5 April 2017—Today, the United Nations Special Rapporteurs on poverty, cultural rights, and housing called on the Government of Saudi Arabia to immediately halt the planned demolition of the historic Mosawara neighborhood in the Eastern Province town of Awamiyah. The Rapporteurs warned that the demolition may result in the forced evictions of many of the neighborhood’s 2,000 to 3,000 residents and may exacerbate an existing housing crisis, leading to a further increase in housing and land prices. Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain strongly agrees with the UN experts and calls on the Saudi government to immediately halt and cancel all plans to carry through with the demolition.
The Mosawara neighborhood is an historic quarter in the town of Awamiyah with a rich history and significant cultural heritage. The neighborhood’s architecture is unique: it is a walled village with mosques, farms and farmers markets, Shia places of worship, and businesses. According to Karima Bennoune, the Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights, “the planned demolition would erase this unique regional heritage in an irreversible manner.” Despite its significance, the Saudi government is planning to redevelop the area into a commercial and service zone. Philip Alston, the Rapporteur on extreme poverty expressed concern that in the process of moving residents from the area, the government would “remove people from the areas where they live and work, resulting in loss of livelihood and difficulty in securing housing.” In this way, the redevelopment may worsen an existing housing crisis that is exacerbated by increasing housing and land prices.
The government is planning to move ahead with the redevelopment plan despite housing concerns and the concerns of the neighborhood’s residents. The experts noted that, “the demolition has been announced without any meaningful consultation with the residents, without having considered less damaging alternatives, or adequate[ly] informing them about the demolition plans.” The government has also pressured the residents to leave their houses and businesses, including by cutting the power to the neighborhood and refusing to allow charities to help elderly and sick residents.
“The Saudi government’s actions towards Mosawara and its residents are demonstrative of its high-minded approach to development. Though the plan for the neighborhood will surely harm hundreds of Saudis, the government seems not to care for their well-being,” states Husain Abdulla, Executive Director of Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain. “Authorities must immediately halt the planned demolition and re-evaluate any development scheme, so as to place the needs and welfare of its citizens at the forefront of any future moves.”
Authorities’ demolition of Mosawara’s cultural heritage is emblematic of the kingdom’s view of cultural heritage sites. The Saudi government has embarked upon the concerted demolition of ancient landmarks, archaeological heritage, and cultural sites since before the kingdom was founded. Since 1925, the al-Saud family has overseen the destruction of tombs, mosques, and historical artifacts in Jeddah, Mecca, Medina, al-Khobar, and Awamiyah. It has destroyed sections of two cemeteries where family members and companions of the Prophet Muhammad were buried. The destruction encompasses secular as well as religious sites. During the government’s project to expand the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Saudi authorities destroyed 10,000 properties in Mecca, including 126 mosques and whole neighborhoods. As a result, the government has destroyed more than 90 percent of the country’s landmarks.
The planned demolition of the Mosawara neighborhood despite local concerns is illustrative of the Saudi government’s approach to historic and cultural sites. The destruction of the neighborhood will not only erase a unique historic area and a symbol of the region’s past, but has the potential to have significant detrimental effects on the residents of the neighborhood. The demolition may entail the forcible eviction of hundreds of residents and increase the level of poverty in the town. Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain therefore calls upon the Saudi government to immediately halt and cancel the planned destruction of the neighborhood and to re-evaluate its development standards so as to protect culturally and historic significant sites.