This image shows a design for the Saudi Arabian city of Neom alongside an image of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the project’s mastermind.

Saudi Arabia needs foreign businesses to help it realize its Neom megacity project.But it’s facing a backlash over its human rights record. The BBC reported that Saudi officials were given a license to use lethal force to clear land. 

The images of the planned Saudi desert megacity of Neom depict a futuristic utopia.

It is billed as a paradise for foreign investors as well as the people who will live there.

But underneath the image is a far darker reality, say campaigners, which could threaten the foreign cash and expertise Saudi Arabia needs to realize its ambitions.

Last week, some of the darkness burst to the fore.

Malcolm Aw, the founder of a UK solar desalination company, told Business Insider he withdrew from a contract with Neom over concerns about the brutal treatment feared to have been meted out by Saudi officials to local people.

Though his decision took place in 2022, it was given new urgency by a whistleblower giving more detail on how Saudi officials may have acted.

The BBC, citing ex-Saudi intelligence officer Col Rabih Alenezi, said Saudi forces had clearance to kill people to clear land to build the city.

The UN human-rights agency last year found that a man was indeed killed after resisting an order to vacate his home. Three others have been sentenced to death under broad anti-terror laws.

“I think for investors looking at it, there are still just too many unknown variables,” Torbjorn Soltvedt, principal analyst at risk consultancy Maplecroft, recently told The Telegraph, and said foreign investors were not buying into Saudi Arabia’s plans.

Added to this are concerns the Saudis could use Chinese face recognition surveillance tech to monitor Neom and its residents.

The controversy is looming over a visit to Saudi Arabia this week by a UK trade delegation hoping to forge new ties, and British officials are doing their best to deflect questions about the BBC report.

Amnesty International said businesses ought to be wary of doing deals in Saudi Arabia and called for UK officials to push for an independent investigation into the Neom land clearances.

Until that can happen — which may be never — “business enterprises should consider not undertaking” Saudi projects, Dana Ahmed, Amnesty International’s Middle East researcher, told Politico.

Concerns over Saudi Arabia’s human rights record are nothing new. Back in 2018, Saudi ruler Mohammed bin Salman faced international uproar over the murder of dissident Jamal al-Khashoggi, which US intelligence agencies concluded that he ordered (the Saudis deny this).

Saudi Arabia has sought to improve its image under the Crown Prince’s rule, granting women more freedoms, opening up the kingdom to international tourists, and engaging in a so-called “sportswashing” campaign to improve its image through involvement in international competitions.

But Saudi Arabia’s brutal treatment of dissidents remains a sticking point, and periodically flare up into something that could get in the way of the dealmaking both the Saudis and their counterparts promote.

“Human rights violations reduce the appetite for foreign investment and association with the Kingdom,” analysts for The Atlantic Council wrote in 2020, and little has changed since.

Neom did not respond to a request for comment from Business Insider.

Read the original article on Business Insider

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