Saudi Crown Prince's visit to London offers counter-extremism fresh start

Discussions over Saudi Arabia's historical links to Islamist extremism are on the agenda during the three day visit.

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May (L) and Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (R) go inside 10 Downing Street, in central London on March 7, 2018.
British Prime Minister Theresa May will "raise deep concerns at the humanitarian situation" in war-torn Yemen with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman during his visit to Britain beginning Wednesday, according to her spokesman. / AFP PHOTO / Daniel LEAL-OLIVAS

Since becoming Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia in June, Prince Mohammed bin Salman has laid down a series of bold initiatives, perhaps none more challenging that his vow to return the country to the "moderate Islam" of his grandfathers
It ranks alongside decisions permitting women to drive, building new economic powerhouse cities and a much publicised anti-corruption purge. Pushing back against religious extremism has been just a part of this.
The issue of extremism has historically tainted UK and Saudi relations, but the Crown Prince's recent efforts to clamp down on religious extremism may present an opportunity for the UK to get on side with a country often seen as hindrance to counter-extremism policy.
Such strains came to a head last year, when UK Prime Minister Theresa May was accused of "burying" a report into the funding of Islamist extremism in the UK, amid fears it might damage relations between the two countries. It was widely believed the report would point the finger at Saudi Arabia for the funding of UK extremism.
A 2017 study by The Henry Jackson society, went as far as labelling the Kingdom the "foremost" funder of Islamist extremism in the UK. It noted the billions spent on textbooks, and radical speakers by the country every year both in the UK, and across the world.
Does the Prince's visit to London signal an end to Saudi Arabia's time as the pariah state of counter-extremism policy?
UK Home Office sources told The National that discussions over extremism "certainly will be a part" of the Crown Prince's 3-day visit to the UK, and experts suggest the self-assured Prince is serious about challenging both the image, and the problem.


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As one British religious affairs expert, put it "the allegation of KSA links to extremism has been weighing down on them for so long. It would be odd not to tackle it, if you care about how your country is perceived in the world."
Najah Al Otaibi, Research Fellow in the Centre for the Response to Radicalisation and Terrorism, at The Henry Jackson society also told The National the alleged relationship was causing the country problems. "Links to extremism and the financing of terrorism have always been a significant factor in Saudi Arabia's negative image and something that has long undermined its counter-terrorism efforts."
Judged solely on his public statements, Prince Bin Salman is pushing his Kingdom in the right direction. But it was far from clear if the change in rhetoric was coupled with any consecrate changes on the ground, Michael Stephens, a Research Fellow at RUSI, a foreign affairs think tank, told The National.
"He is sounding out all the right notes, he sounds good. The actual impact of the policy is not necessarily related to what sounds good, but what does sound good, might be effective."
Ms Al Otaiba is optimistic that the reforms are concrete, and not mere rhetoric. "Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has recognised this complication and, since he came to office, he has taken serious measures to tackle the stigma of terrorism. First by admitting that the way Saudi Arabia has understood Islam up until now was abnormal; and then taking steps such as cutting the powers of the religious police, sacking radical imams and preventing Saudis from preaching in foreign countries without permission."
In one sign that actions may following the rhetoric, last month Saudi Arabia gave up control of Brussel's Grand Mosque, regarded by many as cauldron of extremism.
But as Mr Stephens warns, it's difficult to ascertain if Bin Salman are having any effect. "It's not possible to really get a full sense of the changes in Saudi Arabia actually bedding in among the society, because the country is still quite closed off. Those people who are trying to do surveys, data and polling, have very limited samples, they aren't able get out into far areas of the country. 
"It is unclear at the moment, whether the more extreme elements of KSA religious ideology are really being curtailed, or if it's simply locking people up in jail until they play ball", he added.
"Somebody needed to do it, to tackle this problem. Every five years a generation of Saudis frustrated with the world, global politics, are turning towards an austere anti-western version of Islam. That version doesn't promote violence, but it doesn't say it is a bad thing either".
Dr Emman El Badawy, head of research at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, told The National it was important for the UK to grasp the chance to get Saudi Arabia on board with counter-extremism work.
"The UK should try to make use of this opportunity, [MBS] is a reformer within the Saudi elite. What that means from a counter-extremism point of view, is that he is willing to concede errors have been made in the past. For that to come from a Saudi elite is very important.
"One thing they [the Saudis] are good at doing, is articulating the difference between Islam as a faith, and Islamism as a political ideology. That's one of the hardest things for UK policy to achieve. Having the Saudis being able to contribute to that - who is, and who isn't an extremist, is a valuable tool."
She added "We don't know what it will mean concretely, but it's an opportunity for people who don't often got to Saudi Arabia, to begin to understand from the Crown Prince's own mouth what his own views are, and what his red lines are too."