Demolition of Jeddah neighborhoods sparks rare widespread criticism in Saudi Arabia
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
We often report on Saudi Arabia's role in the world in global politics. Well, today we have a story about a local issue which reveals something about how the kingdom works. In the second largest city, Jeddah, old neighborhoods are being demolished to make way for luxury high rises and entertainment venues. It's part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's $20 billion plan to attract tourism and wealthy foreigners. Hundreds of thousands of people will be displaced. And even though dissent in Saudi Arabia can be risky, NPR's Fatma Tanis went to Jeddah and met some of those people.
FATMA TANIS, BYLINE: In a crumbling neighborhood in the south of Jeddah, an old woman is waiting for a ride under the sun. Her face is covered except for her eyes and nose. She declines to give her name out of fear of the government.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Arabic).
TANIS: "Life is good," she says. "Everything is good. But the demolition has brought us pain."
All around, there are signs this neighborhood will be gone. Others nearby have already been entirely razed, and many more like this one are next. Rows of houses and shops are marked with a word in red spray paint, a flat Arabic for evacuate. It's how the government lets people know they need to leave and quickly. Most people only get a week's notice and, in some neighborhoods, just 24 hours. And a lot of those being displaced are working-class people from immigrant communities.
TANIS: Nearby is a crowded coffeehouse frequented by immigrants from Sudan inside. There are two large bubbling pots of Sudanese coffee in a corner. It's a strong brew mixed with lots of ginger. I meet Hasan, who only gave me his first name so he can speak freely. Speaking out against the government plan can get people in trouble here.
HASAN: (Through interpreter) This is the place for everyone to come after a long day of work. You'll find Sudanese coffee, Sudanese food nearby, a Sudanese tailor and even a Sudanese friend to talk to. Everything is cheap, and everyone is friendly.
TANIS: But this coffee shop is expected to be demolished. And Hasan has already had his home destroyed a few months ago. Soon, he's going to have to move again because the area where the demolitions are taking place is massive. Six neighborhoods have been affected. That's the equivalent of 13,000 soccer fields, according to satellite imagery calculations by Amnesty International. Hasan says his old neighborhood was one of the first to undergo demolition, and it was a big surprise.
HASAN: (Through interpreter) Twenty-four hours after me and my neighbors received the evacuation notice, our electricity and water services were cut off. Some families slept outside for days before they could figure out where to go next. It all happened suddenly.
TANIS: Jeddah is a major cultural and commercial city. It's also a gateway to the Muslim holy city of Mecca. It's by far the most diverse city in the kingdom and also more socially liberal. Many of its foreign national residents came to the country for pilgrimage in Mecca decades ago and have settled here. On the one hand, Hasan thinks this area desperately needed fixing. The streets are dirty and narrow, and basic government services are lacking. On the other hand, this has had a devastating effect on a marginalized community.
HASAN: (Through interpreter) This was our last chance to be a community together and to enjoy our culture. From now on, there will only be work and home, nowhere else for us to go.
TANIS: With the government moving ahead at dizzying speeds, soon this area will be filled with luxury high rises, hotels, parks, an opera house, aquarium and museums. This is part of what Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has named Vision 2030 - plan to open up the country and diversify its economy. The government hopes to draw tourism and wealthy expatriates. It puts the number of those displaced at 500,000. Some say it could be a million. That's about a third of the city's population. Dana Ahmed, researcher on Saudi Arabia for Amnesty International in Beirut, says it's all in line with the crown prince's top-down approach to reform at any cost to the people.
DANA AHMED: Saudi Arabia is trying to build a new image of itself on the backs of citizens and residents and their rights being violated.
TANIS: Ahmed says officials failed to give adequate notice to residents, even though they knew the plan months ahead. The scale and manner in which it's all happening has been so upsetting to residents that...
AHMED: It was the first time we see a general public uproar in Saudi Arabia about an issue like this that's en masse online.
TANIS: Jeddah officials did not grant NPR an interview for this story. But Ahmed says that after the public outcry, the government offered compensation for evictions but only for Saudi citizens. She says foreign nationals, like the Sudanese immigrants, make up nearly half of the people affected, but they will get nothing.
A few miles away from the Sudanese coffeehouse, 53-year-old Ibrahim is moving out of the home he's lived in for over a decade. Again, we're only using his first name so we can speak freely. Ibrahim just received a notice to evacuate, and he's got seven days before utilities are cut off. His teenage sons carry their belongings out of the house and load them onto a pickup truck. It's dusty and windy out, so we sit in the car to chat.
IBRAHIM: (Speaking Arabic).
TANIS: "Ten years," he says. "Ten years of life, friendships, neighbors, all gone now."
The short evacuation notice from the government has left people with very limited options. And apartments in Jeddah are now in short supply, which means rent prices are sky high.
IBRAHIM: (Through interpreter) No one can afford these prices, no one. Many of my friends and neighbors left the city completely and moved to smaller towns in the south and east.
TANIS: As a Saudi national, Ibrahim will receive compensation in the amount of one year's rent. So he'll move to a different neighborhood for now. But he knows he won't be able to afford it after the year ends. This whole ordeal has been difficult on his children, too, who've lost their community and their friends.
IBRAHIM: (Through interpreter) We are all suffering. My children even told me they don't want to live in Jeddah anymore, and we should move to our village in the south.
TANIS: But he says their village is in a mountainous area with limited access to schools, and he wants his kids to go to college. We'll just have to be patient, he says, and maybe God will make it easier.
Fatma Tanis, NPR News, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.