JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia — In an old, crumbling neighborhood in this port city, an older woman is waiting under the sun for a ride. Her face is covered in a niqab, except for her eyes and nose.
"Life is good, everything is good," she tells NPR. "But the demolition has brought us pain." She declined to give her name out of fear of the government.
Early in the year, the Saudi government announced a $20 billion project to redevelop old areas in the south of Jeddah, the second-largest city in the kingdom, to attract tourists and wealthy foreigners. But hundreds of thousands of people will be displaced in the process, many of them from working-class immigrant communities. Even though dissent in Saudi Arabia is risky, some of those being affected recently spoke to NPR about it.
The development will include luxury high-rises, hotels, parks, an opera house, a stadium, an aquarium and museums. All of this will affect 60 neighborhoods, an area about the size of 13,000 soccer fields, according to satellite imagery calculations by Amnesty International, which says the project violates human rights.
Entire neighborhoods have already been razed since demolition began last year. An old, massive market known for selling gold jewelry, produce and household items was torn down, cutting off a main source of living for many residents.
In other neighborhoods, rows of houses and shops are marked with a word in red spray paint: "ikhla," Arabic for "evacuate." That's how the government lets people know they need to leave — and quickly.
Most people get just a week to leave, and in some neighborhoods, residents tell NPR they had only 24 hours' notice.
An immigrant community loses its gathering place
As a gateway to the Muslim holy city of Mecca, Jeddah is known as the most culturally diverse place in the kingdom.
Many of Jeddah's foreign-born residents came to the country for the pilgrimage to Mecca decades ago and settled here. Some are documented but many are not, and they often face discrimination by Saudi nationals and the government, human rights groups say.
In one soon-to-be-razed neighborhood, there's a crowded coffeehouse frequented by immigrants from Sudan. Dozens of men are sitting outside with small, steaming cups. Inside the small but full cafe are two large bubbling pots of jebena, Sudanese coffee — a strong brew like Turkish coffee, but spiced with lots of ginger.
"This is the place for everyone to come to after a long day of work," says Hasan, 45, who is at the coffeehouse and gives NPR just his first name to speak freely.
"Here 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," he says.
But this coffee shop, like everything else around it, is expected to be demolished soon.
Hasan will have to relocate again after already being forced to move a few months ago. His old neighborhood was one of the first in Jeddah to undergo demolition.
"Twenty-four hours after me and my neighbors received the evacuation notice, our electricity and water services were cut off," he says. "Some families slept outside for days before they could figure out where to go next. It all happened suddenly."
On the one hand, Hasan thinks the area desperately needed fixing; the streets are dirty and narrow, and basic public services are lacking. Residents complain that the roads are so bad that ambulances and firetrucks couldn't access most streets.
On the other hand, Hasan says the new plan has had a devastating effect on a marginalized community that already has limited options to thrive.
"This was our last chance to be a community together and to enjoy our culture," he says. "From now on, there will only be work and home, nowhere else for us to go."
Saudi Arabia passes some liberal reforms but takes an authoritarian approach to others
The development plan is part of what Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has named Vision 2030. He has introduced sweeping reforms that allowed movie theaters to open and women to drive and work, in an effort to open up the country and diversify an economy dependent on oil sales.
At the same time, the crown prince has overseen repression of civil freedoms and cracked down on anything perceived as dissent.
Dana Ahmed, a researcher on Saudi Arabia for Amnesty International in Beirut, says the way Saudi officials have gone about the Jeddah development plan is concerning to human rights watchers. Officials failed to give adequate notice to residents, even though they knew the plan months ahead. And communication about the development in general has been lacking. Residents told NPR they found out about a planned demolition via an impersonal mass text message.
According to Ahmed, all of this is in line with the crown prince's aggressive and authoritarian approach to reform at any cost to the people.
"Saudi Arabia is trying to build a new image of itself on the backs of citizens and residents and their rights being violated," she says.
The scale and manner in which it is all happening has been so upsetting to residents that it sparked an outcry online, in a country where citizens have seen that criticizing the government can end in imprisonment or worse. In 2018, Saudi agents killed Saudi critic Jamal Khashoggi in an operation that U.S. intelligence said was approved by the crown prince. Since then, criticism of government policies had been muted until the demolitions started.
"It was the first time we see a general public uproar in Saudi Arabia about an issue like this that's en masse online," says Ahmed.
Jeddah officials did not grant NPR an interview despite repeated requests.
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.
People are forced to make painful choices
Fifty-three-year-old Ibrahim and his family are the last ones left in their emptied-out block. NPR meets him as he is moving out of the home he's lived in for over a decade. Like others, he felt at risk speaking against a government plan and gave NPR his first name only. He received a notice to evacuate within seven days before utility services would be cut off.
"Ten years," he says. "Ten years of life, friendships, neighbors — all gone now."
The government's short evacuation notices left people with very limited options. The destruction of miles of residential areas also means that apartments and homes in Jeddah are now in short supply, which has sent rent prices soaring.
"No one can afford these prices, no one," Ibrahim says. "Many of my friends and neighbors left the city completely and moved to smaller towns in the south and east."
As a Saudi national, Ibrahim will receive compensation in the amount of a 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.
The ordeal has been difficult on his children, who have lost their community and their friends. "We are all suffering," says Ibrahim. "My children even told me they don't want to live in Jeddah anymore."
The only other option is to move to the village where Ibrahim's family is from. But the village is in the southern region of Saudi Arabia, which is mountainous with limited access to schools, and Ibrahim wants his children to go to college and have professional careers.
They'll just have to be patient, he says, and maybe God will make it easier.