Cable reference id: #09JEDDAH489

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Reference id aka Wikileaks id #241673  ? 

SubjectRediscovering Southern Arabia: Najran, The Emirate Of King Abdullah’s Son Prince Mishal
OriginConsulate Jeddah (Saudi Arabia)
Cable timeFri, 25 Dec 2009 07:26 UTC
ClassificationCONFIDENTIAL
Sourcehttp://wikileaks.org/cable/2009/12/09JEDDAH489.html
References09DHAHRAN258, 09RIYADH482, 09STATE120774
History
  • Time unknown: Original unredacted version, leaked to Wikileaks
  • Thu, 1 Sep 2011 23:24: Original unredacted version published, with HTML goodies

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C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 05 JEDDAH 000489

SIPDIS

DEPARTMENT FOR NEA/ARP, NEA/PPD, EEB/ESC, DRL, INR/OPS

E.O. 12958: DECL: 12/22/2019
TAGS: KIRF [International Religious Freedom], KPAO [Public Affairs Office], PGOV [Internal Governmental Affairs], PHUM [Human Rights], PINR [Intelligence], PREL [External Political Relations], PTER [Terrorists and Terrorism], SA [Saudi Arabia], SCUL [Cultural Affairs],
SOCI [Social Conditions], YM [Yemen]
SUBJECT: REDISCOVERING SOUTHERN ARABIA: NAJRAN, THE EMIRATE
OF KING ABDULLAH’S SON PRINCE MISHAL

REF: A. DHAHRAN 258
B. RIYADH 482
C. STATE 120774
D. 06 JEDDAH 738

JEDDAH 00000489 001.2 OF 005

Classified By: Consul General Martin R. Quinn for reasons 1.4(b) and (d
)

¶1. (C) Summary: A ConGen visit to the southern Arabia
emirate of Najran, December 18-19, 2009, revealed a tranquil,
fertile valley tucked within mountainous terrain, where the
traditional way of life has remained surprisingly unaffected
by the recent violence in Yemen, at various points 5-15 km
from Najran city. Prince Mishal bin Abdullah, the new
governor, King Abdullah’s 6th son, friendly and welcoming,
seems popular with his people and supportive of U.S.
interests and engagement, but may be slightly hands-off on
the running of his jurisdiction. The local government has
recently made two large infrastructure investments — a
completed highway and an in-process university; however,
population growth combined with water shortages and lack of
private sector industries have resulted in significant
unemployment, a government-dependent local society, and a
need for increased vocational and female employment. The
visit provided follow-up opportunities for U.S. business
interests, cultural/educational outreach and for deepening
our knowledge of the Shia population. End summary.

MOUNTAINOUS TERRAIN, FERTILE VALLEY, CONSERVATIVE SOCIETY

¶2. (SBU) Surrounded by large mountains and rock formations,
Najran is located in a green valley from 5-15 km north of the
Yemen border at an elevation of almost 4,000 feet. Driving
for 2 hours between Abha and Najran, ConGen officers passed
small, scattered villages, with several rock quarries and a
new cement plant along the way. The town of Najran is not
conspicuously affluent, but endowed with farmable land and
some tourist attractions of historical value, such as the
extensive Al Okhdood archaeological site. While a general
impression of picturesque rural poverty registered with us,
contrary to impressions in earlier reporting from a decade
ago, we saw no beggars, no vagrants, and no obvious
manifestations of popular discontent. The emirate’s
population of around 700,000, which doubled over the past 20
years, pursues a traditional lifestyle, sustaining themselves
mainly through agriculture, small trade, and mining — those
who are not employed by the government. The local mineral
water bottling factory (owned by Jeddah businessman,
Stanford-educated Dr. Musallam Musallam, chairman of SKAB)
has a 30% Saudi work force, most of whom were described as
biding their time until they find higher-paying, less
strenuous government jobs. As a result of dramatic
population growth and the water shortage, unemployment is
becoming a problem. As expected outside the Kingdom’s major
cities, Najran’s society is conservative and male-dominated,
exemplified by our noticing no more than 6 female citizens
over the course of a two-day visit, whether in the markets,
on the streets, or in other cars. Despite the presence of a
fluent Arabic-speaking female officer as part of our
delegation, we were able to engage with no Najrani women.

LITTLE APPARENT EFFECT OF YEMEN BORDER ISSUES

¶3. (C) We were surprised by the absence of heightened
military/security presence so near the Yemen border. An
atmosphere of calm and nonchalance prevailed in Najran as its
citizens went about their daily lives, only dimly aware of
the action involving the Houthis on the border of neighboring
Jizan. During our stay, we saw nothing suggesting ongoing
military activity in Najran or the presence of Yemeni
refugees; neither did we hear any explosions or gunfire from
across the Yemeni border. Two Najran interlocutors did
acknowledge they occasionally, at night, heard sounds of
explosions coming from a distance, over the mountains (ref

JEDDAH 00000489 002.2 OF 005

A). The only hint of anything out of the ordinary was an
uninhabited camp consisting of roughly 100 small tents
observed by the roadside halfway between Abha and Najran,
near the town of Dhahran Al Jonoub. We later learned these
camps were set up as temporary housing for Yemenis crossing
the border, consistent with the message from Najran
government officials that they are prepared in case the
conflict spreads to their region. Most Najranis with whom we
spoke, ranging from shopkeepers to businessmen and government
officials, described life in Najran as unchanged, contrasting
with the upheaval experienced further west in Jizan. Most
were dismissive of the suggestion that there had been any
interruption to the normal course of their quiet lives.
Additionally, our interlocutors (many of whom were Shia
themselves), described the Shia sentiment in the region as
supportive of the Saudi position toward the Houthis. Prince
Mishal bin Abdullah, the new governor of Najran since March
2009, explained the calm as due to the Najran government
receiving cooperation from the Yemeni border tribes, who have
helped to keep the Houthis at bay. Although only 80 km of
the 1,200 km border is fenced, with the rest guarded by
roving patrols, the director of the Agricultural Research
Center remarked that no Yemenis have crossed the border
looking for work during the past 2 months. Additionally,
contacts pointed out that there is much more intermarriage
between Saudis and Yemenis of the same tribe in the Jizan
area, leading to increased cross-border traffic, wheeas the
social ties between Najranis and Yemenisare more distant.
Due to its relative geographicl isolation as fertile town
ringed round by mounains, Najran gives the impression of
supporting aself-sufficient if in-bred culture.

PORTRAIT O THE NEW GOVERNOR: PRINCE MISHAL BIN BDULLAH BIN
ABDUL AZIZ

¶4. (C) Prince Mishal bin Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz, the sixth
son of King Abdullah with wife Princess Tady bint Mishaan Al
Faisal Al Jarba, was appointed Governor of Najran in March
2009, taking over for sixty-two-year-old Prince Mishal bin
Saud bin Abdul Aziz, who served as governor for 18 years (ref
B). A young man in his early forties, the new Mishal is
reportedly far more popular with the citizens of Najran than
was his predecessor. Two men in Prince Mishal’s office who
also served under the former governor described him as a
“Governor of the People,” consistent with previous reporting
on Mishal’s efforts to improve Najranis’ quality of life.
The prince is reported to have changed most of his immediate
staff upon arrival, with the exception of the public
relations department: Ibrahim Al-Sedran and Majed Aseery,
our escorts during the visit. In our conversation with
Prince Mishal, he projected a friendly, welcoming demeanor,
good English, and was open to and very interested in all
forms of increased U.S./Saudi cooperation in his region. He
appeared not to be preoccupied with the minutiae of
day-to-day administration, spoke in generalities, and did not
volunteer great detail about new initiatives such as the
Najran Holding Company for creating an industrial city,
strategies for handling the Yemen issue, or the unemployment
problem. It appeared to us that day-to-day matters are likely
handled by his right-hand man and office director, Dr. Sultan
Muhammed Al Haza’a.

¶5. (C) The Prince was vague about his academic background,
answering “everywhere” when asked where he studied his
English, before finally indicating the UK, without specifying
an institution (though he has no hint of a British accent).
Born in Riyadh, he spent part of his education in the U.S.
and UK, before returning to Riyadh to work at MFA, rising to
a high-level post in the National Guard, and serving as an
advisor at the Royal Court. Prince Mishal confessed his
surprise at his father’s appointing him governor of Najran,
remarking that he had only visited Najran twice before. Now,
the prince said, he “loves Najran.” Married in January 2009
to a distant cousin, Princess Loulouah bint Nawaf bin
Mohammed bin Abdullah bin Abdulrahman Al Saud, Mishal seems

JEDDAH 00000489 003.2 OF 005

well-traveled, specifically mentioning how much he enjoyed
Las Vegas, while fondly reminiscing about his 8-month tour in
New York in 2006 representing the SAG at the United Nations.
(Note: Mishal’s father-in-law, Nawaf, is on the board of the
Football Federation, President of the Amateur Athletic
Federation, and is active in business. End note.) Perhaps
not the best student in his youth, a possible reason for the
ambiguity, Mishal is well-mannered, supportive of U.S.
interests, with a good command of English and appears to be
popular in Najran. Whether officially encouraged or a
manifestation of public affection, the new governor’s image
appears everywhere on signboards throughout the city; one
verbal tribute to him was even painted on a granite
mountainside.

INFRASTRUCTURE: NEW ROAD, NEW UNIVERSITY, OLD DAM, WATER
SHORTAGES

¶6. (C) The government of Najran has made significant
infrastructure investments recently, exemplified by the new
four-lane highway connecting Abha and Najran, which in the
past 5 months has dramatically cut the time needed for the
300 km trip in half to 2.5 hours, and the new
multi-billion-riyal Najran University campus project,
expected to be one of the largest in the the Kingdom upon
completion in the next five years. Current student
enrollment is 16,000 and rising. We visited the Najran Dam,
a 277 million SAR ($74 million) project completed in 1982 by
French engineers as a solution to the flash flood problem
during annual rains, said to be so intense during the fall
that schools years ago used to close for a month. Ironically,
during the nearly three decades since the construction of the
imposing, 73 meter high dam, Najran has experienced severe
drought, a fact wryly noted by Najranis conscious of the
serious water shortage. As in most of the region, the water
shortage is a major challenge in Najran, with an economy
especially dependent on agriculture. Officials at the Najran
Agricultural Research Center, an organization aiming to
improve horticulture technology for food sustainability,
mainly in the citrus sector, stated that during the years of
drought Najran’s annual demand for water has actually risen
over three times its annual supply. The Agricultural Center’s
current solution of piping in underground water from the
Empty Quarter desert appears short-term at best. At worst,
the effort may further deplete ground water. According to
one source, wells which used to strike water at 30-40 meters,
must now be extended to at least 80 meters.

MORE PEOPLE, LESS WATER, FEWER JOBS, WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?

¶7. (C) The population boom over the past generation,
coupled with the water shortage and the lack of development
of any significant industry in Najran, has created a society
with unemployment problems that is heavily dependent upon the
government. Ali Yehia Al Hayani (strictly protect), a member
of Prince Mishal’s public relations department who also
contributes to “Al Iqtisadia” Arabic daily as a Najran
stringer, declared that “social change must happen.” His
monthly salary of 3,000 SAR ($800) as a mid-level civil
servant is not enough to make ends meet, especially since 50%
of his salary must pay the rent. As a result, Ali’s wife
works as a teacher to supplement the family income.
Moreover, Ali and many of his government colleagues are
considering taking jobs in Riyadh and Jeddah in the private
sector since there are no private sector options in Najran.
One way to combat this problem may be to increase employment
for women and for Saudis in vocational sectors, huge social
changes given the conservatism of Najran society. According
to Professor Mohammed Ibrahim Al Hassan, UCLA Ph.D. organic
chemist, former vice rector of King Saud University, and the
President of the 3-year-old Najran University, 70% of the
university’s students are female, whereas according to Ali Al
Hayani, Najranis wouldn’t even consider sending their
daughters to universities only a few years ago. Reportedly

JEDDAH 00000489 004.2 OF 005

many local Saudi women are already working in hospitals as
doctors, nurses and medical technologists. In addition to
increased female participation in the work force, and
broadening the programs of public sector institutions like
the university, another option to combat unemployment in
Najran is to have more Saudis work in vocational-level
employment — generally a hard sell in Saudi
“prestige-oriented” society. Professor Al Hassan stated that
the 95% rate of high school students matriculating into
universities is actually a bad thing, as it means that all
those students will expect to work in high-level, managerial
jobs and very few as technicians, mechanics and craftsmen.

A SMALL GLIMPSE OF DEMOCRACY AND DEBATE THROUGH THE NAJRAN
CHAMBER OF COMMERCE

¶8. (U) The Board of the Najran Chamber of Commerce and
Industry is made up of 12 members, 8 directly elected and 4
appointed, while the Chamber itself boasts 10,000 members.
There appears to be a fair level of debate among the board
members, as was seen through a back-and-forth between
Chairman Ali Hamad Al Hamrour and a board member on the topic
of U.S. auto companies during our visit. Of note were the
board’s concerns over GM’s declining presence in the region,
contrasting reports of GM’s failure to provide auto-servicing
to its customers with those of the more successful Toyota and
Ford distributors. The Chamber registered its interest in
encouraging a U.S. trade delegation to visit Najran. Members
also discussed mining’s significant role in Najran’s economy;
Najran produces 70% of KSA’s granite. Najran has
historically mined raw minerals, then shipped the ore to
China and elsewhere for processing and ultimate sale. Najran
is expanding its mining industry to include processing up to
the final finished product within the region, rather than
sending it elsewhere. Impression conveyed is that American
involvement in mining would be welcome. Although Najran
lacks major private-sector industry, there is a market for
U.S. goods, services and know-how in the sectors of water
technology, automobiles, mining, furniture and clothing. We
heard comments about the low prices and quality of Chinese
and Singaporean retail goods coupled with a stated desire to
purchase higher quality, longer lasting American merchandise
— if only they were locally available. Nearest outlets are
in Abha, 2.5 hours away by car on the new highway.

¶9. (C) Chamber of Commerce board members clearly represent
the Najran economic elite and were described by one Oklahoma
University graduate, and failed citrus farmer (1,000 of his
trees dying due to the water shortage and increased
salinity), employed since the late 1970s in a salaried
position at the governorate, as “a lot of rich people with no
idea about how to invest or spend their money.” This comment
by our host for the first evening (who then disappeared) was
one potentially revealing indication of tension between the
“haves” and the “have nots” of Najran society.

A STEP BACK IN TIME — AL OKHDOOD AND AN ANCIENT GRIEVANCE

¶10. (U) Of cultural and historic significance in Najran is
the pre-Islamic archaeological site, Al Okhdood. Founded in
the 7th century BC, with a history traceable back 4,000
years, this 5 km long farming city survived into the 10th
century AD. Such was its power and influence along the
trading/incense route that it is even mentioned in the Quran
(Surah 85, Al-Buruj) as the site of the reported persecution
and slaughter (in a trench/pit of fire) of early Najran
Christians by Dhu Nawas, described as “a cruel Jewish king of
Yemen.” What are believed to be the charred remains of the
pit were pointed out to us, without great elaboration or any
attempt to suggest contemporary applications. The Quranic
reference may be a key reason why the site is being excavated
as a tourist attraction. School groups regularly tour the
site, which has been developed since 1986. Wall carvings,
coins, shards and other recovered artifacts provide glimpses

JEDDAH 00000489 005.2 OF 005

into the social and political conditions of the city before
the Islamic era. With the blessing of Prince Sultan bin
Salman bin Abdul Aziz, the President of the Saudi Commission
for Tourism and Antiquities, the Commission is currently
restoring Al Okhdood’s center, which includes a fortress and
mosque, cataloguing and deciphering their finds in a small,
well-maintained, respectably-appointed museum. Museum/site
director, Saleh Mohamed Al Mereih (potential candidate for an
IVLP program), is a Najran native, receiving bachelor’s and
master’s degrees at Riyadh’s King Saud University. We were
informed that the Al Okhdood site attracted 70,000 visitors
last year, mostly Saudi tourists, who generally stay in the
city’s 22 hotels, only two of which, Holiday Inn and Hyatt,
can be considered 4-star or better.

COMMENT: FOLLOW-UP OPPORTUNITIES

¶11. (C) Comment: Our 2-year overdue visit to Najran
resulted in updated contact information, follow-up options,
and a few surprises. Expected were the economic problems
associated with population growth and the water shortage, the
hospitality of the governor and his staff, and the
traditional, down-scale nature of life outside major cities.
We were surprised by the absence of an obvious
military/security presence given the proximity of the Yemen
conflict, the fertility of the land, and the efficiency
achieved by the completion of the new Abha-Najran highway.
Post will pursue with the Najran Chamber of Commerce the
possibility of attracting U.S. business to the region and
with Prince Mishal’s office for training in English language
instruction and a presentation on U.S. educational
opportunities. Subsequent visits may shed more light on the
status, issues and attitudes of Najran’s majority Shia
community. End comment.

QUINN