This is the second time in a decade that Abdullah and his family have had to pack everything they could and hurriedly move to a new house because their neighbourhood would soon turn to dust.
The first time that this happened, Abdullah and his family – his wife, and their two children, aged five and two – were in Yemen and the conflict was just starting to escalate. They lived in a town near Attan Faj, one of the first regions to see intensive airstrikes. The couple has extended family in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, and so they came on an Umrah (pilgrimage) visa in 2015 and never went back. Their entire town has since been destroyed.
“There are a lot of people from Yemen in Saudi Arabia. I knew people here [in Jeddah] and things back home seemed really uncertain, and I didn’t want to put my family in any danger. I was earning well back home, but I could not risk putting my children through a war, so I decided to start from scratch all over again in a new country.” Abdullah found work, and even though lately it has been especially difficult to be a Yemeni, especially an undocumented one, in Saudi Arabia, he says that he has been able to provide a comfortable life for his family in Jeddah.
Jeddah, and the wider Western Province where Mecca is located, is known for its diversity and is home to the Kingdom’s largest undocumented population. Just like Abdullah’s family, many made their way into the Kingdom for pilgrimage and then chose to stay back.
Abdullah and his family had been living in a two-bedroom flat in a neighbourhood that was home to primarily undocumented residents, including their own extended family. But a few weeks ago they were evicted as part of a city-wide ‘redevelopment project’ that aims to provide a “major facelift with the dismantling and [development] of the slums and undeveloped neighbourhoods”.
Abdullah, however, insists that his neighbourhood was not a slum.
“There were many other Yemenis, some extended family, and also families from many other places living in the same neighbourhood as ours. It is old, yes, and some areas deeper in the neighbourhood are slum-like, but where I lived was very safe,” he says. Abdullah works for a mechanic workshop and his wife provides tuition and also teaches Arabic to a few international students virtually.
“I have two daughters, how could I make them live somewhere that wasn’t the best I could give to them?” Both his daughters are enrolled in a small private school that operates from a nearby apartment. The landlord received a notice giving him two weeks to empty his building, after which the neighbourhood would be entirely demolished.
“Of course, it is nothing like fleeing a civil war, I don’t want you to think I said that,” says Abdullah in a conversation with Migrant-Rights.Org. “But we had to suddenly leave everything behind to watch our homes get demolished once before, and it has happened again. Life is hard sometimes.” Being undocumented in Saudi Arabia has become a lot more difficult in recent years with mass arrests and deportation campaigns that target tens of thousands of people now taking place every few months, it has been especially challenging for Yemenis.
Until a few years ago, Yemeni migrants – documented or otherwise – were one of the few ethnic groups that received relatively preferential treatment compared to the overall non-Saudi population. More than two million Yemenis live in Saudi Arabia, but the ongoing conflict has pushed a significant shift in their treatment across the Kingdom.
Last year, international and Yemeni news publications had also reported on a leaked classified document in which the local government requested business owners in the southern parts of Saudi Arabia to systematically dispense of Yemeni workers.
Deportation campaigns are now especially focused on Yemenis, so finding a new place to stay will be a challenge to Abdullah and his family, as most landlords will not rent out to them.
“Rents have also suddenly become very high. Building owners will ask for any amount of money they can think of now,” he says. As news of upcoming mass evictions and demolitions spreads, prices have started spiking in migrant neighbourhoods that are safe for now. Abdullah and his family are currently staying with his wife’s family friends as they continue house-hunting.
“First there were all the deportations, but you were at least a little safe inside your house. But now our homes are being taken away. This country is only for Saudis now,” he says. “Jeddah used to be for everyone, but it no longer is. The new Jeddah is only for Saudis and wealthy Western people. Old Jeddah was for everyone.”
The New Jeddah will be top tourism destination in the Gulf
The demolitions that are currently ongoing are, in fact, part of a master plan to create a ‘new’ Jeddah, in line with Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030. In December 2021, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud launched the master plan and main features of the Jeddah Central Project.
According to an official press release, the SR75 billion project will develop 5.7 million square metres of land for the “creation of a world-class destination overlooking the Red Sea in the heart of Jeddah”. The project will include high-end beach resorts, restaurants, shopping malls, museums, stadiums, and even an Opera House in an effort to establish the city amongst the top tourism spots in the Gulf. Hotels offering more than 2,700 rooms and modern residential areas encompassing 17,000 residential units will also be built. However, according to conservative official figures, at least half a million people — only five percent of whom are Saudi citizens — reside in the neighbourhoods marked for demolition to make room for this project.
Though the eviction notices have come entirely out of the left field for residents, Jeddah’s urban developing bodies have been in conversations to ‘solve Jeddah’s slums problems’ for some time now, says Mariam, a recent graduate who works for an architecture firm involved in city-planning projects. Mariam explains that they started carrying out studies exploring a scheme to develop these neighbourhoods nearly two years ago.
In 2019, while addressing the Makkah Economic Forum, Jeddah Mayor Saleh Al-Turki had also stressed that his main focus is to improve the infrastructure in slum areas.
“The mayoralty’s focus is to extend excellent services as quickly as possible with developing neighbourhoods where there are no services that enable it to achieve the goals of Vision 2030. The mayoralty has set indicators and targets to develop the pillars of improving the quality of life.” Al-Turki more recently confirmed that 64 neighbourhoods spread over 215 million square metres considered “slums” will be razed for redevelopment. The mayor also claimed that the majority of these buildings and homes are illegal settlements on government-owned land.
The building Abdullah evacuated was on an illegal settlement.
“These buildings are very old,” he points out. “I think it was built at a time when rules were more relaxed. The owner and his family live on two floors, and they had rented the others to us. I don’t know if any other building nearby has the proper licences but the owners weren’t crooks.”
“First there were all the deportations but you were at least a little safe inside your house but now our homes are being taken away. This country is only for Saudis now.”
Dozens of neighbourhoods to be demolished
MR has identified a document outlining the timeline and list of neighbourhoods that will be demolished in the coming months. The notice period given to residents is quite short, and sometimes after demolition work begins. While several of the neighbourhoods on the list are, in fact, extremely old neighbourhoods where undocumented residents live, there are many on the list that are much newer and home to documented residents. Some neighbourhoods in Aziziyah, Bani Malik, and Asharafiya, for example, are popular among South Asian families and home to both old and very new buildings.
Demolitions in Asharafiya were slated to begin on 19 February but have not yet started. Residents of the neighbourhood feel that this could be a hiccup in Saudi bureaucracy and demolitions will reach their neighbourhood in time and so, mass evictions continue to take place.
“It is just surreal,” says Amna Amir, a 17-year-old Pakistani student looking at the pictures of the neighbourhood that were being shared on social media. Amir had lived in Asharafiya his entire life until last summer, when his father lost his job and the family moved back to Pakistan.
“I really miss Jeddah and my life there and even though it sounds unrealistic, I always thought I would one day go back and see it all again, even if it was just for a visit,” she says. “I just felt so sad looking at these pictures, like my childhood and a whole world that existed has quietly been removed forever.”
Aziziyah, also known as Little Pakistan, has been seeing a slow exodus take place for the past few years as Saudisation and heavy expatriate taxes forced many residents to move back to their countries. The neighbourhood, which would be considered the central hub of South Asian communities of Jeddah, is also on the list and although it is unclear just how much of the residential area will be demolished, those who have heard about potential upcoming evictions anticipate a spike in rents.
“It is a simple matter of supply and demand, isn’t it. So many people are suddenly looking for a new place and there is only a shrinking supply currently available,” says Sadiq, a 30-something Kashmiri working in finance who was recently evicted from his place near Asharfiya. Sadiq was already preparing for an upcoming move – he is immigrating to Germany this summer – but had not planned for a sudden spike in his rent.
“I lived very close to work and the place I have now found that is in the same range is an additional 30 kilometres away,” he says. “It is just so inconvenient and just happened suddenly.”
Sadiq had found the red marking announcing evictions outside his building near the end of January, and his landlord told him he had a month to move out. “I started looking for a new place right away, so I was lucky I could move out faster because electricity and water supply was cut off just two weeks after the eviction notice,” he says.
He was able to move into his new apartment earlier than planned and is now waiting for his landlord to pay back the remaining of February’s rent. “He promised he will pay back, let’s see. I don’t think it is going to be too bad for him, he is getting reimbursement [compensation] from the government,” says Sadiq. “He is Saudi, he will be fine.”
Compensations are promised to Saudi citizens
Local media provided regular updates on the project’s benefits to Saudi citizens – forecasting an added value of SR47 billion to the economy by 2030 – and the government’s efforts to compensate Saudis whose property will be demolished.
The ‘Committee for the Undeveloped Neighbourhoods in Jeddah’ announced a package of services for Saudi citizens whose homes are being demolished. Those who are entitled to social security and who possess legal title deeds to the property are provided with rented housing units until the compensation is paid. They can file for benefits through an online portal. Even those without legal title deeds, such as Abdullah’s landlord, will receive compensation.
According to the committee, cases are currently being studied “…and they [property owners with title deeds] will be allotted housing in cooperation with charity societies.” But, the majority of those who are currently being impacted by the project are non-Saudis. To date, twelve neighbourhoods housing half a million mostly non-Saudi residents have already been razed.
The mayor has also stated that “the removal of neighbourhoods [from the list] with predominantly Saudi residents has been postponed until studying the possibility of organising these districts”.
The committee has also clarified that services are also being provided to non-Saudi residents that are being evicted. However, unlike temporary housing and financial compensation that citizens will receive, support to non-Saudis is limited to help moving furniture or “the provision of food baskets”.
When Abdullah was asked if he had received the “food baskets” that the Committee had promised, he just laughed. “No, I did not get any food baskets as I was evicted out of my house,” he says.
Resisting evictions can be very risky, even for Saudis
In 2020, Abdul-Rahim al-Howeiti, a Saudi tribal activist, was shot dead by security forces for protesting similar evictions. Before his death, Al-Howeiti had published videos denouncing the evictions, stating that the Howeitat tribe have lived on the land for hundreds of years.
The evictions were taking place for the development of NEOM, the futuristic megacity that is being built in the North-West region by the Red Sea coast. Saudi authorities reported that Al-Howeiti had opened fire on security forces and had lost his life in the gunfight that followed.
All names have been changed to protect sources