Star Danish architect involved in Saudi’s scandalous city

Despite murder, imprisonments and the forced displacement of indigenous people, Bjarke Ingels' BIG studio has helped conceive and design a key part of Saudi Arabia's controversial prestige project, Neom.
Despite murder, imprisonments and the forced displacement of indigenous people, Bjarke Ingels' BIG studio has helped conceive and design a key part of Saudi Arabia's controversial prestige project, Neom.
In cooperation with Frihedsbrevet
Chief editor: Adam Dyrvig Tatt | Responsible editor-in-chief: Jesper Nymark

From the Iqon skyscraper in Quito, Ecuador, to a triangular apartment building in New York and the CopenHill in Copenhagen.

The architecture of Danish star architect Bjarke Ingels boasts Danish innovation and talent, the world over.

Danwatch and Frihedsbrevet have evidence that the portfolio of Ingels and his architecture firm Bjarke Ingels Group’s (BIG) now also includes the controversial future city of Neom in Saudi Arabia.

The city of the future, often described as a dystopia, has been associated with murder and forced displacement even before the city opens it’s doors.

Neom is also a prestige project for Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is known for his brutal crackdown on dissidents.

BIG’s involvement in Neom has not been made public so far, but social media and reports from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs show that BIG has been paid by the Saudi regime for the concept design of the floating industrial city of Oxagon, which will be a part of Neom.

A report from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs states that BIG has “been responsible for the development of the master plans for the mega-projects NEOM and Qiddyah, which have a strong focus on sustainable development”.

BIG neither confirms nor denys whether it is involved in the city of the future, but a quote from Bjarke Ingels in the British newspaper The Guardian, may have hinted at it.

The Danish architect allegedly said that he is involved in a confidential project in Saudi Arabia, which he describes as a “human-made ecosystem that is as close to a utopia as you dare imagine”.

A phrase and sentiment that is often used when describing Neom.

The floating industrial city

Neom is the brainchild of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and part of the large-scale ‘Vision 2030’ plan to move away from oil.

It is often referred to as one city, but in reality it is an area the size of Belgium that will be home to several cities of the future, raised from the endless sand in the middle of the desert.

One of the cities is the octagonal industrial mecca of Oxagon.

As with everything else in Neom, the plans are ambitious: the city will be split down the middle by a canal for heavy shipping traffic, and if the city comes into realization, it will be the world’s largest floating construction.

According to the published plans, Oxagon will be located on the Red Sea, close to the Suez Canal, one of the world’s busiest shipping hubs.

An ideal location that will eventually, if all goes according to bin Salman’s plan, become a key player in global trade.

“Oxagon will be the catalyst for economic growth and diversity in Neom and the Kingdom, further meeting our ambitions under Vision 2030” the Crown Prince has said.

And the man and the architectural firm behind it are Danish.

In addition to the MFA report, a number of BIG employees state on their LinkedIn profiles that they are working on the “North & South master plan

for Oxagon”, while partners

state that BIG is the architect behind the project.

We don’t know how much BIG will earn from designing the master plan for Oxagon.

However, we know that working as an architect or consultant for Neom is a well paid gig.Last year, Bloomberg reported that Neom offered tax-free annual salaries of 5-6 million Danish kroner to foreigners who came to work on the city of the future.

As more and more people arrived in Neom, a joke began to circulate, according to Bloomberg:

When you start at Neom, you bring two buckets with you. The first one fills up with all the gold you earn, and it gets heavy fast. The other bucket will be filled up with all the shit you have to put up with. When the bucket of shit is full, you take the bucket of gold and leave.

We asked BIG how much they were earning from the project. A question they were not prepared to answer.

The assassination of Jamal Khashoggi

Danwatch and Frihedsbrevet have not been able to determine when and to what extent BIG has been involved in the Neom project.

Overall, it has been difficult to get the multi-million dollar company to talk.

But for several years, the project has been plagued by incidents and criticism.

Notably, the assassination of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 tarnished bin Salman’s vision.

The Crown Prince denies having been part of Khasghoggi’s assassination, but in 2021 the US published the American intelligence report,

which concluded that he authorized the assassination – and it was likely that he also ordered it.

Subsequently, the murder of Jamal Khashoggi prompted several architects to resign from Neom’s advisory board.

One of them was the world-famous architect Norman Foster, who wrote in an email to Danwatch that they are no longer part of the board.

Murder, expulsion and imprisonment

In recent years, it has emerged that the dream of Neom has turned into a nightmare for the area’s indigenous population.

To accommodate the project – including Oxagon – at least 20,000 members of the Huwaitat tribe are to be forcibly evicted from their land, a move that has been heavily criticized by several organizations.

“The effort to forcibly displace the indigenous population violates every norm and rule of international human rights law,” said Sarah Lea Whitson who is Executive Director of Democracy for the Arab World Now among other titles.

For those who have rebelled, it has been at the risk of their lives.

One of whom was Abdul Rahim al-Huwaiti, who was shot dead by Saudi security forces while fighting for his home.

Footage of Abdul Rahim al-Huwaiti’s murder was shared in several videos over Twitter. In one of them you can hear Saudi security forces firing successions of gunfire, while in another you can see his home destroyed by bullet holes. Video: Abdul Rahim al-Huwaiti (subtitles by Danwatch)

Others who have resisted have been imprisoned or sentenced to death.

A recent report on Neom’s human rights violations conducted by the Saudi human rights organization ALQST, listed 15 people who had received prison sentences, ranging from 15 to 50 years, and five others who had been sentenced to death.

No response from BIG

The stories from Neom are irreconcilable to what BIG has pledged in their 2021 Sustainability Report.

It states that “human rights are undeniable universal truths”.

“We are unwavering in our determination to give all people, as far as we can, the rights and freedoms they wish to enjoy. BIG will never knowingly be complicit in human rights abuses, but will instead always seek to uphold the rights and freedoms of all, and to contribute where we can”, the report reads.

Danwatch and Frihedsbrevet wish to discuss with Bjarke Ingels and BIG how their involvement in Neom complies with their sustainability report.

We want justification for their involvement in a project that is accused of gross human rights violations, so much so, that it has led other architects to withdraw their services.

Over several months Danwatch and Frihedsbrevet attempted to get answers from Bjarke Ingels and BIG; however, they failed to get them to comment on Neom.

Despite being a large international company, BIG’s press department can only be contacted by email.

Danwatch contacted them for the first time in January. After months, we received a reply from BIG partner Daria Pahhota. She apologized for the late reply, explaining that she and Bjarke are “currently on a documentary shoot”, but that she will look into the possibility of an interview “when we have some down time”.

After that, there was complete silence for over a week.

It was only after Frihedsbrevet and Danwatch sent specific questions about BIG’s involvement in Neom that we received a reply.

“Unfortunately, neither Bjarke nor Sheela (Director of BIG) are available for an interview right now, and we cannot confirm or deny our involvement in the Neom project”.

Major problems with human rights violations

For the past few years, Bjarke Ingels has been touring with his vision “Masterplanet”. An idea to redesign our planet to make it more sustainable and climate-friendly. In short, a plan to save the world.

Meanwhile, BIG has been in oil-dependent Saudi Arabia, which, according to numerous reports, is subjecting its own population to gross human rights violations.

For example, in 2019, it was announced that BIG had designed the master plan for the Saudi entertainment city of Qiddiyah, which is currently under construction.

In particular, Saudi Arabia has been criticized for restricting freedom of expression, and the freedom of assembly and association, while the occurrence of the death penalty has almost doubled in the last six years.

“It is no secret that there are many challenges in Saudi Arabia when it comes to human rights. That is labour rights, the rights of women, sexual minorities, defenders of human rights and journalists,” Louise Holck, Director of the Danish Institute for Human Rights, has previously told Danwatch.

BIG: Architecture creates democracy

We asked BIG what considerations they made about being involved in Saudi Arabia, a country notorious for human rights abuses.

In the short response we received from BIG, partner Daria Pahhota wrote, “it is oversimplifying a large and complex urban planning project that is creating new buildings and public spaces for the ever-growing Saudi population,” when critics conflate working on Neom with working in Saudi Arabia.

She goes on to say:

“BIG, like other international firms, is active in the Middle East because architects contribute to positive development by providing new schools, libraries, cultural buildings and urban spaces.”

Bjarke Ingels has made similar statements in the past. Ingels told The Guardian,

“I do sincerely believe that the urban transformation of Saudi Arabia that we’re taking part in is part of paving a path to a clearly needed social and cultural reform of the country”.

And when Ingels met with controversial Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro in 2020 to discuss options for an economically and ecologically sustainable tourism plan, the rhetoric was similar.

“Making a list of countries or companies that BIG should avoid working with seems to be an oversimplification of a complex world. Dividing everything into two categories is neither accurate nor fair,” Ingels continued:

“We cannot expect every public body to align with every aspect of our thinking. If we want to positively change the world, we need active engagement – not superficial clickbait and ignorance.”

“Complicit in Saudi Arabia’s crimes”

But this view is criticized by the Saudi human rights organization ALQST.

“When a company or an architect is part of Neom, they are also giving legitimacy to a project that is killing people. Neom is built on blood”, said Lina Alhathloul, Head of Communications at ALQST, via a voice message on Signal.

“So those companies and architects have a responsibility when they do business on bloodied soil without establishing the conditions to uphold human rights”.

In a comment in the architecture magazine Deezen, author and urbanist Adam Greenfield shares the same opinion:

“There is no other way about it: If you accept money to work on any aspect of the Neom project, know that you are complicit in these acts of violence,” writes Adam Greenfield.

We have presented this criticism to BIG, but it has also gone without receiving a response.

In Neom, everything and everyone will be connected to the Internet and will be constantly monitored by artificial intelligence.
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