A Saudi dream project puts an ancient tribe in jeopardy
Landlessness, joblessness, homelessness, marginalization, food insecurity, increased morbidity and mortality, loss of access to common property and social disarticulation… all of these could lead to forced migration.
Many studies have been done on cases where the rich and powerful decide to “develop” an area according to their plans and preferences. This development is often a tool to enrich a certain segment of society or improve the living conditions of urbanized populations to the very detriment of the environment.
In fact, governments often see “development” as a solution to limit free and liberal voices or to usurp the rights of weaker sections. This includes the right to livelihoods, cultural heritage and choice.
Such projects which “develop” a nation and add to the comfort of city dwellers displace thousands of people from their original habitat, bringing about all the evils mentioned at the beginning of the play. It could be the Three Gorges Dam in China, the Sardar Sarovar Dam in India, the Ahafo Mine in Ghana or any modern city. They have one thing in common: movement. Few people even bother to know them. No one cares to read about it even though it is written and few people join the protests against the same.
The Line City project in Saudi Arabia is one of those announced in 2017 by the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman. This hi-tech business hub is springing up along the Red Sea coast in the northwestern part of Saudi Arabia at a cost of $500 billion. This region is milder regarding its temperature compared to other parts of the country. The 26,500 km2 city will connect Jordan and Egypt via Saudi territory.
The “civilized people” will have 3,80,000 additional jobs and is expected to contribute $48 billion (INR 36,000 crore) to the country’s GDP by 2030. This city will be the world’s first zero carbon city, possibly to be a part of the NEOM project (NEOM aims to be the future of habitability as a foundation, of unprecedented scope. The name “NEOM” is derived from two words. The first three letters of the ancient Greek prefix neo – meaning “new. fourth letter comes from the abbreviation of Mostaqbal, an Arabic word meaning “future”).
The project has been called a city project under a “civilization plan that puts humans first”. “The Line” is designed as a linear city for one million people and is 170 km long. However, the width will be “five minutes on foot only”. It is a kind of global city in the making with state-of-the-art infrastructures offering a superior quality of life.
It sounds good and the (futuristic) images are beautiful. Everyone dreams of becoming part of the population of “Line City” who live an extraterrestrial life on this planet.
Is it true ? Does everyone want to be part of it? How about Howeitat or Huwaitat? Do they want to be part of it? Ask them and their answer will definitely be no. More than 20,000 unanimous votes will say no. But, this is Saudi Arabia and these voices of the Judhami tribe will not be heard. For the tribe, the area to be developed in the region is their homeland. For centuries therefore, not for ten years. It’s not that the Huwaitat didn’t protest. They did it and whoever did it was put behind bars. The most vocal critic of all, a kind of leader of Alya Abutayeh Alhawaiti of the Huwaitats, lost his life because of his dissent.
An ever-willing US PR firm called these people aborigines and likened them to animals worth banishing, because the upcoming “line city” in the area is no ordinary business. He is, as crown prince, incomparable so far. He said, “Why should we sacrifice nature in the name of development? Why should seven million people die each year from pollution? Why should we lose a million people every year to traffic accidents?
Nobody asked him, “Hi. What are you talking about ? Did you just say you’re not sacrificing nature? Eh? Why should we die from pollution or accidents?
If that is the motive, why build a new city? Are you going to empty all your cities and welcome people here to this new paradise of yours? Why don’t you instead spend all the money intended for it to prevent these pollution deaths? Or stop these accidents?
No. It is said that absolute power corrupts absolutely. He did it in the present moment too. The city’s construction cuts “through its surroundings, cutting its way through difficult terrain rather than embracing natural features such as the coastline”. However, this does not seem to be practiced in the field.
The Howeitat nomads were recorded as the only tribesmen living in the southern and inner part of the al-Karak-Shawbak sanjak (district) of the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century. According to the Ottoman historian Qutb al-Din al-Nahrawali (d. 1582), the tribe was a branch of the Banu Uqba, the dominant tribe in the region of al-Karak-Shawbak during Mamluk rule (1260-1516) and whose leaders have been officially recognized by the Mamluk authorities. The Howeitat have the distinction of claiming descent from a single ancestor, an Egyptian named Huwayt. They progressed to a partially sedentary life in the early 20th century, but became homeless and nomadic due to rivalry between two tribal leaders in the area.
The tribe even approached the United Nations through some activists. Like any ruler, the Crown Prince promised them a fair share of the fruits of development, but later drove them off their lands without offering them accommodation in return. Sound familiar? The other side of all development stories sounds like this!