Plans for new Saudi mega-city Neom stoke internal criticism

Summary: MBS’s tough handling of tribal leaders and development plans for Saudi mega-project Neom stoke internal criticism and are called a capitulation to Israel.

NEOM is Saudi Arabia’s futuristic $500 billion artificial intelligence metropolis which if all goes as planned will be built in the northwest of the country, close to Israel, Egypt, Jordan and Palestine. The phases of implementation and construction of the project will be announced within the coming two months and the new city will be unveiled to the world three to five years later NEOM CEO Nadhmi al-Nasr said yesterday.

The plan calls for proposed joint-infrastructure projects between Israel, Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, including an airport with four terminals, allowing passengers to disembark and travel to any of the four countries. From the start the project has attracted strong Israeli interest. In 2017 the Jerusalem Post reported that though Israeli companies cannot take part in the project openly, under the table billion dollar talks over contracts have been conducted with the Saudi Public Investment Fund.

This unprecedented opportunity for Israel was first outlined publicly in a 2016 article by Salman Al-Ansari, President of the Saudi American Public Relation Affairs Committee (SAPRAC).  He called for a “collaborative alliance”, which has developed fast under King Salman. But it has also been criticised: last year dissident Saudi prince Khaled bin Farhan Al Saud published a video that claimed giving Israel a role in Neom and normalising ties with Tel Aviv were US and Israeli “conditions” for MBS to secure their backing. In December last year Al Qaeda published a video threatening Arab states who normalised relations with Israel and criticising Neom as a plan “to boost the deal and finalize the sale of Palestine to the Jews and the displacement of the Muslims to the Sinai [Peninsula].”

We thank an Arab Digest contributor from Saudi Arabia for the article below.

Recent western media coverage of the new Israel Palestine “peace process” has overlooked recent Saudi moves preparing for new relations with Israel. The current hot issue inside the country is the expulsion of the Howeitat tribe from the northwest, near the Jordanian border, right in the place where they are going to install the new project Neom. Ten to twenty thousand people are supposed to be expelled from their land in order for it to be used for Neom and they are stubbornly resisting. The regime offered them compensation which they refused and though the government has not yet used force, it may do, and if it does there is a chance the tribe will use force back. They are known for smuggling drugs and weapons between Jordan and Saudi Arabia so they are capable.

An anonymous Saudi Twitter account posts an image in support of the Howeitat tribe on January 20 (credit: @xaM5c2ek4PdwPOO)

MBS claims to respect the tribes  and says the reason for the eviction is so they can start building, but no one knows what the Neom project is really about. Many people think it is not merely business but that there is a secret deal about getting Israel involved in the Kingdom and giving Israelis a say in the economy. The suspicion is that Saudis and Israelis will not only be living and working together, but this plan goes beyond normalisation to infiltration of the Saudi system where the Israelis are given the upper hand because they have the technical abilities and are the planners while the Saudis just provide the money. This is teaching the Arabs that they cannot progress without the brains of the Israelis and unfortunately it is not being done by the Israelis but by Mohammed bin Salman himself.

MBS has also clashed recently with the Otaiba tribe, the biggest tribe in the kingdom. The head of Otaiba, Sheikh Faisal bin Sultan bin Humaid, made a brave move by writing a list of tweets criticising the entertainment commission, saying they had gone too far breaking the norms of Arabic and Muslim society. He did not criticise MBS, he criticised Turki Al Sheikh, the head of the entertainment commission, so he was arrested and jailed. The tribe made no moves in response besides a few anonymous accounts on Twitter criticising what was going on;  Sheikh Faisal bin Humaid was released a few days ago and now it looks like things have settled down.

Many Saudis would agree the commission has gone too far: they regard the current social changes as artificial carnivals laid on by Turki Al Sheikh which have only been allowed to come about because of the suppression of the religious police. This has given people who did not previously have the opportunity a chance to join in with this kind of new entertainment which gives the impression of social change, but in fact these people existed before. If you took a fair poll I would say not less than 85% of the people are against what’s happening now and if MBS were to go now things would go straight back to how they were before.

MBS’s predecessors used to deal with the tribes and Sheikhs according to Machiavellian principles. From King Abdulaziz to King Abdullah the royal family were expert at keeping the balance between religious figures, tribal leaders and businessmen. But MBS respects no such thing. While some tribesmen, like his uncle Fahd bin Falah bin Hithlain, head of the camel commission, are treated almost like royal family members, he will spit in the face of another tribal head. This risky behaviour has destroyed the old system and shows a lack of balance which is why people expect that someday, somehow it will lead to his collapse.

Meanwhile on the other side of the Red Sea Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed and President el-Sisi have been taking steps to prevent just such an eventuality. On January 15 Sisi officially inaugurated the new “Berenice” air and naval base, one of three new bases the Egyptians are building on the Red Sea and Mediterranean coast. Berenice was officially opened already in January 2013 but the Egyptian armed forces have just spent a year and a half expanding it. When it was opened there were leaks suggesting Berenice’s role was to back up MBS in the event his power struggle with MBN (Mohammed bin Nayef, the then minister of the interior) became militarised. Now MBS has come to power the role of the base has developed: protect MBS and in the event his regime collapses, be the launchpad for the Egyptian army to invade and take control of the Holy sites in Mecca and Medina in a plan pre-cooked with Israel and the UAE.

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