NEOM and the Arab Independent Opposition League

Summary: a new revolutionary pan-Arab liberation movement launched in London on September 30. A straw in the wind?

We wrote last month about how the failure of democracy and political Islam in the Arab world has lead to an ideological vacuum at the heart of the Arab revolution and left the door open for other new ideologies and ways of thinking. We suggested one perhaps seemingly unlikely possibility could be the return of a revamped pan-Arabism.

So it was not a complete surprise when just a few weeks later a new revolutionary pan-Arab organisation announced its existence in London, the Arab Independent Opposition League.

In its foundation statement the League, which describes itself as an “a revolutionary and political association for independent activist figures” announced:

The League of Arab Independent Activists has been established due to the suffering of the Arabian Peninsula (Saudi Arabia), especially, and the Arab nation as a whole, and because of the tyranny and corruption of the Ibn Saud regime and all the Arab regimes, which have become shamelessly the active arm of the occupation entity and the indirect colonisation arm that is swallowing our countries and plundering our wealth, which has contributed to the weakness, fragmentation and dispersion of the nation, and what we see as the misdeeds and outputs of some activists abroad.

We in this League believe that victory is in unity, the solidarity of the sincere sons and daughters of the free Arab people, and the building of a new Arab Spring, while not ignoring the head of the counter-revolution, so that it will teach the Arab people about who failed the first Arab Spring and why.

We seek to: liberate prisons, administer justice, bring back what has been looted, and prosecute the corrupt. Also, to be trustees of the land God has given to us, for Arab unity to be what we aspire it to be, and to achieve the optimum goal which we long for. That being, to unite the Arab world and form a unified Arab unit blessed with its security, wealth, and sovereignty.

Join us if you believe in one Arab homeland, the rotation of power and in Arabism and the common bonds. Join us if you believe that people have sovereignty and the right to participate in decision-making, accountability, freedom, and dignity, if you believe that no one is above the law and that our country is stronger with its unity.”

To say the odds of the League achieving its goals at the present time are low would obviously be an understatement, but as we explained in last month’s newsletter when one considers how Islamic State used new media and leadership techniques to snowball a movement into a transnational revolutionary force , this may seem like a slightly less fantastic scenario.

What is clear is that the formation of the League has already broken new ground in Arab opposition politics. No other non-Jihadi organisation stands on a pan-Arab platform of overturning all existing Arab regimes. Most Arab opposition groups run on strict national, sectarian or religious grounds and with the significant exception of Maha Azzam at the Egyptian Revolutionary Council, none are fronted by women.

Arab Independent Opposition League founder members Alya Al Huwaiti and Amr Abdelhady

So far only two members of the League have declared themselves publicly.

The League’s spokesperson who delivered the foundation statement on 30 September is Alya al-Howeiti, a UK-based member of the Huwaitat tribe. The Huwaitat has about 40,000 members in Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the Sinai Peninsula, and are on the frontline in Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s US$500 billion NEOM development.

Ms. al-Howeiti, who is also Saudi Arabia’s first female professional equestrian and represented the kingdom in competitions between 2004 and 2011, is the head of the Justice for Neom Victims campaign and she has been a key conduit in getting information out about the situation around NEOM, for example the now infamous final video of Abdul Rahim al-Huwaiti who was shot dead by security forces in April 2020 in his home in Al-Khariba, in the part of Tabuk province earmarked for the NEOM project, after he posted videos on social media opposing the displacement of local residents.

Since December the regime’s campaign to drive the Howeitat off their land has escalated and new measures have been introduced, including cutting off water and electricity supplies, and deploying surveillance drones above residences. Last month Ms Huwaiti told Middle East Eye about the Saudi regime’s latest efforts to surveil and evict the tribe, starting with the arrests of a group of men in December for planning a peaceful protest.

On 2 October Saudi Arabia’s Specialised Criminal Court sentenced to death three members of the Huwaitat, Shadli, Ibrahim and Ataullah al-Huwaiti. Shadli al-Huwaiti is the brother of Abdul Rahim al-Huwaiti, killed in 2020. Shadli had previously been on hunger strike and in solitary confinement in Dhahban Prison, where he was reportedly tortured. Ibrahim al-Huwaiti was part of the delegation of local residents who in 2020 met the official commission charged with securing government title to the lands required for NEOM.

In June 2020 shortly after Abdulrahim’s killing, human rights groups and the Huwaitat tribe wrote an open letter to three of the firms working on NEOM, Boston Consulting Group, Oliver Wyman, and Mckinsey & Company, calling on them to issue a public statement condemning the violations and cease their engagement “unless and until” adverse human rights impacts were addressed.

Nothing happened, the project continued, except that the compensation packages offered to residents who were being evicted were increased, together with promises of alternative land elsewhere in the region. Residents quoted by Bloomberg in July 2022 said compensation payments for larger properties can reach 1 million riyals (US$266,000), while the owner of a simple home might receive just 100,000 riyals (US$27,000). This compares to an annual salary of roughly US$1.1 million for senior executives working at NEOM, according to internal Neom documents seen recently by the WSJ.

For those who have taken the Saudi petrodollar not all has gone smoothly. The FT reported on Tuesday on the apparent suicide of a KPMG executive in Riyadh, as well as claims resulting from interviews with 12 current and former KPMG employees about unethical employment practices in the Saudi KPMG office that have left expatriate staff fearing for their personal safety and struggling with their mental health.

Ms. al-Howeiti’s opposition activity has placed her squarely on the Saudi hit list. She receives threats and has already been hacked once by NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware.

Like Jamal Khashoggi she used to work in the Saudi embassy in London, which under the regime’s unwritten code means not just that she deserves to be liquidated but spectacularly so, like Khashoggi, to send a clear message to other would-be activists in the Saudi embassy.

The only other publicly named member of the League at the present time is the Egyptian lawyer and liberal politician Amr Abdelhady. Mr. Abdelhady was an independent candidate in the Egyptian parliamentary elections in 2012 and has over a million followers on Facebook.

A former senior figure in the Al-Ghad Party, Mr Abdelhady fled Egypt after the military coup. In 2021 he was detained in Qatar following the Qatari-Egyptian reconciliation. His elderly mother has been under a travel ban in Egypt since 2016.

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