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Entertainment Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman has dreams for a $700 billion megacity. This woman wants to stop him

23:16  24 october  2020
23:16  24 october  2020 Source:   abc.net.au

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a person posing in front of a body of water: Saudi activist Alya Alhwaiti says she regularly receives death threats after fleeing the kingdom to live in London. (ABC News: Tim Stevens) © Provided by ABC NEWS Saudi activist Alya Alhwaiti says she regularly receives death threats after fleeing the kingdom to live in London. (ABC News: Tim Stevens)

Alya Alhwaiti was Saudi Arabia's first female professional equestrian. For seven years she competed at a professional level.

But the determination she showed on horseback has seen her become an enemy to some powerful people in her beloved nation.

Now she's living in London and risking her life to speak out against Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and the Saudi Government.

After the brutal 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, standing up against the Saudi Government is not for the faint-hearted.

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"I wonder sometimes if there is someone behind my back, but I can't be scared because I'd be scared to death," Alya told the ABC on a street in central London.

It's not far from the Saudi embassy in Mayfair, where she once worked before fleeing and becoming a thorn in the kingdom's side.

She says she receives almost daily death threats and intimidating messages, which she believes are from individuals aligned with the Saudi Government.

They're in Arabic, but she shared some of them to the ABC.

"One day we will come and we will cut you up piece by piece," reads one.

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"We are going to throw acid in your face," says another and "you are a non-Muslim and you should be killed".

Alya recounts how some threats urge her not to trust her friends as they could instead be the enemy.

She knows they're designed not only to scare her, but to make her paranoid.

She refuses to succumb.

"I knew when I chose this path there would be sacrifices," she said.

After sustained intimidation for her strong views on human rights and social media posts, Alya left the embassy and cut her ties to Saudi Arabia in 2019.

She is now advocating on behalf of her traditional Saudi tribe, the Al-Huwaitat people, who have lived along the Red Sea coastline for hundreds of years.

The tribe standing in the way of a Prince's $700b dream

The Saudi Crown Prince wants to create the world's first high-tech megacity, known as Neom.

As Mohammad bin Salman tries to build an economy less dependent on depleting supplies of oil, Neom is a $700 billion project designed to attract mass foreign investment and tourism.

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But the farms and homes of the Al-Huwaitat tribe are in the way.

Advertising for the city says it will have flying drone taxis, a Jurassic Park-like island, they'll be an artificial moon, glow in the dark beaches and it will have more Michelin star restaurants per capita than in any other city in the world.

And the propaganda says it's being built on "virgin" land.

But the Al-Huwaitat people dispute that and say they have lived in the area for centuries.

Alya says her tribespeople are being threatened, harassed and forcibly removed from their homes.

She began to speak out after the alleged murder of Abdul Rahim al-Huwati, a village leader who refused to move and spoke out against the project.

"This is my duty for the people. They're asking for help and that is why I became involved and I'll try to do my best to find the justice for the people of Neom," she said.

Saudi Arabia has told the press that security forces shot Abdul Rahim al-Huwati in retaliation after they were fired upon first.

But Alya insisted he would not have been armed, and since then at least 15 residents have allegedly disappeared and cannot be located.

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Households in the 13 villages along the Red Sea where Neom will be built were initially promised they would benefit greatly from the development, the brain-child of the Crown Prince himself.

Instead, it is alleged they have been offered just $4,000 to leave, and those who refuse have found electricity cut and fires lit.

What next for Neom?

London-based lawyer Rodney Dixon QC has taken up the case and submitted it to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva.

He wants an urgent investigation into the displacement of the Al-Huwaitat people.

"These violations affect hundreds of people, potentially thousands," Mr Dixon told the ABC.

"There is so much happening below the radar that we are not able to find out, but by bringing this application we want to make sure that it is exposed."

The submission to the UN notes the Al-Huwaitat tribe are a large and historically nomadic Bedouin tribe whose traditional homelands stretch across a portion of the Middle East, including Palestine, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

"The promotional video for the Neom Project wholly erroneously [asserts] that the area on which the megacity is to be built is virgin land," the document states.

"Remarkably, and chillingly, not a single reference to the presence of thousands of members of the Al-Huwaitat tribe is made within any of the promotional material."

Neom remains in the early stages of development. But while the Crown Prince had wanted the first residents to begin moving in in 2025, COVID-19 has delayed construction.

It is thought the murder of Jamal Khashoggi also damaged the international interest in the project.

But despite the hurdles, construction has not stopped.

Alya told the ABC she won't stop her campaign against the forced evictions of her people, regardless of the pressure to do so.

"People have placed their lives in my hands and they believe in me to deliver their voice," she said.

"I will never give up until the world listens."

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