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Neom: International companies ignore questions over human rights risks

Just three out of a dozen firms contracted by Saudi Arabia respond to rights group, as tribespeople are forcibly displaced and sentenced to years in prison for speaking out
Neom is known for its outlandish and lavish plans (promotional material)

International companies working on Saudi Arabia's $500bn Neom megacity, which has forcibly displaced members of the Howeitat tribe, have ignored requests to explain how they assessed the risks to human rights posed by their participation.

Out of a dozen firms, only three responded this month when UK-based NGO, the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre, asked them to set out what due diligence they undertook before signing on.

Keller Group Plc, McKinsey & Company and Air Products sent one-page statements, outlining codes of conduct, positions on human rights violations, and commitments to ethical business.

'The few that have responded have provided no more than generic assurances, with no engagement with the issues at hand'

- James Lynch, FairSquare

Rights monitors following the project said that the silence from most companies was disappointing, adding that the three firms that did respond offered replies that were too vague to offer reassurance that human rights concerns were being taken seriously.

James Lynch, director of UK-based rights group FairSquare, said: “The few that have responded have provided no more than generic assurances, with no engagement with the issues at hand, specifically the devastating abuses against former residents of the land.”

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The request to the companies coincided with the release of a report from advocacy group Alqst highlighting human rights violations against members of the Howeitat tribe who have been forcibly evicted from their homes in northwestern Saudi Arabia to make way for Neom.

At least 47 tribe members have been arrested or detained for resisting and speaking out against their evictions, according to the report, which is based on first-hand testimonies from victims and witnesses. 

Among those, five have been sentenced to death, and 15 sentenced to between 15 and 50 years' imprisonment. Meanwhile, Alqst says thousands of other tribespeople have been displaced without adequate compensation or alternative housing. 

The 12 companies asked to set out their due diligence processes were also given Alqst’s 21-page report.

'Copy pasting'

First unveiled in 2017, Neom is the flagship project of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's Vision 2030 strategy to diversify the kingdom's economy and reduce dependence on oil revenues.

Plan after plan unveiled for Neom, including a 170km straight line city, an eight-sided city that floats on water and a mountain ski resort with a folded vertical village, have generated headlines - and lucrative contracts for companies.

Intended to be 33 times the size of New York City, the project will require 400,000 workers at the peak of its construction, Neom CEO Nadhmi al-Nasr said earlier this year.

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Keller Group, a British engineering contractor, reportedly signed an agreement last year that “paves the way for multiple contract awards” within Neom, including a first order worth £45m set to be completed this year. 

In its response to the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre, the company described its code of business conduct, which it said makes clear that “employees, customers, contractors or any person should not be harmed as a result of work we do or services we provide”.

Alqst’s executive director Julia Legner said she found the company’s response “brazen”. 

“I don’t know if the person who sent that response really read the report, but it’s very obvious that many people were severely impacted,” she said.

Overall, she said, it was not clear from the responses whether the companies had conducted human rights due diligence and, if they had, how.

“It feels like they are copy-pasting some general rules and regulations where they mention human rights and then send that part over to whomever asks,” she said.

Companies seek answers

But she said she was cautious to put all companies in the same box.

In the past few months, she said her organisation was contacted by two companies already working in Saudi Arabia that wanted to learn more about the human rights implications of Neom as they weighed signing on.

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Top executives of one of the companies sat down for a long meeting and “seemed to be aware and genuinely concerned” about the violations against the Howeitat, she said.

The second company decided to pull out of the project after learning more about the recent death sentences against members of the tribe.

“Ultimately," said Legner, "we would encourage more companies that are up for dialogue and want to engage with us and be more aware of the risks on the ground."

Lynch said he would expect investors in any of the companies who failed to respond to "urgently require sight of specific, detailed plans that show how these companies are addressing human rights risks and impacts around land acquisition, labour rights and the end-use of Neom".

"Companies that choose to bury their heads in the sand risk complicity in serious human rights violations," he said.

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