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Neom shows that Saudi Arabia doesn’t want to democratise

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Credit: Getty

May 11, 2024 - 5:00pm

On Thursday, the BBC reported a shocking but not especially surprising detail from Neom, Saudi Arabia’s vast project to build high-tech settlements in the desert. According to a Saudi intelligence officer who fled to Britain last year, security forces were ordered to use lethal force against members of the Huwaitat tribe who refused to surrender their land.

The forced eviction of the Huwaitat, whose villages have been flattened to make space for the new cities and resorts, came to the world’s attention after the killing of Abdul Rahim al-Huwaiti in 2020. Human rights groups say that dozens who refused to leave are still being detained, with some sentenced to execution.

The new revelations are unlikely to bring serious repercussions for the regime of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. For a brief period after coming to office in 2021, Joe Biden tried to hold the Saudi leadership accountable for its murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Yet these efforts ended in humiliating failure the following year, as Biden was forced to plead with MBS to increase oil production (he did the opposite). The Crown Prince’s position is even stronger now when one considers Israel’s ongoing war in Gaza, since Saudi cooperation will be crucial for maintaining political stability in the Middle East.

But could ongoing reports of Saudi brutality tarnish Neom in the eyes of investors? Or, for that matter, in the eyes of the many Western design, engineering and construction companies which continue to work on the project? These include high-profile architecture studios such as Morphosis, Bjarke Ingels Group, and Zaha Hadid Architects, precious few of whom have been willing to withdraw so far.

To a large extent, Neom has been able to overwhelm moral scrutiny thanks to its own powerful narratives of progress. These narratives — or perhaps we should say images, given their reliance on spectacular CGI renderings — combine the ecological and the technological. Neom promises to reinvent the city from scratch, churning out blueprints for state-of-the-art, sustainable and luxurious living. They include an “upside-down skyscraper” inside a mountain, a 450-metre “bridge hotel” spanning a lagoon, and Oxagon, a city floating on water. Then of course there is The Line, a megacity project to house nine million people in something resembling the imagination of a lazy sci-fi screenwriter.

As one can glean from the gushing interviews in last year’s Discovery Channel film, many of Neom’s creative contractors believe they are designing the future of humanity. But those making more cynical calculations about reputational damage are unlikely to withdraw either. Qatar showed that it was possible to ride out criticism and still score a publicity success, as it did with the 2022 World Cup.

More depressing still, global audiences are becoming increasingly accustomed to seeing the exercise of power in its most direct and brutal forms. After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and with the hellacious scenes emerging from Gaza, MBS’s despotic methods no longer appear as shocking as they did just a few years ago.

With Neom, Saudi Arabia is making an ideological claim on the future. It is trying to demonstrate that autocracy, not democracy and human rights, will be the driver of material progress in decades to come. A world that is becoming more familiar with the politics of lethal force — and one where strategic considerations trump more idealistic motives — will only encourage it in those ambitions.


Wessie du Toit writes about culture, design and ideas. His Substack is The Pathos of Things.

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Peter D
Peter D
7 days ago

Sadly, democracy is dead. We live in a technocracy which is closer to autocracy. Sure, we are free to say what we want, as long as it is the correct things. Individual opinions are only valid if they are the correct ones. Of course, the technocrats are free to sprout whatever garbage they want, flout whatever laws we may have “for the good of ………”
The sad truth is that no matter who we vote for, it makes no difference. Our democracy is just wool pulled over our eyes to hide our cleverly constructed gilded cage. Our lifestyles are the equivalent of junk food, over fed and under nourished.

T Bone
T Bone
7 days ago
Reply to  Peter D

I’m not so sure “Democracy” is any worse off than it’s ever been. It just depends on how you define the term. If you define it as universal suffrage for “informed” adult citizens than it’s failing. But if you quantify it’s success by total vote tallies or population turnout than it’s doing very well. The Soviet Union thought of itself as a “People’s Democracy” and had mass turnout. Of course, there might only be one candidate or the candidates in question were Party apparatchiks but people were technically voting.

Not criticizing your post. Just playing contrarian because nobody ever talks about what the term means. Curious how you would define “Democracy” or the ideal Democracy?

RM Parker
RM Parker
6 days ago
Reply to  T Bone

Good post – shame about the downvoters. They should’ve engaged, really.
It’s probably a discussion too big for a BTL thread, but some useful ideas might have come forth.
I suppose your question is related to the perennial philosophical debate about what constitutes “the good life”. Probably never likely to be settled – but the fact of just having that debate is a human achievement in itself.

Martin M
Martin M
5 days ago
Reply to  Peter D

Being free to say what we want is a big thing. I am happy about the fact that I can criticize the government of the country in which I am resident (as well as the government of the country of my birth) with impunity. If I resided in any number of other countries, I would not have that option.

Peter D
Peter D
5 days ago
Reply to  Martin M

It is all we have left, for the moment but even this is being eroded.

Gordon Arta
Gordon Arta
5 days ago
Reply to  Peter D

No, democracy isn’t dead, but the Western version is past its sell-by date; our institutions are tired and sclerotic, politicians, civil services, and media 2nd rate, and we have failed to identify a purposeful future around which people will rally and which might form the backbone of intellectual, social, and moral resilience. Western nations’ sinews are being eroded by parasites and freeloaders, gnawed away by irrational ideologues, and the predators – China, Russia, Islam, – are circling to feed on the corpse.

El Uro
El Uro
7 days ago

Does anybody here want Saudi Arabia to be democratise?

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
6 days ago
Reply to  El Uro

I would love to see that happen.

Martin M
Martin M
5 days ago
Reply to  El Uro

Um, yes. That doesn’t mean that we think it will happen in the short term though.

Mike Doyle
Mike Doyle
7 days ago

For a good look at the Neom project I recommend this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ak4on5uTaTg

Chris Bradshaw
Chris Bradshaw
7 days ago
Reply to  Mike Doyle

Came to post that, it’s a fantastic explanation.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
7 days ago

I would rejoice if Saudia Arabia, and a host of other counties, embrace democracy. Sadly, that’s not the case. And I’m not sure it’s our responsibility to impose democracy on them, or lecture them morally. That has proven to be an utter failure in the past. We need to set a good example and encourage freedom, but there’s not much we can do.

Brian Kneebone
Brian Kneebone
7 days ago

Saudi Arabia is the best example of rent seeking on a massive scale. Everybody seemingly has a price and the Saudi regime has developed it to a tee. Corruption is as slick as the oil it is based on.
Western need, technology and greed have helped create monsters in the sands of Arabia.

Martin M
Martin M
5 days ago
Reply to  Brian Kneebone

I agree that it is awful, but they do have rather a lot of oil.

Jacob Mason
Jacob Mason
6 days ago

The notion that democracy is the inevitable way forward has always been a mirage.

The positive forward march of human progress is not real. Democracy has been the best form of government for various peoples at various times and will continue to be so.

It seems to me well-established at this point that many or most modern middle-eastern states function much better under autocratic rule of some sort. Egypt is a great example, where in 2012 the populace had a taste of representative government after the overthrow of Mubarak, and two years later overwhelmingly returned to effectively rule by a military dictator when given that opportunity again.

J Boyd
J Boyd
6 days ago

FIFA World Cup(tm) 2038 venue with fawning from Neville, Becks and Lineker?

Jim M
Jim M
5 days ago

Maybe the world is done with idealism?

Martin M
Martin M
5 days ago

The author seems to be suggesting that Saudi Arabia is an illiberal autocracy. Could that be true? What will he tell us next? That MBS is a murderous tyrant?

D. Gooch
D. Gooch
5 days ago

This isn’t an article about “democracy,” a word that doesn’t even appear in the article until the last paragraph. It’s an article about Saudi Arabia’s “ethnic cleansing” of a group of Bedouin through lethal force — something the chattering classes only seem to care about when it’s an accusation they feel they can throw at the State of Israel.