Riyadh, the stronghold of Wahhabism and Saudi Islamic conservatism, is also home to a luxury rehab center for jihadists. A paradoxical combination, considering the position of Saudi Arabia on the playing field of the Middle East: both as an ally of the West (first and foremost of the U.S.) and also as the chief ideological patron of Islamist culture.
The Mohammed Bin Nayef Counseling and Care Center is a facility for the de-radicalization and rehabilitation of terrorists. An indoor swimming pool, sun terraces and spaces for practicing various sports are just some of the amenities provided by the complex. The center is a halfway house between prison and release, whose stated goal is ideological therapy rather than coercion. The clerics and psychologists heading the facility are focusing on the rehabilitation of the jihadists, so that they would not again fall for the “seductive” trap of extremist propaganda.
Since it opened in 2003, the center has hosted more than 3,300 people, including some former Guantanamo detainees. According to one of its directors, Yahya Abu Maghayed, who was interviewed by Agence France Press, the course of rehabilitation has a success rate of 86 percent. Former Taliban or members of al-Qaeda follow tailor-made courses of psychological therapy, focusing on reflection, the study of sacred texts and the strengthening of family ties, including the promotion of marriage and having children.
The psychological evolution of each “patient”—this is their preferred term, as the philosophy of the center rejects labels such as “inmate” or “prisoner”—is also evaluated through art therapy: The paintings they produce at the beginning of their stay are compared to those they make after undergoing a number of treatment cycles. In the end, as Abu Maghayed explains, those who refuse the rehabilitation treatment for three months after their admission are returned to “the judicial process.”
The center seems to operate in line with the political program of Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, the 31-year-old heir apparent to the Saudi throne. To render the political changes of his coming rule more concrete, he has already reprimanded the entirety of the Saudi clergy, urging them to push for a more moderate interpretation of Islam.
During the meeting of the Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism held in Riyadh, the prince went on to say that the alliance is committed to doing everything possible to eradicate terrorism from society.
The alliance, which in 2015, the year of its foundation, featured 34 countries, now has 41 members. It goes without saying, however, that it excludes Syria and Iraq, accused of having bankrolled Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Iran, guilty of providing technological tools to the Houthi minority in Yemen, whom the Saudis consider responsible for the repeated attacks against them. Beside military action, the alliance has emphasized the need for a cultural strategy and the dissemination of information to counter terrorism, particularly aimed at young people.
However, the monarchy’s agenda is quite a bit more controversial than it claims. Even leaving aside the episode of the resignation, broadcast live on a Saudi TV channel, of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, a de facto hostage of Riyadh, one cannot ignore the fact that Saudi Arabia has always financed and spread every type of Sunni extremism, including its most dogmatic and intolerant forms, such as Wahhabism and Salafism.
The final aim of the Saudis’ policies is the isolation of Tehran’s through the neutralization of its key regional allies, Syria and Iraq, and the relaunch of a smear campaign against the Shi’ites.
We should keep in mind the fact that the apparent change of course in Riyadh has come only a few months after the visit of President Donald Trump in May. Then, the tycoon signed a $110 billion deal with King Salman for the purchase of weapons and security systems by the Saudis. The deal set out an even more ambitious goal, aiming to reach the figure of $350 billion over 10 years. After the years of caution under Obama, the Washington-Riyadh axis seems to be back to the strength it had before.
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