Great opportunity for UK, Saudi Arabia to cooperate in countering extremism

Mubaraz Ahmed
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While the UK Government will undoubtedly be keen to use Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s visit to the UK to foster closer economic ties with the Kingdom, policymakers would be wise to use the opportunity to develop greater cooperation to counter Islamist extremism. In this regard, Britain has much to learn, but also much to offer.

Ahead of the visit, the Crown Prince highlighted the important strategic relationship between the UK and Saudi Arabia, whose close-knit association stretches back decades, rightly emphasizing the security challenge from extremism the two countries share. Here in the West, we often appear to forget that Muslims themselves are the biggest victims of the violence of groups like ISIS.

Officials from both sides are keen to make progress in this area. Discussions are expected to take place on how Britain and Saudi Arabia could further strengthen their longstanding military cooperation and intelligence sharing activities, with the Crown Prince due to participate in briefings from senior figures from the UK’s military and intelligence agencies. But while such collaborative efforts are necessary and important, more can be gained by both sides.

Conviction, clarity and coherence

As part of his broad, sweeping and ambitious plans to revolutionize Saudi Arabia, economically, socially and religiously, the Crown Prince has demonstrated a level of conviction, clarity and coherence in identifying and understanding the nature of Islamist extremism that Western policymakers should seek to learn from. Britain should learn from Saudi Arabia and how it has demonstrated a clear commitment to tackling the politicization of Islam to inform policymaking, with no moral ambiguity in delineating Islam, the faith, from Islamism, a politicised ideology.

Conversely, Britain should share its knowledge, experience and expertise in developing a multi-stakeholder, multi-disciplinary approach to countering extremism in the pre-criminal space. Britain has learnt, through trial and error, some valuable lessons in how best to address extremism, such as the government’s role in coordinating, convening and supporting efforts, rather than fronting and delivering, and the invaluable role played by families and communities in parallel to that of the government and law enforcement.

Empowering, engaging civil society

As Saudi Arabia continues along its upwards trajectory outlined by the Crown Prince’s ambitious Vision 2030 plans, Britain can play a role in empowering and engaging civil society to help forge the open, tolerant and vibrant society the Kingdom is seeking to establish. Such drastic change in such a short space of time is likely to result in tensions between conservatives and modernists, traditionalists and innovators, those with a closed-minded view of the world and those with an open-minded approach.

Through exchanges of culture, knowledge and experiences, Britain can, and should, play an active role in both helping Saudi Arabia navigate the challenges and realize the opportunities that lie ahead. An open, outward facing Saudi Arabia, one focused on national, regional and international co-existence, has the potential to be a powerful force for social economic prosperity in the Middle East and beyond.

And perhaps the most telling statement from the Crown Prince, one that underscores the ambitions he has for transforming the Kingdom socially and economically, is his urgency in wanting to bring about change, admitting that “70% of the Saudis are younger than 30. Honestly, we won’t waste 30 years of our life combating extremist thoughts, we will destroy them now and immediately.”

Mubaraz Ahmed

The domestic counter-extremism efforts in Saudi Arabia and Britain could be significantly strengthened through mutual cooperation to build on, and complement, existing joint counter-terror efforts. The threat from Islamist extremism cannot be adequately combated through conventional security and counter-terror measures alone, the ideology must also be dismantled.

Vital partners

In this regard, allies like Saudi Arabia, who are cognizant of the rich Islamic tradition, imbued with both its values and culture, are vital partners in bringing clarity to the fight against Islamism. There is no moral dilemma or hesitance in drawing a clear and distinct line between Islam and Islamism, something that Western policymakers have struggled to do effectively or confidently.

The British government is often criticized by so-called representative Muslim organisations of pursuing an Islamophobic agenda with its counter-extremism policies and practices, despite the government’s instance on distinguishing between Islam and Islamism.

Learning from partners like Saudi Arabia, whose experience in combating the ideological underpinnings of extremism go back further than our own, would not only bring a distinct level of clarity to the conversation, but also give confidence to the government in knowing that their approach is in keeping with the response to the same threat in Muslim majority countries, where the same policy prescriptions and programs would never be accused of being Islamophobic.

The Crown Prince has constantly expressed his determination to return Saudi Arabia to a “moderate Islam,” and has reached out to the international community to help support his efforts to transform the Kingdom into an open society. Britain, as a close ally of Saudi Arabia, has much to offer in this regard and should be willing to play a key role in realising the revolutionary reforms.

There will undoubtedly be detractors, some with genuine concerns about the changes taking place in Saudi Arabia and the broader region. Many continue to peddle age-old adages of Saudi Arabia, without acknowledging the threat that Saudi Arabia itself faces from terrorism and how its leadership is determined to make amends.

Candid reflections

In an interview last year, the Crown Prince shared candid reflections about the state of affairs with religious extremism and conservatism in the Kingdom, saying:

“What happened in the last 30 years is not Saudi Arabia. What happened in the region in the last 30 years is not the Middle East. After the Iranian revolution in 1979, people wanted to copy this model in different countries, one of them is Saudi Arabia. We didn’t know how to deal with it. And the problem spread all over the world. Now is the time to get rid of it.”

And perhaps the most telling statement from the Crown Prince, one that underscores the ambitions he has for transforming the Kingdom socially and economically, is his urgency in wanting to bring about change, admitting that “70% of the Saudis are younger than 30. Honestly, we won’t waste 30 years of our life combating extremist thoughts, we will destroy them now and immediately.”

The relationship between Britain and Saudi Arabia was forged during a period of great upheaval and instability in the Middle East during the 1980s. The 1979 revolution in Iran, where hard-line clerics deposed the Shah and sought to export their narrow, politicised articulation of Islam throughout the region, brought Britain and Saudi Arabia closer together.

The landscape of the Middle East today presents a similar picture. ISIS may have been militarily defeated in Iraq, but the threat of extremist violence in the region continues to loom large, while the proliferation of ideologically-motivated, Iranian-backed militias is also a cause for grave concern. The threats faced by Saudi Arabia and Britain today are transnational, and so too must the response be.

Mubaraz Ahmed, is an Analyst at the Tony Blair Institute.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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