GENEVA: United Nations experts on cultural rights have called on the Saudi Arabian government to immediately halt the planned demolition of a 400-year-old walled neighborhood in Awamiya district in the restive oil rich east.
Al-Masoura is a neighborhood that comprises historic buildings in Al-Awamiya, in Qatif province. The Saudi authorities have warned the residents to evacuate the area, claiming the destruction operation is aimed at building modern compounds to place the "buildings which are to fall." However, the residents seee political motive behind the planned move and argue that the buildings in Al-Masoura are ancient structures that belong to the area's historical memory, noting that the Saudi authorities can repair the building instead of demolishing them.
The UN experts warned the development plan for the Al-Masoura quarter threatens the historical and cultural heritage of the town with irreparable harm, and may result in the forced eviction of numerous people from their businesses and residences, OHCHR.org reported.
"The area is of importance not only to local people and the entire cultural landscape of Awamiya, but also has national significance for the history and cultural heritage of Saudi Arabia," said the UN Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights, Karima Bennoune. "The planned demolition would erase this unique regional heritage in an irreversible manner."
Part of the regional trade activities centered on the Qatif region for centuries, Al-Masoura is considered a historical model of a walled village, including mosques, farms and farmers markets, places of worship for Shia 'Hussainiyat' and businesses, and is home to about 2,000 to 3,000 people. The neighborhood is of great interest for researchers and experts in the fields of heritage and archaeology.
The imminent demolition of the entire neighborhood is reportedly part of a larger development plan for Awamiya, aiming to transform the area from a mainly residential neighborhood to a commercial and service zone. Considering that the plan does not include the construction of residential buildings, local residents fear it will worsen the existing housing crisis and lead to a further rise in housing and land prices.
"Residents have been pressured in many ways, including through power cuts, to vacate their homes and businesses without adequate alternative resettlement options, leaving them at best with insufficient compensation and at worst, with nowhere to go," noted the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing, Leilani Farha.
"Demolitions must never lead to homelessness of the evicted persons, so the authorities have to ensure the provision of adequate alternative housing facilities, resettlement and compensation for lost property," she added.
The UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty, Philip Alston, also expressed concern about the impact of the demolition on the standard of living of those who will be affected. "If implemented, the plan will remove people from the areas where they live and work, resulting in loss of livelihood and difficulty in securing housing," he stressed.
The experts also raised concerns over the lack of information and public consultation. "It appears that the demolition has been announced without any meaningful consultation with the residents, and without having considered less damaging alternatives, like restoration, or adequate notice informing them about the demolition plans," they noted.
"The Saudi authorities must take all necessary steps to guarantee cultural rights, including the right to the enjoyment of and access to cultural heritage, and the right to an adequate standard of living, including housing, in accordance with international human rights laws and standards," the UN experts said. "They must halt all ongoing demolition works that do not meet these standards and cancel any planned in the future."