Riyadh on Wednesday confirmed the killing of a Saudi tribal activist who had reportedly refused to leave his home to make way for the construction of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s controversial megacity project NEOM in the area.
Abdul-Rahim al-Howeiti, of the large Howeitat tribe that inhabits southwest Jordan, Sinai and northwestern Saudi Arabia, was shot dead by Saudi security in Al-Khuraybah, more than 1400 km north west of the capital Riyadh, close to the intersection point of the Jordanian-Saudi-Israeli border.
The tribal activist had allegedly “shot at security forces while holed up behind sandbags at the top of the building”, an official government statement claimed, according to state news agency SPA.
“He did not respond to appeals to surrender and as a result of continued shooting and the throwing of molotov cocktails, security forces neutralised the threat,” the statement added.
A cache of weapons, including pistols, machine guns and a box of molotov cocktails were found at the site, the statement alleged.
Al-Howeiti was known to the activist community in Saudi Arabia thanks to his videos protesting the mega development project and the forced displacement ordered by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman of his tribe from the area for the NEOM project.
In his videos, he has accused the government of displacing his people for the sake of a project alien to the history and traditions of the region.
The tribe has lived in the area for hundreds of years and was mentioned by T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) who worked with its elders in the area during the Great Arab Revolt in the First World War.
The government's statement confirming his death prompted social media users across Twitter to honour al-Howeiti, who has been dubbed "the Martyr of Neom".
"Al-Howeiti deserves the title Martyr of Neom," popular Saudi political activist Omar bin Abdulaziz tweeted.
"His killing and the shedding of his blood is both unjust and unlawful when there were thousands of solutions before that. The one who built palaces in NEOM is able to build a better home for this poor man and the people of his village," he added, referring to the controversial crown prince.
A day prior to the official statement, grainy videos and images shared by Saudi activists under the Arabic hashtag “Martyrdom of Abdul-Rahim al-Howeiti" showed the alleged moment and aftermath of the shooting.
The videos appeared to show Saudi police cars surrounding the area, followed by sounds of gunshots and locals shouting in anger as news of the incident spread.
The images appeared to show bullet holes on the outer walls of his house.
Saudis sympathetic to the tribespeople expressed immediate outrage on social media, decrying the ‘thugs of Mohammad Bin Salman’ for the presumed murder in reference to the security forces, and hailing the man as a martyr.
Since the launch of the NEOM project, Howeitat tribespeople who have lived in the area for centuries have expressed dismay at plans to relocate them without any consultation, launching campaigns to raise awareness about their plight, most recently in January (Arabic).
While the Saudi government has offered them monetary compensation, the longstanding tribe have reportedly refused and vowed to resist the plan, including by force if necessary.
According to a Wall Street Journal report in 2019, up to 20,000 people could be forcibly removed from the area to make room for the Crown Prince’s dream project, with no recourse to force the government to alter its plans.
Mohammad bin Salman announced the city called NEOM - a portmanteau of the Greek word for "new" and the first letter of the Arabic word for "future" - in 2017 as part of his flagship Vision 2030 scheme.
The 2030 plan aims to reduce the ultraconservative kingdom's dependency on oil. The most costly of the Vision 2030 projects is NEOM itself, at an initial estimated cost of $500 billion.
The city will be the centerpiece of the project - a borderline sci-fi city packed with factories, tech companies and resorts.
The city will be built along Saudi Arabia's Red Sea coast in the northwestern Tabuk province, close to the kingdom's borders with Egypt and Jordan. It will also reportedly include the formerly Egyptian Tiran and Sanafir islands, as well as a southern portion of Egypt's Sinai Peninsula.
However, it was announced last week that the coronavirus outbreak ravaging the kingdom has forced all work on the city to be suspended, even as deteriorating oil prices stall the crown prince’s economic schemes and fantastical plans.
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