The Ismailis, a religious and ethnic minority with historic roots in Najran province of southwestern Saudi Arabia, face increasing threats to their identity as a result of official discrimination. With the arrival of Prince Mishal bin Saud as the governor of Najran in 1996, tension between local authorities and the Ismaili population increased, culminating in a confrontation between armed Ismaili demonstrators and police and army units outside the Holiday Inn hotel in Najran city in April 2000. The ensuing crackdown continues to reverberate throughout the region to this day.
Official discrimination in Saudi Arabia against Ismailis encompasses government employment, religious practices, and the justice system. Government officials exclude Ismailis from decision making, and publicly disparage their faith. Following the clashes in April 2000, Saudi authorities imprisoned, tortured, and summarily sentenced hundreds of Ismailis, and transferred hundreds of Ismaili government employees outside the region. Underlying discriminatory practices have continued unabated.
This report calls for the end to religious and ethnic discrimination against the Ismailis of Saudi Arabia, and accountability for the abuses Ismailis suffered following the clashes of 2000. Over the past 10 years, Ismailis have repeatedly sent delegations and addressed petitions to the governor of Najran and the central authorities in Riyadh, including the Human Rights Commission (an official body), but found little attention to their concerns.
Najran is a fertile valley on the border with Yemen, and came under Saudi rule in 1934. It is the spiritual seat of the Sulaimani Ismailis, a branch of Shiism numbering several hundred thousand adherents. Saudi intolerance toward religious minorities in the country historically did not intrude much into the daily lives of Ismailis from Najran unless they left the region to perform a pilgrimage to Mekka or Medina or to pursue studies and careers in other cities. Over the past dozen years, however, the situation has worsened. First, officials publicly disparage Ismailis and exclude them from participating in local decisions. Second, Ismailis are excluded from distinct areas of employment and promotion to upper ranks. Third, Ismailis face severe curtailments of their religious freedom. Fourth, in a religiously-legitimized justice system in which heterodox non-Wahhabi practices have no place, Ismailis face arrest without cause and harsher sentences than other Saudis.
The confrontation at the Holiday Inn in Najran city on April 23, 2000, marked a watershed in Ismaili relations with the central government. Three months earlier, police had closed all Ismaili mosques on a religious holiday. On April 23, after security forces and religious morality police arrested an Ismaili cleric, a large demonstration took place outside the Holiday Inn, where Governor Prince Mishal resided. After the governor refused for hours to meet the petitioners, an exchange of fire between security forces and armed demonstrators left two Ismailis dead and, according to some government accounts, killed one policeman as well. Believing their religious identity to be under attack, Ismaili men erected defenses around Khushaiwa, the seat of the Ismaili religious leader, al-Dai al-Mutlaq (Absolute Guide), and the spiritual capital of Sulaimani Ismailis, a community with followers in India and Pakistan as well as Saudi Arabia and Yemen. Khushaiwa, which is an area of Najran city, includes the Mansura mosque complex. The army surrounded the Ismaili positions and placed the city under its control. The standoff ended later the same day without further bloodshed.
Over the following weeks, security forces detained several hundred Ismaili men, who claim that local intelligence officers (mabahith) tortured them. The authorities tried more than 90 of the men in secret in Riyadh. Despite successive royal pardons for these men convicted for participation in the Holiday Inn events, reducing their sentences, 17 Ismailis remained in prison in mid-2008 on the basis of convictions stemming from those events. In addition, local authorities forced several hundred Ismaili government officials in the wake of the Holiday Inn incident to relocate to jobs outside the region or resign. Only a handful have been able to return.
As recently as 2006 and 2007, the highest government-appointed clerics and judicial authorities of Saudi Arabia publicly attacked the Ismaili faith, declaring its adherents to be infidels. In 2005 the governor of Najran disparaged Ismailis in a newspaper interview, referring to their mosques as temples. These attacks occurred in a context of frequent hate speech by officials or prominent personalities against the Shia in general, who constitute around 10 to 15 percent of Saudi Arabias population.
Faced with official hostility, it is no surprise that Ismailis are not able to participate in local decisions by holding high office in the governorate. The five-year-old National Dialogue established at the behest of then Crown-prince Abdullah to promote conciliation on controversial and sensitive topics invited only a few Ismailis to participate. In 2006 one of those participants was fired from her job after delivering remarks highly critical of Wahhabi authorities in Najran. Ismailis who protest publicly, write petitions, or speak to the media risk arrest and periods in prison.
Ismailis have faced increased discrimination in employment over the past decade. As elsewhere in Saudi Arabia, in Najran the government is a major employer, but many Ismailis cannot obtain professional jobs and have been forced to leave Najran because the administration has filled government positions with Sunnis from outside the province who are sometimes less qualified. Ismaili officials also face a glass ceiling on promotions. Currently, only one out of 35 department heads in Najran is an Ismaili. While there are Ismailis in the military, Ismailis only exceptionally rise to the higher ranks, because officer colleges preparing cadets for leadership positions rarely admit qualified Ismailis.
Religious restrictions are the most severe form of discrimination that Ismailis confront. Ismailis may not visit their religious leader to receive instruction. They face restrictions when they attempt to build mosques or expand existing ones, while Wahhabi mosques flourish, with state aid. Ismailis may not print or publish Ismaili prayer books. In government schools, where religion can constitute a third of the curriculum, Ismaili children are ridiculed for their faith and indoctrinated in Wahhabi thought.
In the justice system, Ismailis have faced adverse judicial rulings due to their religious identity. One judge barred an Ismaili lawyer from representing a Sunni client in court. Another judge forcibly divorced a Sunni woman from her Ismaili husband, declaring him religiously inadequate. Ismailis face imprisonment on sorcery charges on account of their religious practices. In other cases, seemingly minor incidents have landed Ismailis on death row. Once in prison, Ismailis often do not benefit as their fellow Sunni prisoners do from reductions of their sentence for memorizing the Quran or furlough for family weddings or funerals.
A major Ismaili grievance, which this report does not address for lack of comparative data, is the claim that Saudi authorities are threatening the demographic majority of Ismailis in Najran by naturalizing Yemeni refugees who share the Saudi-majority Sunni faith and giving Yemeni newcomers land plots, employment, and housing while Ismailis receive no such assistance.
Human Rights Watch urges the Saudi government to provide mechanisms for accountability for the Holiday Inn events of April 2000 and their aftermath. Human Rights Watch also urges measures be taken to address and bring to an end discrimination against Ismailis that limits their participation in public affairs, employment and promotion, religious freedom, and access to fair justice.
Human Rights Watch conducted research for this report by meeting with victims of discrimination and abuse of power in Saudi Arabia in Riyadh in February 2006; in Riyadh, Najran, and Jeddah in December 2006; in Riyadh in May 2007; and also in Manama, Bahrain, in July 2006. In addition, we conducted telephone interviews and consulted court verdicts, land surveys, and official documents provided by Ismailis.
This report addresses violations that are the result of discrimination based on the religious and ethnic identity of Ismailis in Najran. Other human rights violations against Ismailis, such as cases of torture and unfair trials that did not appear to derive from religious discrimination, are addressed in Human Rights Watchs 2008 report on Saudi Arabias criminal justice system, Precarious Justice.2
In total, Human Rights Watch conducted over 150 interviews with some 60 Ismailis. We spoke with eyewitnesses to the Holiday Inn events of April 2000, and participated in two separate meetings with Ismaili tribal leaders. We sought the opinions of lawyers and activists working on behalf of Ismailis in their dealings with the local governorate and the authorities in Riyadh. Wherever possible, we spoke directly with victims of arbitrary arrest, discrimination in education, employment, the justice system, and violations of religious freedom. While the Ismailis we spoke to were often eager to tell their story, a majority asked us to protect their identity. For a core group of interviewees whose accounts encompassing arrest, torture, trial, and barriers to the employment and education are featured across two chapters covering the Holiday Inn events and their aftermath, we have used single-name pseudonyms; other interviewees are presented anonymously. Some whom we could only interview by phone preferred not to speak in great detail. Aside from the two meetings with tribal leaders, we conducted interviews in private. All interviews were in Arabic.
In May 2008 Human Rights Watch sent a detailed letter, reproduced as the Appendix of this report, to Governor Prince Mishal, seeking official information about events and policies described in this report. We did not receive a reply to our letter and were thus unable to reflect an official point of view.
This report sometimes refers to the hijri calendar, officially in use in Saudi Arabia. It starts with the Prophet Muhammads emigration from Mekka to Medina and is based on the lunar year, thus on average 11 days shorter than the Gregorian solar year. By the Gregorian calendar, Muslim holidays fall on different dates each year.
1 The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, Establishment of National Institutions to Facilitate Implementation of the Convention, General Recommendation No. 17, A/48/18 (1993), http://www.unhchr.ch/tbs/doc.nsf/(Symbol)/4872085cc3178e3bc12563ee004beb99?Opendocument (accessed June 24, 2008) .
2 Human Rights Watch, Saudi Arabia Precarious Justice: Arbitrary Detention and Unfair Trials in a Deficient Criminal Justice System, vol. 20, no. 3(E), March 2008, http://hrw.org/reports/2008/saudijustice0308/.