x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Saudi Arabia rehabilitates extremists with spa treatments and saunas

Saudi Arabia takes an innovative new approach to rehabilitating captured jihadist militants.

Saudi Arabia's authorities have adopted a rather unlikely new approach to turning militants against the jihadist cause: pampering them silly at a luxury resort.

In an effort to deradicalise extremists, the government has set up rehabilitation centres in Riyadh and Jeddah, with three more planned for the northern, southern and eastern regions.

The one in Riyadh, which houses 228 inmates, is the most luxurious of the two, boasting an Olympic-sized swimming pool, a sauna, a gym, a television hall and, implausible as it may seem, a place where inmates can go for complimentary spa treatments.

It may be more Club Med than Zero Dark Thirty, but it seems to work. So far, fewer than 10 per cent of the 2,336 prisoners who have passed through the system have rejoined extremist organisations such as Al Qaeda, according to the Saudi authorities.

The programme is run by the Prince Mohammed bin Nayef Center for Counselling and Care, which was established seven years ago following a clampdown on what is known as "the deviant group".

The prince spearheaded a drive against Al Qaeda in reaction to attacks between 2003 and 2006 that left about 150 people dead. The prince himself survived a suicide bomb attack during a Ramadan gathering in Jeddah in 2009.

Using a combination of seminars, counselling, exercise and recreation, the programme aims to persuade militants to choose a more moderate ideological path and embrace the "true Islam" by deconstructing their understanding of their faith and influencing how they interpret the Quran and fatwas, particularly those issued by militant ideologues.

Said Al Bish, the director of the centres, explains: "In order to fight terrorism, we must give them an intellectual and psychological balance … through dialogue and persuasion."

The ministry of interior and the security forces assess inmates to determine whether they still pose a threat at the end of the process. Following their release, they are monitored and in some cases kept under constant surveillance.

Successful as it has been, the programme has been criticised in some quarters for not attempting to inculcate inmates with a substantially more progressive world view.

The social scientist Khaled Al Dakheel says: "We cannot know if the programme will succeed in eradicating terrorism and extremism.

"To treat the problem at its root, one should challenge jihadist thought with an enlightened philosophy, not just with other Salafist ideas that are only slightly less extreme.

"There must be pluralism and an acknowledgement of the rights of others to be different."

Meanwhile, in the United Kingdom, the Daily Mail newspaper was typically unimpressed by "Islamic terrorists - some of whom fought and killed British soldiers in Afghanistan" being given such a forgiving path towards rehabilitation.

Nevertheless, this programme must represent a step in the right direction.

Complex problems often require innovative solutions and the Saudi government should be commended for choosing to experiment with a sophisticated, compassionate approach, instead of pursuing a strategy that hinges on intimidation.

If the current hunger strike at the US military's notorious detention facility at Guantanamo Bay is anything to go by, traditional methods serve only to perpetuate the cycle of terror by reinforcing militants' belief that they are being victimised.

Perhaps respect for human dignity will ultimately prove to be the most powerful weapon in the counterterrorism arsenal.

* Paul Muir