May 23, 2024

European startups silent on Neom human rights concerns

One UK company, desalination startup Solar Water, says it won’t work with the organisation due to human rights concerns.

Freya Pratty

5 min read

The Line. Photo: Neom.

This article is part of a Sifted series exploring European tech’s relationship with the Gulf.

For startups, a contract with a Saudi megaproject like The Line — a 170km glass-walled city set to take shape in the Arabian desert  — can be game changing. The futuristic site is being built by Saudi government entity Neom, which can offer young companies big contracts that are almost impossible to find in Europe.

“The scale is like nothing else, if you’re a young startup and you have a big contract with Neom, it’s a game changer,” one London-based investor told Sifted last month. 

But, behind the dollar signs, Neom is starting to attract headlines for the wrong reasons, causing moral questions for at least one company who works with the organisation. 


Following reporting by the BBC that a Saudi citizen was shot and killed by the country’s military, after protesting against the construction project, startups that are working with The Line are — for the most part — not commenting on their continuing contracts with Neom. One UK company, desalination startup Solar Water, says it won’t work with the organisation due to human rights concerns.

Lethal allegations

The Saudi government claims it has evicted and relocated 6k local people to make way for The Line, though human rights group ALQST estimates the figure is three times higher. Earlier this month, the BBC reported that one person was shot and killed for protesting against a Neom-led eviction and a former member of the Saudi military told the news organisation that the Saudi government “licensed the use of lethal force against whoever stayed in their home”.

Forty people who’ve resisted eviction are in detention, according to the UN and ALQST, five of whom are on death row, according to ALQST.

Last year, in response to UN questions on human rights, the Saudi government prepared a report, in which it said that the people in detention were convicted of terrorist offences and that their sentences were not linked to evictions. Neom did not provide further comment to Sifted. 

Neom’s European partners

The Line is billed as a car-free, green city, spread across – as the name suggests — a thin line, 200m wide. To create a city in the desert, the project is drawing on next-generation climate technologies, such as water desalination  and food production solutions like vertical farming. 

European startups working with Neom include German electric taxi startup Volocopter, which is valued at $1.7bn and has raised $770m from investors including the Neom Investment Fund (NIF). 

In a 2021 statement, Volocopter said electric aircraft will transport people between The Line and another city being built by Neom called Oxagon. 

Photo: Volocopter.

Also working with Neom is Polish startup AI Clearing, which helps businesses track how work is progressing on large construction sites. 

Other European companies working with Neom include London-based One Web, which makes satellite networks, and signed a $200m contract with the Saudi entity in 2021.

Dutch company Van der Hoeven, which works on greenhouse infrastructure, also signed a contract with Neom in 2023.


Sifted put the claims in the BBC reporting to Volocopter, AI Clearing, One Web and Van der Hoeven, asking about the details of the companies’ contracts. AI Clearing and One Web declined to comment, while the others did not reply. 

“We can’t go along with that”

While some companies would rather not comment on allegations against Neom, one company which previously had a contract with the organisation is now critical of its work. In 2022, UK desalination startup Solar Water withdrew from a $100m contract with Neom that it had signed in 2019.

Founder Malcolm Aw tells Sifted that, when he entered into the deal, his impression was that the project would build green infrastructure that would benefit local communities.

“The whole idea was to build something that the local people would share, then they changed course. In doing so, they removed villages,” he says. “We thought, ‘We can’t go along with that.’” 

Aw adds that the local population would be an asset to initiatives hoping to improve the area, given their knowledge of the land: “They shouldn’t be excluded.”

A Neom spokesperson told Sifted that Aw’s statement regarding the termination of the contract was “misleading” and that it had contacted him over the matter.

Neom’s European ties grow; but progress stalls

In November last year, Neom opened an office in central London as its new European HQ. Attending the opening was Oliver Dowden, the UK’s deputy prime minister. 

“This is an important milestone, integrating Neom with London's finance and tech ecosystems, with the potential for London to become Neom’s second home for design and project management,” he said at the time. 

Parliamentary records show Dowden met with Neom executives four times in 2023, in the run up to the event. 

Sifted put the human rights claims in the BBC investigation to Dowden, but did not receive a reply.  

Along with human rights concerns, there are other troubles in sight for Neom. Last month, Bloomberg reported that plans for The Line had been significantly scaled back, citing financial pressures. 

By 2030, officials hoped to have 1.5 million people living in The Line. Bloomberg reports it will now house just 300k people — and that just 2.4km of the structure will be completed by 2030, a major pullback from the touted 170km.

Freya Pratty

Freya Pratty is a senior reporter at Sifted. She covers climate tech, writes our weekly Climate Tech newsletter and works on investigations. Follow her on X and LinkedIn