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Saudi Arabia’s Normalization with Israel Could Be a Security Nightmare

With Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s (MBS) declaration earlier in the year that Israel could be a ‘potential ally’—possibly referring to increased security cooperation between the two countries—many have begun claiming that a future normalization is inevitable. In past years, Saudi Arabia has conditioned such a normalization upon the Palestinians and Israelis coming to a resolution in accordance with the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative. The Kingdom stands to benefit from normalization economically, as Israeli-Saudi mutual investment could go far towards achieving MBS’ “Vision 2030” benchmarks, as well as militarily, as Riyadh and Tel Aviv could begin to openly cooperate through weapons transfers and intelligence sharing. However, normalization with Israel could have a significant downside: it could exacerbate political tensions within the country, as anti-Israeli sentiment is still very common among Saudi citizens. This point is particularly salient when considering the reaction of former Islamist insurgents—insurgents who, during the mid-2000s, were partially motivated to engage in terrorist activities in the region and beyond based on a sense of religious obligation to fight against non-Muslim occupiers (and their allies) within Muslim lands. Saudi Arabia’s close security cooperation with the United States has sometimes led insurgents to target Riyadh for Washington’s actions; from 2003 to 2004, following the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Al-Qaeda-linked militants launched eight terrorist attacks inside the kingdom, leading to widespread panic and a half-decade-long counterterrorism campaign.

Today, a relatively small but still significant number of Saudis are ex-insurgents who formerly fought for groups such as Al-Qaeda. The Kingdom continues to periodically execute captured insurgents on terrorism charges, many of whom the government claims have connections to Al-Qaeda and the “Islamic State” (ISIS). More importantly, however, thousands of these people are now ex-fighters who have successfully gone through Saudi Arabia’s Care Rehabilitation Center,” an exhaustive form of soft counterterrorism that seeks to de-radicalize violent Islamist insurgents and reintegrate them into society. Prior to their capture and deradicalization, many of these fighters joined groups like Al-Qaeda and ISIS out of anger at the West for its perceived abuses against their fellow Muslims, and those terror groups have instrumentalized the Palestinian question to construct an emotion-laden narrative to inspire recruitment and terrorist activities. If Saudi Arabia normalized and openly cooperated with Israel, would these ex-insurgents be prompted to return to violent mobilization, and target the Saudi state? As will be demonstrated, normalization with Israel should not be underestimated as a cultural trigger point that could motivate ex-fighters to mobilize against the state.

Missed A Spot?

For all the criticism it receives, the Saudi Care Rehabilitation Center boasts an 80-90% success rate in de-radicalizing former Islamist insurgents, giving it a recidivism rate far lower than most prisons in the West. Fundamental to the center’s de-radicalization program is demonstrating to the people in the program that the Saudi state cares about them. To this end, rehabilitation centers usually provide a wide array of services, including therapy, sports activities, religious re-education through debates with clerics, government stipends, and sometimes even a car and assistance in finding employment after release. Though this program has so far had an impressive long-term success rate, no information has been published as to whether it has addressed ex-fighters’ views on Israel and what their reactions would be if Saudi Arabia began to openly court it.

It makes sense that the normalization question was not initially accounted for, as the rehabilitation center was established shortly after the 2003-4 attacks in Saudi Arabia—a time at which normalization with Israel, outside the context of an enduring and equitable solution to the Palestinian question, seemed impossible. However, since it emerges as a possible reality today, urgent inquiry must be made into the nature of ex-fighters’ beliefs regarding this scenario. In the past and arguably the present, the Palestinian case has been a salient rallying cry for insurgents to unite out of a sense of solidarity and altruism to protect the transnational community of the Ummah (the Muslim nation.) Al-Qaeda’s founders and main ideologues—Osama Bin Laden, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, and Abdullah Azzam, among others—have all emphasized the religious obligation to wage war against Israel, along with all allies of non-Muslim occupiers of Muslim lands. ISIS has also exploited the Palestine question in similar fashion.

Despite these terrorist groups’ relative failure in conducting attacks within Israel, they have nonetheless continued to emphasize the war with Israel as their ‘end goal,’ to be accomplished after dealing with the ‘near enemy’ (i.e. the ‘treacherous’ Arab states in league with Israel and the West). Moreover, according to the jihadist understanding of the Palestine question as a fundamental part of their ideological doctrine, war with Israel and its allies represents a moral obligation. This means that any Saudi normalization with Israel would constitute a flagrant violation of their belief system and could thus become a highly resonant symbolic grievance that could motivate violent mobilization against the Kingdom. Such a scenario could be a worrying possibility if indeed the Rehabilitation Center has released former fighters back into society without fundamentally uprooting their views on relations with Israel.

Normalization could then act as a cultural trigger point that may rekindle efforts to create clandestine terrorist networks, or motivate the operationalization of pre-existing ones, leading to a resumption of terrorist activity. Put differently, Saudi normalization with Israel, if ex-fighters’ views remain unchanged, may have the same effect as the U.S. invasion of Iraq, which ignited terrorist attacks within the Kingdom in 2003.

What Could be Done to Stop a Disaster

It cannot be said with certainty that normalization is a sufficient variable in sparking terrorist activity in the Kingdom from ex-fighters. Many other factors come into play, such as the extent of Saudi Arabia’s hard and soft crackdown and prevention of insurgents since 2003. Normalization, and the domestic security threats it poses, must be evaluated within the context of 2022, not 2003. However, senses of righteous indignation across history have found ways of expression even within the most restrictive security settings, as in Iranian Revolution in 1979 or Syrian uprising in 2011. As such, we must not underestimate the power of dormant ideological fervor.

The Care Rehabilitation Center has released those who have ideologically disavowed groups such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS and vowed to no longer engage in violence. In this sense, the program has achieved its aims. However, it is not clear whether the center has addressed engaging in violence in relation to normalization with Israel specifically. To increasingly prevent normalization from becoming a cultural trigger point that taps into other possible grievances of recent years—such as the increase in women’s rights, the elimination of the religious police, the hosting of music festivals and other entertainment events, and the general de-emphasis on conservative Islam in public spaces—an inquiry must be made into; first, ex-fighters’ views on normalization to better predict and understand their reactions to that scenario, and second, the status of the Saudi government’s monitoring of ex-fighters. If some ex-fighters have potentially dangerous views, it may be worthwhile to address them through religious debates with respected clerics, similar to those that occurred within the rehabilitation center, as well as monitoring ex-fighters before and after they disavow violence in response to normalization.

In Saudi Arabia, rehabilitated ex-fighters are one of perhaps several domestic security concerns that come from normalization with Israel. Other potential security threats from a normalization could include Saudi Arabia’s traditional geopolitical rival Iran, the Houthi rebels in northern Yemen, and potential terrorist sympathizers who never entered the Care Rehabilitation Center, among others. Any of these actors could instrumentalize Saudi Arabia’s normalization against the Kingdom’s security. Looking into the nature of the numerous security risks that arise from normalization with Israel, will be the prudent actions that the Saudi state can take today to prevent the insecurities of tomorrow.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

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Ali Alsayegh is a PhD Candidate and Postgraduate Teaching Associate of Middle East politics at the University of Exeter, Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies (IAIS). He previously worked as the Communications Officer for the United Nations Development Programme in Kuwait. His current academic work revolves around developing the theory of Emotional Entrepreneurialism which seeks to capture how political leaders can stimulate emotional arousals within their followers to motivate both peaceful and violent political mobilization.

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