The situation of the Saudi Ismailis in Najran, unlike that of the Eastern Province Shia, has not garnered much attention in the international media and among human rights organisations. However, the growing political tension there is caused not so much by Salafi missionary activity as by the discriminatory actions of provincial authorities. In previous years, the authorities have carried out a relatively successful policy of containment of Ismaili dissent by giving community leaders generous subsidies from the state budget in exchange for loyalty to the regime. With the appointment of Prince Mishaal bin Saud, the son of the second king of the Saudi dynasty, to the post of governor in 1997, the situation has started to rapidly deteriorate. Under his governorship, Ismailis were forbidden to use the public call to prayer (including in their own mosques), to celebrate Ashura and to publicly display any other manifestations of their worship, etc. In 2000 the repressive policy of the local authorities even provoked an armed uprising of the Ismailis, who felt that the authorities were not complying with the terms of the agreement on the entry of Najran to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which provided for their religious freedom. During the turmoil of April 2000, protests escalated into open armed confrontations with police and security forces.
The authorities tried to carry out a number of measures that would somehow positively affect the mood of the Ismaili community. However, they never achieved the desired result, and in September 2006, 300 people staged another demonstration with the same demands: to stop the ongoing repression by the authorities, and to release several Ismailis, who had been in prison since 2000.
Among the numerous problems faced by the Ismailis, there was also an attempt made by the authorities to change the ethno-religious structure of the province. Under the former Governor of Najran, a covert program was started to naturalise Yemeni Sunni tribes in the province of Hadhramaut, which were settled on land belonging to the Banu Yam, followed by the acquisition of Saudi citizenship under certain conditions. Moreover, provincial authorities have given all kinds of preferences to Sunni settlers, allowing them to carry weapons and turning a blind eye to their frequent clashes with the local Ismaili population, etc. So in 2006, a group of Ismaili turned to King Abdullah with a petition to suspend the relocation of 10 thousand people from the Yemeni tribes in the lands around Najran, especially along key roads surrounding the city. Activists have repeatedly appealed to both the governor and to the king asking them to cease the implementation of this “deliberate and extensive project” aimed at the gradual dissolution of the Ismailis in the Sunni majority. The official reaction of Riyadh has been restrained as usual, and the existence of such plans was denied. Still, this policy cannot be called very productive or even safe, especially within the context of the fight against the terrorist underground and the “misguided sect”. It must be taken into account that it is precisely from these tribes that Al-Qaeda successfully recruited members for its underground cells in the territory of the kingdom.
A geopolitical situation began to take shape on the Saudi-Yemeni border with armed clashes that had already begun between government troops and Shia-Zaidi insurgents, and that in 2009 grew into intense fighting, in which Saudi troops were directly involved. As a result, Riyadh was forced to change its tactics. Moreover, Riyadh was gravely concerned by the increased activity of Iranian intelligence services, which, according to the Saudis, are counting on destabilisation of the situation in the Shiite areas of the kingdom, which was mentioned repeatedly by the Saudi press. By a royal decree on November 4, 2008, Prince Mishaal Bin Saud was “voluntarily” relieved of his duties as governor.
Thus, King Abdullah acknowledged that he was unable to maintain good relations with the leaders of the Ismaili community and, through his own policy, brought the situation to a standstill. The king’s selection therefore ended with his own son, Prince Mishaal bin Abdullah, who previously held a number of positions in the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The new governor had a reputation as a moderate and progressive representative of the Saudi royal family. Upon filling this post, he then immediately launched a number of proactive measures to reduce tensions in the province, and began to implement several social and humanitarian projects in Najran, including construction of a new university, reconstruction of the local airport, improvement of roadways, bringing in investments, etc.
It is clear that, with Riyadh’s support, the new authorities of Najran chose to follow the course of avoiding unnecessary confrontations as much as possible. One of the indicators of this new policy was the government’s decision regarding the March 2012 conflict surrounding the Saudi satellite channel Awtan, owned by Saudi businessman Abdul Rahman Al-Tayyar. The scandal erupted surrounding a broadcast attended by two Salafi ulema: Mohammed Hijazi and Saad Al-Sabr, and led by the host Sabri Askar, in which direct insults of Ismailis and other “racist comments” were made on air.
Outraged community activists appealed to the governor to look into the matter immediately. Prince Mishaal bin Abdullah went to meet them, and sent a request to the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Culture and Information to conduct out an examination to determine whether incitement to hatred on religious grounds had occurred. Minister Abdul Aziz Khoja found the Ismailis’ claims to be fair, having confirmed that such facts were indeed true, and the examination carried out by his ministry gave a positive result. As a result, the channel was shut down by the order of King Abdullah, and, as reported, an order was also issued by the king to bring all the participants of this program to justice.
Nevertheless, these actions have not entirely satisfied the Ismailis, who once again pointed out that the question of religious tolerance and equality of all subjects within the kingdom, as declared by Riyadh, is still far from being completely resolved. According to several informational Shiite websites, a group of mostly young representatives of the Ismaili community of Najran sent a proposal to the authorities to pass a law that would stipulate criminal penalties for offenses against any subject of Saudi Arabia, verbal or physical, made on religious grounds. In addition, they have included a demand to grant equal rights for all Saudi Arabian subjects, regardless of their religious or tribal affiliation, including the right to hold public or diplomatic office, and to work in a number of other areas — law, education, etc.
In addition, they again demanded an end to the policy of naturalising Yemeni tribes, which can lead, in their opinion, to direct confrontation and conflict between the community and governmental structures. The Ismaili strongly supported the creation of the Centre for Dialogue between Muslim Sects in Riyadh, which was announced by King Abdullah at the recent summit of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation in Mecca in August 2012. The well-known Ismaili activist, Ahmad bin Turki al-Saab, made a statement on his Facebook page on behalf of the “Ismaili Association for the Spread of Tolerance and Patriotism”, in which he called on authorities to include the “Fatimid Ismaili Madhhab” as one of the participants in the dialogue at the Centre with its own “chief representative, elected by the spiritual leadership of the province of Najran.”
It is perfectly clear that Riyadh, fearing Iran’s growing influence not only in the Eastern Province of the Kingdom, but also in the south along the border with Yemen, which is on the verge of collapse, is currently trying to do everything it can to prevent the possibility of an emerging “hot spot ” in Najran. In the case of large-scale unrest among the Ismaili population, the geographical position of the province would allow them to expand subversive and guerrilla activity. Moreover, in the opinion of Saudi strategists, Iran is still examining and trying to make use of the various like-minded Shiite groups in the Kingdom to potentially destabilise its domestic situation.
Of course, it is too early to talk about the emergent separatist tendencies in Najran, as opposed to in the Eastern Province, for example. It is also too soon to draw conclusions about the formation of a systemic political Ismaili opposition in the Kingdom, although the preconditions for this are undoubtedly already there. At this stage, this only seems to apply to the local intelligentsia, which is trying to create structures that could, under certain conditions, become informal political parties, like the “Al-Islahiyah” in the Eastern Province, and could also engage in legitimate dialogue with the authorities. But for now, the “kind intentions” of the ruling Al Saud clan remain the only guarantee of adherence to Ismaili rights, even more so because the process of religious polarisation in Saudi Arabia has not only begun, but is gaining strength. The problem is not with Iran, but rather with Wahhabi Riyadh’s uncompromising policy toward religious minorities, especially those who can somehow be linked to Tehran, in other words, the Shia and Ismailis.
Petr Lvov, Doctor of Political Sciences, exclusively for the “New Eastern Outlook. online magazine.