Home » Reports » Saudi Arabia is about to demolish the historic district of Mosawara with hundreds of traditional houses in violation of laws prohibiting the destruction of human heritage

Saudi Arabia is about to demolish the historic district of Mosawara with hundreds of traditional houses in violation of laws prohibiting the destruction of human heritage

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The Saudi government has announced the start of executing the demolition process of the historic Mosawara village estimated at four hundred years old which is also home to 2,000 to 4,000 people . Official local newspapers have said at the beginning of January 2017 that the necessary legal, financial and engineering procedures have been completed, and demolition will begin soon, thereby ignoring international laws and violating the domestic ones. Saudi domestic Law (Law of monuments, museums and architectural heritage) states: (it prohibits infringement on places of monuments and architectural heritage as well as alteration of, removing, damaging, deforming by writing, painting, engraving,  sticking advertisements,  setting on fire, changing , or erasing their characteristics)

The United Nations declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples says (States shall provide effective mechanisms for prevention of, and redress for: any form of forced population transfer which has the aim or effect of violating or undermining any of their rights).

The Saudi (National Architectural Heritage Center) has denounced the act of the demolition, and commented with (The Secretariat of the eastern region has no legitimacy to demolish  Mosawara neighborhood and any site containing heritage buildings as this is a violation of  (Law of monuments, museums and architectural heritage).

On August 9, 2016, the United Nations condemned the Saudi government practices with respect to cultural heritage, describing what happened in a report by the Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights with (what appears to be systematic destruction of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to mosques, cemeteries, religious shrines, homes and places of religious, historical and cultural value that are considered uncompatible with the current Wahhabi interpretation of Islam).

The Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights has expressed (her hope of a more objective response by the Saudi authorities in a timely manner). That was after it has sent a letter to the Saudi government in October 14, 2015 , containing holding the Saudi government accountable for the destruction of many of the cultural monuments. In response, the Special Rapporteur has received a letter from the Saudi delegation in Geneva on October 23, 2015 containing a promise to respond to the allegations contained in the letter. However, it has been 14 months up until now and the Saudi government has not fulfilled its promise yet.

Despite some improvement in the protection of the tangible cultural heritage in Saudi Arabia, it is still below the minimum standard since destruction of cultural heritage still continues in addition to the absence of practical steps addressing the problem. Besides, it has been observed that there seems to be double standards when it comes to protecting cultural sites. For example, a few years ago, Saudi Arabia has rehabilitated (Alturaif district) in (historical Diriyah), the capital of the first Saudi state while neglecting other major cultural and historical places, such as those belonging to the era of early Islamic times in Mecca and Medina. This means either the absence of clear standards or flaws in the existing ones.

These acts by the Saudi government lead to the conclusion that the current level of preservation of cultural heritage in Saudi Arabia is so much lower than the minimum international standard. A decision was issued in the September 27, 2016 by the United Nations for the promotion of cultural rights and the protection of cultural heritage which contained the statement (considering that the damage to the cultural heritage, whether tangible or intangible, of any nation is a damage to the cultural heritage of all mankind). It also contained the call on states ( to adopt effective strategies to prevent the destruction of cultural heritage and this includes ensuring accountability).

In addition to the fact that this act is considered a violation of cultural rights as well as to the common human heritage. The European Saudi Organization for Human Rights expresses its concerns at the beginning of the actual demolition of the Mosawara neighborhood or any other area having a cultural value.

With regard to the procedures followed so far, it can be described as flawed and random  and lacking clear standards, including the process of home valuations. According to the tracking done by the organization, the majority of home valuations performed by the Saudi government were considered inadequate to purchase an alternative home with average standards in the same city or building another one.

A local newspaper on January 8, 2017, quoted the disappointment of some families in regards to the amount of the valuation. The report refered to the valuation of a total amount of 600,000 SAR for the home of an elderly widowed woman called (Um Badr).

This financial compensation for her home, which accommodates 13 dependents, falls dramatically short to secure a home for this family size.

According to estimates of local specialists, the construction of a house adequate for the family of (Um Badr), considering the available average specifications, would cost more than two million Saudi Riyals, which is about three times the amount valued by the Saudi government.

This is not the only case that had unfair home valuation falling short of securing a home for the families. If these valuation have been accepted, families would be left vulnerable to disturbing possibilities.

This prompted a group of concerned residents to send a letter to the Saudi King requesting re-valuation of their homes in accordance with the circumstances of each case and in a way that provides for suitable alternatives. On the other hand, there are homes valued with too high amounts, including two houses; each valued with an amount totaling 4 million saudi riyals. This has raised serious questions and concerns over the ambiguity of the standards. It is not unlikely that the overall valuation process involved corruption in light of the absence of effective mechanisms to monitor corruption and reduce it in Saudi Arabia.

Some homeowners in Mosawara neighborhood indicated that the Saudi government has recently cut off electricity, in an attempt to pressure them to speed off the evacuation process, while ignoring the presence of patients, children and elderly, and not considering the heating needed for winter time. These incomplete procedures and ambuigus standards have reflected a lot of unfairness to the residents and caused dissatisfaction by a lot of families.

In Saudi Arabia, there are activists interested in preserving cultural and historical heritage but repression by the government prevents them from calling on stopping this destructive project. Besides, repression of and crackdown on civil society institutions in Saudi Arabia in general makes any person criticizing these arbitrary actions and serious violations vulnerable to being a security target.

The Saudi European Organization for Human Rights calls the Saudi government on the following:

1. Compliance with international and local laws calling for the preservation of physical cultural heritage, and giving attention to all heritage landmarks and monuments, whether in Mosawara neighborhood or other regions of the country, by taking the necessary steps in accordance with the applicable international or local provisions dealing with heritage.

2. Keeping the option up to the people whether to evacuate or stay at their homes, and not engaging in any direct or indirect approach, that implies that security risks or harassment will come to those wanting to stay. It is also to be emphasized that no damage should be caused to heritage in case it has been evacuated.

3. For people wishing to proceed with evacuation -without coercion or ways involving force of any degree- the government has to provide them with alternatives that meet the average living standards of the modern time.

4. Getting independent parties involved in the valuation process without practicing any action that would cause any right of residents to be violated. The government should not engage in any approach that involves threatening or intimidating the residents so they accept fait accompli.

5. In addition to the adequate amounts paid to obtain alternative accommodation, the government has to provide for the necessary transition expenses, and give a specific period of time considering the circumstances of each family. The relocation of those families should go through steps that do not leave them subject to difficulties and troubles.

6. Taking into account the different circumstances and the time requirements of each case as some houses are shared between more than one family or owned by many members who have inheritance rights, and this all requires specific timeframe and special facilitation.

The Saudi European Organization for Human Rights believes that demolishing (the historic neighborhood of Mosawara) is not conditional to the local housing development referred to by the Saudi authorities and was only used to justify this illegal action. Preserving historical and cultural monuments does not hinder any development plans given the fact that Saudi Arabia has a vast territory that can accommodate any size of land area required for that purpose. These actions by the Saudi government confirms what is stated by the United Nations that there is a systematic destruction of places of heritage and historical value Saudi Arabia. Developmental plans do not in any way mean destruction or damage of heritage.

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