was released shortly thereafter and denied his arrest on Twitter.

in October 2018, King Salman reportedly had to intervene in a feud between MbS and members of tribes who form much of the country's National Guard, as MbS had endeavoured to remove privileges for these tribes. 

Tribes, when under state control, can help solidify legitimacy - something that political leaders understand all too well. Indeed, the Saudi state managed to mobilise powerful tribes against Qatar after the start of the blockade against it in June 2017.

Tribes represent one powerful source of independent political and social authority that MbS has not yet completely co-opted or crushed

That year, Saudi Arabia pushed its Grand Mufti Abdulaziz al-Shaykh to cast doubt on the tribal lineage of the ruling family in Qatar, who trace their ancestry to the long-standing Arabian Banu Tamim tribe, and doubt on Qatar's claim to be a bonafide Wahhabi state, in order to justify Saudi attacks on Qatar, despite their shared cultural and religious bonds.

And in neighbouring UAE, leaders of large tribes 
rallied to support the political leadership after a petition was circulated in 2011 demanding more representative government. 

The relocation of the al-Howeitat tribe in Saudi Arabia to pave the way for a megacity that may never be built signifies MbS' primacy over tribal forces in the country and his intention to prohibit them from asserting independent power. It is another important step in his consolidation of political and social capital at a time when economic grievances are likely mounting.

Dr Courtney Freer is a research fellow at LSE Middle East Centre.

Follow her on Twitter: @CourtneyFreer

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.