The building for conjugal visits on the right, the ceremony hall on the left, and in front of us the massive complex of Hair prisons, few kilometres away from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. "We have nothing to hide, the doors of our prisons are open" is the slogan welcoming visitors at the entrance. In these prisons, the de-radicalization program starts and it continues in the rehabilitation center.
Last March I had the chance – which is rare for a Western woman researcher – of carrying out a research trip in Saudi Arabia on behalf of al-Mesbar Studies & Research Centre in Dubai, UAE. During the trip, it was possible to observe how Saudis deal with terrorism-related crimes in prisons and in the Muhammad Bin Nayef Counselling and Care Center, created less than fifteen years ago by the Prince Bin Nayef aiming to de-radicalize and rehabilitate former terrorists and individuals charged with terrorism-related offences.
After the attacks that took place in the Kingdom of al-Saud in 2003, the Royal Family fostered the implementation of soft counterterrorism strategies besides the repressive approach, with the aim of fighting the ideological and religious justifications for jihadism.
The strategy is based on the acronym PRAC, "Prevention", "Rehabilitation", "Aftercare", in which the rehabilitation phase plays a major role and benefits from the majority of resources. The program sees the light of day in prison, where it is carried out by psychologists, psychiatrists, Islamic jurisprudence experts, and imams. After serving their sentence, individuals are moved to the rehabilitation center, where they are supposed to complete the process with the help of a team of experts from different backgrounds who, at the end of the stay, will give their opinion on whether the inmate should be released or sent back to jail.
As far as the prisons are concerned, the inmates in the five jurisdictions of Riyadh, Damman, Jeddah, Qasim, and the Southern Area are 4,993. 1,054 individuals are between 26 and 30 years old, which makes this age span the most represented. In most of the cases, prisoners have been sentenced for terrorism-related activities, drug crimes, and murders perpetrated in the framework of intertribal conflicts. Regarding the first group, the individuals are usually former members or active sympathizers of al-Qa’ida and Da’ish. Within the facility there is a fully equipped, free hospital, all levels of education are available and many inmates graduates every year. There are libraries, painting and recording studios and it is possible for prisoners to get married, which has happened three times since 2007. All the inmates, men and women, have the right to a minimum of two conjugal visits per month in rooms with no cameras. Moreover, every day for four hours men work in two huge greenhouses, cultivating vegetables that will be eaten in prison. According to a prisoner, "Agriculture helps inmates to develop project management skills and new sense of belonging to the land". More tangibly, after being released many of them set up businesses based on the new expertise. Recently, the Bayt al-‘Aily, “Family House” has been included in the complex. It consists of a series of apartments in which the meritorious inmates can spend with their families up to three consecutive days with no cameras, ceasing to be called prisoners and becoming guests. From an organizational perspective, almost every ministry has a permanent office within the penitentiary. Most importantly, it is worth mentioning the presence of a Human Rights Office, which has been extensively underlined by prison authorities in favour of a Western observer.
After their release, detainees charged with terrorism offences are transferred to the Muhammad Bin Nayef Counselling and Care Center. Its project started in 2004 following a royal decree, and the Centre hosted 3,181 people so far. In the last decade, former Guantanamo detainees represent a high percentage. The counselling action is performed by a team of professionals and scholars of multiple disciplines such as psychology, sociology, Islamic studies, and it is divided into a number of departments leading different activities, ranging from sharia studies to history, from sport to professional training.
Assessing the prison conditions, a number of researchers highlighted the many privileges that detainees enjoy, and someone referred to Hair complex and the Bin Nayef Center as “luxury hotels for terrorists”. Even though the living conditions of prisoners are undoubtedly uncommon, this definition is simplistic and misleading. Indeed, in spite of the excesses, the Saudi program seems to have solid pillars and a good level of effectiveness. According to the official statistics, the success rate is between 80 and 90%, even though it is advisable to wait few more years in order to have reliable figures on relapses. As far as the basics of the approach are concerned, there are two fundamental fields in which the program is structured. Firstly, a deep reinterpretation of the Islamic message aimed at opposing the jihadi perspective, which had led individuals to ideologically and practically accept violence as a means for change. Secondly, the simultaneous development of the so-called intimā’ waṭany, the national belonging fostered to enhance the trust in the Kingdom and discourage violent opposition. One of the writings at the entrance of the facility effectively shows the way in which the rehabilitation system seizes key concepts of the jihadi discourse to create alternative narratives. It commemorates police officers who died as martyrs of their duty. The choice of using the term shuhadā’ (sing. shahid), “martyrs”, for police officers and placing it side by side with the concept of duty in the national sense, represents an ideological challenge to the jihadi rhetoric that should not be underestimated. The works painted by detainees tend to show a similar, unprecedented affection for their homeland. The choice of including painting activities in the daily routine is significant per se considered that some ultra-conservative interpretations of Islam forbid the representation of real subjects, since it would mean wanting to replace God in the creative process. Both in prison and in the Center, the paintings contain explicit nationalistic messages, with “Da’ish and his sisters” physically defeated by the punch of National Security.
However, despite the undisputed strength of the national narrative, some doubts persist over the nature or the rehabilitation program. In detail, during the close observation of the process two major risks have been individuated. Firstly, the risk of gradually normalizing jihadi violence: if terrorism is something that simply happens and perpetrators can always be rehabilitated, the danger is that it might be partly normalized as an undeletable phenomenon, which could be ultimately fought only a posteriori. Secondly, as far as the fostering of national belonging is concerned, it seems to imply a different conception of violence in the Kingdom and abroad, the former being completely unacceptable and the latter much more overlooked during the ideological action within the Center.
Sara Brzuszkiewicz, PhD Student at the Catholic University of Milan and Junior Researcher at Fondazione ENI - Enrico Mattei (FEEM)