VII. Ismaili Participation in Public Affairs

Ismailis in Najran have been excluded from effectively participating in local public affairs in two important ways. Generally they cannot advance to high government positions or make their views heard in municipal and regional councils or in the all-powerful governorate. They also perceive unequal treatment in the charity sector. On a national level, Ismailis claim that their representatives are seldom invited to participate in important national initiatives.

The appointed head of the provincial council in Najran is a Sunni from outside Najran, as is the appointed head of the municipality.153 The members of the provincial council, also appointed, include the heads of government departments—all Sunnis—and only about five Ismailis.154 Sunnis on the council include Yemeni refugees recently given citizenship.155 In 2005, when the kingdom held partial municipal elections for the first time in 40 years, the six winning candidates in Najran city were all local Ismailis, as were the six appointed members of the council.156 Unlike the appointed provincial council or the municipality, however, the municipal councils hold next to no powers.

One Ismaili, Shaikh Ali bin Musallam, achieved influence as an adviser to the late King Fahd, but many in Najran considered him a “bought sheikh,” not least due to his relation by marriage with the royal family.157 Another Ismaili, Muhammad Faisal Abu Saq, who currently serves in the appointed Shura Council, headed military training programs.158 However, many Najranis told Human Rights Watch that they do not consider him a strong advocate for their needs in the Shura Council, the kingdom’s unelected parliament.

Another illustrative example is the composition and appointment of the board of the Human Rights Commission, a government body formed in 2005. At least two prominent members of the Ismaili community actively promoting human rights issues were suggested as members of the 25-person-strong board. Following repeated vetting by the Ministry of Interior, among others, neither remained on the list. Instead, the king appointed a prominent Ismaili lawyer said to be close to Najran’s governor to the board of the commission.159

Ismailis receive few if any benefits from Sunni charitable associations operating in Najran. The government-controlled Charitable Cooperative Society (Jam’iya Khairiyya Ta’awuniyya) in Najran finances construction of private homes and mosques for Sunni Yemenis who moved to Najran during years of unrest in Yemen. Both the current and former head of Najran courts are Sunni clerics active in this society; the chief judge is the Charitable Cooperative Society’s president.160 The Ministry of Social Affairs oversees this charity, a local resident told Human Rights Watch.161 A young Ismaili professional working outside of Najran told Human Rights Watch that although Ismaili students represented a sizeable portion of those selected for scholarships abroad, to his knowledge no Ismaili had ever received support from this charity. He said that for over five years now, some Ismailis had tried to get permission to set up their own charity under the direction of several tribal sheikhs in order to provide for poor members of their society.162 They still await permission from the governorate. Their alternative suggestion had been to include Ismailis among the potential beneficiaries of the Sunni charity, but they have not been successful to date.163

The King Abd al-‘Aziz Center for National Dialogue is a 2003 initiative by then-Crown Prince Abdullah to bring together representatives of different schools of thought on controversial issues, roughly every six months. On February 23, 2004, influential Ismaili personalities wrote to the secretary-general of the Center for National Dialogue to complain about the underrepresentation of Ismailis in the conferences. The 12 asked that “the means of representation and selection be clear to us and in numbers commensurate with the size of this region and the number of its inhabitants.”164 There was no response.

The consequences of complaint

The consequences for protesting or for even simply reporting the Holiday Inn events are described in Chapter V, above. Ismailis have faced repression and harassment when they voiced grievances over other issues.

In 2006 the Center for National Dialogue invited an Ismaili woman from Najran, Fatima Al Tisan, head of the Women’s Educational Media Unit in the General Administration of Education in Najran, to the National Dialogue on Education, in Tabuk. She described in her presentation the feeling of exclusion Ismailis experience in Sunni-run schools. She spoke about how:

when we grew up, we saw our [Sunni] female companions from when we were young eye us from afar, but without coming close, because to shake our hand and to eat with us is vilified in their religion, just as that [Sunni] female teacher donning piety and godliness cautioned them to. … [T]he general instructions require the creed to be sound and we in our education thought that we were without creed so as to continue to swallow the oppression in the absence of justice and salvation.165

After Al Tisan delivered that remarkable address, the director of girls’ education in Najran, Muhammad Abd al-‘Aziz al-Najim, on December 5, 2006, removed her from her post.166

When a local Ismaili, Salih ‘Amir, started his own ecumenical cultural forum in Najran in 2006, the authorities soon shut it down. He held Qiss bin Sa’ida167 forum events in his home, and officials tolerated a handful of initial meetings. He specifically invited Sunni officials to join. Guest speakers included well-known Saudi journalists, Shura Council member Muhammad Al Zulfa, and human rights activists. But in early December 2006, the deputy minister of interior ordered the cultural forum closed. Salih ‘Amir told Human Rights Watch:

The criminal investigation [department] called me on Sunday and said, “You have an appointment tomorrow at the governorate.” I went, and there were the deputy (wakil) for security affairs, the governor’s office manager, and one mabahith officer. They said, “You do not have permission for the forum. Close it.” I said, “I will close it only if I get a copy of the decision by the deputy minister of interior.” I got the copy.168

Demonstrations are extremely rare in Saudi Arabia because the minister of interior has prohibited them. In one rare protest, Ismailis gathered in September 2006 close to the Najran airport to demonstrate against the policy of granting Yemeni refugees citizenship and preferential access to land and housing. One participant told Human Rights Watch:

People in Najran suffer from not being able to do anything. So we thought we had to do a public protest. And we gathered next to the buildings where they were going to house the Yemenis to be naturalized. Yafa, Khalifa, Mus’abin tribes. Eleven tribes, in all, all from south Yemen. The tribes were against communism, and Saudi Arabia accepted them in early 70s, they came slowly, until now.169

These Ismailis also protested local authorities’ “calling us infidels, seizing our lands, and holding people prisoner for years without verdicts, all because we are Ismaili Muslims,” in the words of an Ismaili to Reuters.170 Participants and an organizer of the demonstration told Human Rights Watch that a crowd of about 200-300 had gathered in tents they brought with them. Security personnel surrounded them. After one demonstrator spoke with police, the protestors dispersed peacefully.171 But the governorate, in a letter to the Ministry of Interior, subsequently accused three of the organizers of the demonstration of “causing sedition.”172

The most common way that Saudis air grievances and seek redress is by writing to a responsible minister, local official, or member of the royal family. Despite the dearth of international and national attention to the situation in Najran, Ismailis have continued to send petitions to the Najran governorate and the authorities in Riyadh. Commonly they have faced silence, but some petitioners have paid a heavier price than having their petition ignored.

Salih, the engineer, said he had sent 20 telegrams to the governor of Najran and to the minister of interior complaining about Yemeni tribes settling in the Shurfa area in Najran. Between 2001 and 2002,  Assistant Minister of Interior for Security Affairs Prince Muhammad bin Nayef spoke to al-Yami several times in Riyadh, demanding to know why he wrote “bad things” against the government. Finally, in May 2003 officials arrested Salih in Riyadh and transferred him to Najran, where Judge Dawud of the Najran Sharia courts sentenced him to 18 months and 600 lashes for criticizing the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice and the government. The sentence was carried out.173

Bi’r ‘Askar, a Najran-area village of around 2,500 inhabitants, has witnessed an enormous growth in marble mining by companies whose shareholders are from outside the region and employ only a handful of local villagers, as guards. In addition, the mining has caused health and environment problems, confirmed by a Ministry of Health study. But when a villager complained to the police on February 6, 2006, they arrested five residents for one week. One of those arrested told Human Rights Watch that two captains (names withheld by Human Rights Watch), one hailing from Ta’if and the other being of Yemeni origin, “said to me that the arrest came on the direction of the governor. I was told to sign the following pledge, ‘I will not ask to have the injury removed from me, and I will not inconvenience the companies and the officials with complaints.’ They released me although I did not sign. The other four did.”174

Shaikhs Mas’ud Al Haidar and Ahmad Al Sa’b in a grievance letter of May, 17, 2006 complained that the only official response to a  petition, “The Homeland for All, All for the Homeland,” signed by 1,200 Najranis and calling for civic action for the betterment of Najran, was harassment of the signers.175

153 Email communication from an Ismaili in Najran, IN7, to Human Rights Watch, February 1, 2008. This was unlike the municipal council in mixed Shia and Sunni al-Ahsa’, in the Eastern Province, where the government appointed Sunnis to balance the elected Shia.

154 Human Rights Watch interview with Shaikh Mas’ud bin Haidar of the elected municipal council, Najran, December 12, 2006.

155 Email communication from an Ismai’li in Najran, IN3, to Human Rights Watch, January 23, 2008.

156 Human Rights Watch interview with a council member (name withheld), Najran, December 12, 2006, and with elected council member to al-Ahsa’ council (name withheld), Hofuf, February 2006.

157 Human Rights Watch interview with an Ismaili, IN5, Najran, December 14, 2006.

158  A relative of his, Shaikh Abu Saq, concluded the agreement with King Abd al-‘Aziz in the 1930s joining Najran to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and giving assurances of religious autonomy to the Ismailis.

159 Human Rights Watch had numerous discussions on this matter with the two prominent Ismailis who did not gain a position on the board, as well as with other staff and board members of the Human Rights Commission from 2006-2007.

160 The government in mid-2008 removed this judge. Human Rights Watch telephone interview with IR4, Riyadh, August 26, 2008.

161 Human Rights Watch interview with Salih ‘Amir, Manama, July 5, 2006.

162 Charity officials declined to speak to Human Rights Watch’ repeated attempts to reach them in August 2008.

163 Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Sabah, al-Khobar, April 25, 2008.

164 Letter by 12 Ismaili Personalities to Secretary-General of the National Dia logue Center, February 23, 2004.

165 “Al-Najim Issues Decision to Remove Fatima Al Tisan from Position of Director of Public Relations”, Sawt al-Okhdood online news forum, December 5, 2006, (accessed November 12, 2007). Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Fatima Al Tisan, Riyadh, early December 2006.

166 “Al-Najim Issues Decision to Remove Fatima al Tisan from Position of Director of Public Relations”, Sawt al-Okhdood.

167 Qiss bin Sa’ida al-Iyadi was a pre-Islamic poet whose work the Prophet Muhammad praised. Proceedings of the Doha Conference of ‘Ulamâ on Islam and Cultural Heritage, Doha, Qatar, December 30-31, 2001, UNESCO, April 2005, (accessed April 25, 2008).

168 Human Rights Watch interview with Salih ‘Amir, Najran, December 13, 2006.

169 Human Rights Watch interview with Khalid, Manama, July 6, 2006.

170 “Saudi Shiites protest ‘Wahhabi repression,’” Kuwait Times, September 5, 2006.

171 Human Rights Watch interview with Dr. Muhammad Al ‘Askar and Khalid, Riyadh, November 30, 2006.

172 Human Rights Watch interview with Khalid, Manama, July 6, 2006. Human Rights Watch has seen a copy of the letter in question.

173 Human Rights Watch interview with Salih, Najran, December 15, 2006.

174 Human Rights Watch interview with Mundhir, Najran, December 14, 2006.

175 Mas’ud Al Haidar and Shaikh Amad Al Sa’b, “Justice is the Foundation of Rule”, p. 4.