Saudi Arabia has been tagged as a "sponsor of terrorism" ever since the 9/11 attacks, owing to the involvement of prominent Saudi citizens in al-Qaida, including the groupʹs erstwhile leader Osama bin Laden. Has Saudi Arabia succeeded in rehabilitating its image on the international stage?

Abu Haniyya: Saudi Arabia has made some moves, but the path currently being pursued is a dangerous one. Riyadh is in danger of getting rid of the very legitimacy on which its state was founded, namely the combination of Wahhabist Salafist ideology and the al-Saud tribe. The advent of Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman has weakened this axis. The religious institutions are being increasingly marginalised, while the royal modernisation programme is looking to replace the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue with the Entertainment Authority.

Yet, the fact is that Saudi society has not accepted these changes. Saudi Arabia may have a modern liberal economy, but its political and cultural environment is anything but. Human rights, democracy and womenʹs rights are still lacking, whilst security controls are tight. There have been a few cosmetic changes, but they have had no impact on the core pillars of the system on which Saudi Arabia was been built.

The U.S. has been engaged in its international war against terrorism for the past 17 years and over the course of 5 presidential terms. Clearly, the process of ending it has become hugely complicated. Is it possible that what has been called an "exceptional" war will become a permanent fact for generations to come?

Abu Haniyya: No doubt. There is an utter lack of any definition of terrorism. The UN has consistently failed to come up with a clear definition of the term, so as to avoid having to prosecute states for actions amounting to "crimes against humanity". This legal dilemma has a political aspect and is determined by the national interests of major players. The U.S., with its support for autocratic regimes, has failed to reach a just solution to the Palestinian question. It has even abandoned the two-state solution for the sake of the "deal of the century".

Thus, Washington is turning the phenomenon of terrorism into a growing problem. The end of al-Qaida was much vaunted during the Bush Jr. and Obama eras, but now we are being confronted on the ground with the fact that these organisations are back, with the Taliban in Afghanistan and "Daʹesh" who returned to Iraq after the American withdrawal. The reality is that the U.S. has failed in its war on terror and must develop new tools to deal with it.

But arenʹt the U.S. and Russia – newly active in the region by means of the Syrian gateway – simply using the same excuses?

Abu Haniyya: Russiaʹs involvement is bound to shed yet more blood. And violence inspired by belief will find new excuses to prove that the region and Islam are under siege yet again. Let us not forget that the jihadist phenomenon originated in Afghanistan in the war against the Russians; it is Russia that is now returning to the heart of the Arab world. I believe that extremism will take a much broader approach, with clashes and conflicts taking place either through proxies or by direct confrontations.

Where does Europe stand amid the transformations caused by the war on terror?

Abu Haniyya: Europe, in turn, bears a heavy share of responsibility for the current situation, with the issue of foreign fighters having become an increased focus since the 1980s. Recently we have seen how, with reference to Iraq and Syria, Europe has developed anti-terrorism laws to hunt down fighters, to the point of withdrawing their nationalities. Internally at the very least, Europe has thus retracted some of its existing liberal rights, fuelling the debate about identity and integration, not to mention Islamophobia. Similarly right-wing populist parties have sprung up, touting blatantly Islamophobic rhetoric. All this has created a highly conducive environment for polarisation and recruitment within the Islamist camp. Since the Arab Spring, more than 6,000 fighters have been recruited, 600 of them women, in an unprecedented challenge to European countries.

Interview conducted by Ouifaq Benkiran

© 2018

Translated from the Arabic by Chris Somes-Charlton

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