- In December, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman announced a $20 billion development project in the city of Jeddah.
- The plan involves the demolition of homes, mosques, and entire neighborhoods in Saudi Arabia’s second-largest city.
- Local resistance to the project has been unexpected and extraordinary.
In December 2021, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) announced his plans for “Jeddah Central,” a $20 billion development project in Saudi Arabia’s second largest city.
While it’s not surprising that this project, the latest component of MBS’s Vision 2030 economic blueprint, came at the expense of families living in these Jeddah neighborhoods, the local resistance to this project has been unexpected and extraordinary.
The demolition of homes, mosques, and entire neighborhoods in Jeddah, a city populated by almost 4.5 million people, marks a new phase in the exploitation of middle and working-class Saudis who have been economically disenfranchised by MBS’s policies.
The most recent example is the regime’s unprecedented 15% tax hike and austerity measures. The Jeddah project and the instability it is causing is a near perfect example of MBS’s style of rule: recklessly implementing an ambitious project with total disregard to the human cost.
Quickly following the announcement, locals decried MBS’s plans on Twitter, using the hashtag #HadadJeddah (Jeddah Demolition) to object to the destruction of their neighborhoods and their displacement.
In a country where a single tweet can result in the state disappearing you for years, the hashtag trended Twitter for days. And in an even rarer display of resistance, the neighborhoods of central Jeddah witnessed public displays of graffiti rejecting the government narrative and calling for justice.
In recent weeks, I spoke with Saudis in these affected neighborhoods, and in some cases they were given only a 24-hour eviction notice to abandon their homes and businesses.
All of them said they were never consulted, nor given assurances of fair compensation or alternative housing. In some cases, Saudi authorities turned off the electricity without warning to speed along forced evictions.
Saudi authorities used the same tactics against places of worship. The managers of the Ibn Mahfoodh mosque – which also serves as a charity — were told that Friday, January 21, 2022 would be their last Friday prayer. The managers were not provided with any guidance as to how to ensure the poor and disadvantaged beneficiaries of the endowment would receive adequate housing.
The forced displacement of whole communities violates international law, which requires the Saudi government to exhaust proper alternatives, follow due process, and offer prompt, adequate, and effective compensation. According to more than three local families I spoke to, the Saudi government failed to comply with all of these requirements.
It also violates the Saudi Law of Expropriation of Real Estate that was enacted in 2003, which requires that the government demonstrate there was no alternative to expropriating these lands, and that the government first exhausted the possibility of using state land to complete these projects before considering private property.
The law also requires Saudi officials complete a specific assessment of the property to award compensation 60 days after the government approves the project. Saudi citizens must receive 60 days notice and if expropriation occurs, government compensation must be fair. Here, the government failed again to meet any of these legal requirements.
The demolition of neighborhoods in Jeddah evokes MBS’s NEOM megacity project, which displaced tribes and, according to one lawyer I spoke with, resulted in the arrest of over 70 Saudis. That displacement also led to the killing of Abdulrahim al-Huwaiti on April 13, 2021, because he refused to abandon his family home.
But the Jeddah demolitions are different in scale and place. Jeddah is a very large city, and the affected population is almost 1.5 million according to a map of the project published by the government.
A wide range of areas are either being demolished or will be demolished soon. And the criteria are arbitrary, as some 63 neighborhoods are considered “slums,” while other similar neighborhoods are termed “old local areas.”
In May 2021, MBS told the Wall Street Journal that he wanted to “build his pyramids” in the Arabian Peninsula. Now, it seems that MBS wants to go one step further and replicate the Pharaonic model itself, building his pyramids at the expense of the Saudi people, and expending any and all state resources to complete this shrine to himself.
The resistance in Jeddah shows that the Saudi people are unwilling to remain silent even given the very real dangers they face. Whether this resistance will lead to civil unrest and how foreign governments would react to such an outcome is unknown.
Recent examples are not inspiring, as Western countries continue to choose profits over lives by selling MBS hundreds of millions in weapons. In turn, MBS continues to evade accountability for his reckless actions and criminal acts, largely through manipulating global oil prices and promising billions in Saudi cash and investment to world leaders
Against great odds, the ancient Egyptians eventually revolted against the pharaohs and the many pyramids scattered by the Nile and throughout the desert show that no tyrant rules forever. The Saudi people, however, should not have to wait so long to live without fear from their aspiring pharaoh.
Abdullah Alaoudh is director of research for the Gulf Region at Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN) and general secretary of National Assembly Party, Saudi Arabia’s first openly declared political party.