A convoy of Saudi police SUVs, sirens blaring, drove through the desert of Tabuk governorate on Wednesday with the dramatic task of delivering a body.
Inside a heavily secured van was the body of Abdulraheem al-Huwaiti, the first known casualty of the planned futuristic city of Neom.
On April 12, Huwaiti had published a string of eight videos protesting the “forced displacement” of his tribe from the remote Red Sea region.
In one video, showing the deed to his house, he vowed he would not accept any compensation and refused to leave. In another video, he filmed government officials from a rooftop as they surveyed neighboring properties.
“They are making lists, those who cooperate with the authorities and those who are uncooperative. I’m on the list of those who are not cooperative.” Gesturing to his neighbor’s house, he said: “Look, tomorrow they could label him a terrorist if he isn’t with them.”
Huwaiti spoke in a raised voice, with no attempt to conceal himself or what he was saying, and nearly shouting the name of the security official overseeing the government surveyors.
“Even in coronavirus they didn’t stop working! This is what’s happening to us, just because we refused to leave our houses.”
In another 12 minute video, Huwaiti was indoors and appeared weary. “The way the government is carrying this out, I am sorry to say, is terrorism. State terrorism,” he said. “Everyone is against leaving,” he insisted.
Twenty-four hours later, his resistance was brought to an abrupt end.
“A wanted individual was killed in shootout with the security forces,” the Saudi Press Agency reported, saying Huwaiti refused to surrender and was found with a cache of weapons.
In a purported video of the raid from across the street, a loud, continuous barrage of gunfire is heard and smoke is seen rising from a house, either from the building materials or the bullets.
No voices of dissent have been heard since.
On Wednesday, in the desert of Tabuk, dozens of Huwaiti tribesmen gathered silently to receive their slain kin’s body from the state security forces.
“God is great!” they cried out as the van opened to release his corpse, shrouded in white. “One man does not represent the tribe,” their tribal leader, Sheikh Alayan al-Huwaiti, told state media. “We are with the authorities.”
That was not the case, however, prior to the killing of Huwaiti.
In a video from earlier this year, Huwaiti and other tribesmen from the area were seen meeting with a government official. He asked those who can write to put their demands on paper, to which one man is heard shouting: “We can all write!”
Another tells the representative to inform the crown prince they do not want compensation and will not leave.
“There are many people like him against what they see as forced displacement,” said Nabeel Nowairah, an independent Gulf states analyst who has been following the Huwaiti saga.
“They were offered financial compensation, but those kind of tribes really value their area and don’t want to be displaced. Just like this guy Abdulraheem is firm, he will not leave his place no matter how much they give him.”
The Huwaiti tribe counts about 40,000 people in Saudi Arabia, Nowaireh estimates, and its membership stretches to neighboring Jordan and across the Red Sea to Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.
Another tribe member, Abu Mousa al-Huwaiti, posted a video on April 14 mourning Abdulraheem and speaking of arrests of other uncooperative residents that had taken place. It is unclear if Abu Mousa was also killed, or possibly escaped to Jordan, Nowairah told Asia Times.
The era of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, has been marked by a crushing of dissent.
While the Saudi royal family ruled for generations by consensus, MBS has steadily consolidated power for himself, imprisoning prominent businessmen, princes and women’s rights advocates early on in his reign.
The critical Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018.
The monologues of Abdulraheem al-Huwaiti are stunning because they mark a vocal challenge from within Saudi territory, and a willingness to confront the state’s wrath.
Days of old
Saudi Arabia is now facing twin tremors. One is the collapse of oil demand and prices worldwide, and the other is the Covid-19 pandemic, which has called regular global travel into question.
The kingdom has said that the Hajj, the annual and lucrative pilgrimage to Mecca, could be canceled this year due to the virus. The grounding of international airlines similarly does not bode well for the tourism sector or investment in Neom.
Neom was pegged to be the jewel in the crown of the crown prince’s Vision 2030. The local tribespeople would be relocated, allowing Bin Salman to erect his US$500 billion fantasy world without societal constraints.
It was intended to replace Dubai as the Hong Kong of the Middle East, with the target of one million residents by 2030.
“They only want foreigners,” Huwaiti lamented in one of his videos. “Muslims might be unwelcome.”
Tabuk is a conservative, Bedouin area, notes analyst Nowairah.
A resort city geared for expatriates will mean women and men mixing freely, and maybe alcohol permitted, as in Dubai.
“When you see videos about Neom, it’s kind of like another world. They want to change that part of Saudi Arabia completely,” he explains.
Nowairah points to a Hadith, or a saying of the Prophet Mohammed: “If you’re killed defending your house, you’re a martyr.”
That may have strengthened Huwaiti’s resolve, but 10 days after his killing, silence rules.
In one of his last videos, Abdulraheem – whose tribe claims lineage from the Prophet – makes a final protest in eloquent poetry.
He longs for the days of old, when he believes he would have found support from his tribe.
“If our forefathers were here, we’d spill our blood for them. And if the world turned upside down, they would stand before us and protect us.”
I leave this to God, he says, his gaze not facing the camera anymore, but looking up at the sky.