Mansour Alnogaidan, UAE Writer
In the winter of 1995, in the solitary confinement cell of the Mabahith-run prisons in al-Ha’ir, south of the Saudi capital Riyadh, I had the opportunity to read Nafh al-tib min ghousn al-Andalous al-ratib by al-Maqqari al-Tilmisani. I borrowed the book from the prison library. I read it during the month I spent there, before being deported to al-Ruwais prison in Jeddah, in the west of the Kingdom.
Out of this book, three unforgettable stories stuck in in my mind: Lisan al-Din Ibn al-Khatib and his painful last days in Fes, the imprisonment of the Prime Minister Jafar al-Mushafi, and the tragic end of al-Mu’tamid Bin Abbad and his family in Aghmat prison. All the three were brought together in prison and died there.
About a year and nine months later, after I was transferred to my hometown of Buraydah in central Saudi Arabia, I asked for permission to write my diary while I was in Mabahith-run prisons. Although I got the permission to do so days later, my enthusiasm faded and I could not write anything. Finding a pen between your belongings and any writing instrument was considered a violation of the prison rules for which the inmate was punished either by depriving him of certain privileges or by spending two or three days in a solitary confinement cell. In al-Ruwais prison in Jeddah, some slaps on your face and whips on your back would do the job.
The Mabahith-run prison in Buraydah was not a prison intended for those serving their sentences, as it had only four cells. The General Investigations (Mabahith) at that time were subordinate to the Ministry of Interior, and since late 2017 they have become subordinate to the Presidency of State Security Agency, which was established in the same year. In the 1990s, there were only three prisons, in Riyadh and Jeddah, and in Dammam in eastern Saudi Arabia. Mabahith-run prisons are for people involved in crimes related to terrorism, violent extremism, and weapons gangs. However, I spent the last six months before my release in April 1998 in that prison. Instead of keeping my promise to write my diary and keep it in a safe at the director’s office as agreed, I chose to write it down on tissues and smuggle it to my parents during their visits to me every week once or twice. All were lost. Sixty tissues were lost, and I couldn’t find them. Only one letter remains, the photo of which I have preserved and attached to this article (see Figure 1).
On most days, I was the only inmate. In the last six months, I was the “constant and resident” inmate, the others were just “temporary and transient”. At the time, I wrote a four-page letter to the late Minister of Interior, Prince Nayef bin Abdulaziz (died in 2012), in which I complained to him about all the injustice, arbitrariness, and ill-treatment I saw in Jeddah against prisoners. My message was a confused mix of emotions: a broken soul, apology, vanity, loss, but above all a promise to be a good citizen. Its style was eloquent and bright, its spirit was honesty, its ink was suffering and pain. I spent three days in editing and rewriting it. I was bracing myself for a new phase. It was so sad to be thrown into this maze. Ten years had passed since I was first arrested, at seventeen, in mid-1987, and this was the fourth time I had been imprisoned.
Things changed for the better, and I got a lot of what I asked for. With cold winters and showers of rain sneaking through the window of my last room. I spent ten days shedding tears whenever I read pages from Wild Swans. The book was pure sadness. I spent the winter nights between purification and self-pity, self-reproach, and fear of the future, nights in which sleeplessness paved the way for what I had planned and achieved more than I expected in my next half life. I was 28 years old at the time, and today I am approaching the age of 52.
Many of these thoughts were running through my mind as I was on the way to al-Tarfiyah prison north of Buraydah in central Saudi Arabia earlier this month to visit a friend who had been arrested by the authorities three months earlier. I didn’t expect to have many surprises. Al-Tarfiyah prison was built around 2010. It covers four regions in the northern part of the sprawling kingdom: Hail, al-Jawf, the northern region, and al-Qassim region, in which al-Tarfiyah prison is located twenty kilometers north of its capital, Buraydah.
My visit to the prison’s Time Management Wings, an initiative proposed by a senior security officer who oversaw programs to rehabilitate prisoners in terrorism crimes after 2011. It has been applied to three prisons so far, as I have understood. A prisoner can join such wings after passing several tests and evaluations, allowing him to spend eight hours a day in these wings. In such wings, a prisoner can learn several skills and crafts, complete his education, and obtain multiple training courses. Such crafts and skills enable him to start a small business, and thus help him start a decent life after his release.
I met one of the inmates who, as the prison administration like to say, always prefer to use the word inmate rather than prisoner. I asked him: What lesson have you learned from your time here? He said, “Today I recognized the precious gift of life”. I asked him: “You mean to live for Allah, not to die for Allah. That’s what you mean?” He smiled and didn’t comment. This prisoner had participated in the fighting with Al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra, and then returned to the Kingdom, to serve his sentence. He was friendly and shy.
According to the director of the al-Tarfiya prison, Colonel Bandar al-Harbi, there are about 1,000 inmates in the prison, 60% of whom have passed the evaluation to gain the membership in the Time Management Wings. Women make up 5% of the inmates in prison.
I visited this prison in early August, less than a month after the celebration organized by the Time Management Wings in the prisons of the General Investigations, which are subordinate to the State Security Agency.
The Kingdom’s State Security prisons compete in presenting the best achievements and innovations of their inmates at the level of the arts, music, painting, carpentry, sculpture, writing, agriculture, perfumes, sewing, cooking, dictation, among others. Whether a prisoner is detained pending sentencing or release, or is serving his sentence for terrorism or other offences affecting State security, if he meets the conditions, he or she can receive the privilege of participating in Time Management Wings. Prisoners undergo numerous tests in order to enjoy the benefits of Time Management Wings. I asked the prison director whether this would reflect positively on their sentences or reduce the years of imprisonment. He replied: “No, the goal is to help them spend their time in a way that would benefit them so that by the time they are released they will have acquired living skills.”
The director of al-Tarfiya prison, Colonel Bandar al-Harbi, is proud that they excelled over the rest of the regions, and rewarded themselves after the public ceremony in Riyadh, by holding a special ceremony in al-Tarfiya prison so that the families of the detainees could participate in the celebration. “We have more, we have members of The Saudi Arabian Society for Culture and Arts, we have surprises,” he said.
Al-Tarfiyah prison has the most beautiful female voices, among the inmates, who participated in an operetta produced by the Time Management Wings and in the competition at the level of the Kingdom. During my tour, I had the opportunity to see the operetta produced by the inmates, in the lecture hall they called the “Ithraa” hall. Two of the inmates showed us statistics for the courses in which the inmates registered. Sharia studies were not came to the forefront, but rather business administration and others. The one who made the presentation was a professor at Qassim University. I didn’t ask him why he was imprisoned.
I asked them why not put the operetta on YouTube, but it seems that for security and personal reasons related to the inmates, including the female singer, it will not be available on YouTube. Most Saudi families remain conservative, and with the social reforms undertaken by the government and openness in the last seven years, women’s profession as singer or announcing the singer’s name remains one of the most sensitive social issues. Throughout the history of Arab civilization, female singers have been associated with a social stigma, although laws in most countries of the Muslim world do not prevent this, including Saudi Arabia. The professional singing profession for men has also faced difficulties and social ostracism in the past decades. Social control remains the strongest hindrance.
Colonel Bandar al-Harbi told me that three of the prisoners had become members of the Saudi Arabian Society for Culture and Arts, and the Society had signed a partnership agreement with the prison to hold workshops and train prisoners. He showed me the membership certificates.
Prisoners publish their own internal monthly newspaper, and the newspaper is full of articles written by inmates. I tried to get a copy to read but was not allowed to, as it is an internal newspaper. Two inmates wrote novels, which they tend to take the form of biographies, and they dream of publishing them.
With the call to al-Maghrib prayer at sunset, the prison director took me to the café supervised by three young inmates, and when he went to ablution with no one but them, they offered me two types of specialty coffee. One of them named Abdelaziz told me, “I know you, I was reading your articles, and I followed your episodes on YouTube about Buraydah. Why did you stop?” All those in charge of the Time Management Wings are prison inmates, even the security inside these wings that regulates the entry, exit, inspection, and verification of cards, are prisoners.
According to the prison director and inmates, before the end of this year they will have the right to expand their businesses and provide greater financial income and profits to spend on their projects. I met two chefs as they prepared to open their restaurant over the coming days. Their customers are often local people.
I visited the perfume department, which is modest, yet it produces perfumes. The perfumer gave me a small perfume bottle and said we asked for expansion and we are now waiting. I took the perfume and presented it to my friends after the visit. I told them as we were taking our dinner, put on this perfume. Soon “al-Tarfiya” perfume will compete in the markets.
Othman, an artist and painter, has dozens of paintings, one of which he sold at the Riyadh ceremony to a member of the US delegation that visited the exhibition of prisoners’ artworks. Osman explained most of the arts and crafts sections of the Time Management Wings to the delegation.
The prison director told me that they are now in the process of establishing a company that will supervise, manage, and organize their activities, and will help the prisoners (preferably inmates) to develop, expand their businesses, and organize their own finances. The company’s employees will be all from the inmates. The company’s offices were under preparation, and everyone seemed excited. It will guarantee them a stable monthly income and they will also be entitled to a percentage of the profits.
During my visit, I met about thirty inmates, three of whom were too shy to talk. Two or three were reticent, while most of them were outgoing. Most of them were intelligent, tactful, and good talkers in introducing themselves and explaining their work and activities to others. They seemed to be well trained and used to meeting visitors. The prison director, Abu Youssef, as the inmates like to call him, told me, “Most of them learned these skills and crafts in prison. We aim to provide each of them with a goal and to master crafts and skills that would help them by the time they are released. We want them to live with goals and dreams that help them to be good citizens”.
I did not ask anyone I met why he was in prison, but two of them told me why they were imprisoned.
Three of my friends are today detained in al-Tarfiya prison. They have been arrested in recent months, for various security reasons, none of whom have yet been referred to the prosecution or to the specialized court, but they are now in the multiple-occupancy cell wing.
Before my tour of the prison, I had filed a request to meet one of them. I got the approval within six hours. At the end of my three-and-a-half-hour tour, I had the opportunity to meet my friend for about an hour, they gave us privacy and left us alone.
I met two female inmates in the Time Management section. The Wing was luxurious. They gave a brief explanation of their activities. The timing was not right, they were busy with a party for one of the female inmates, whose husband was released two weeks ago, and in the morning he will get his children who were with their mother after the government helped him rent a house and equip it to be a family dwelling. The couple appeared to be returning from conflict zones, most probably from Syria. One was wearing Niqab, while the other was wearing only the veil (her face uncovered). She was busy, her attention was focused on the ceremony and arrangements. We saw cake boxes, in the candy section, and gift packaging. The candy is prepared in the women’s Time Management Wings and sent to the café to be displayed to its inmates, whose number is approximately 600 inmates in the Time Management Wings.
The Salmani Era: Profound Social Transformations
The father of one of the prisoners who attended the annual ceremony of the Time Management Wings in the capital Riyadh in mid-June told me, “During the ceremony that brought together prisoners from all over the Kingdom, families mingled with prisoners, young men and girls. I came for my son, who is serving a prison sentence in a case related to the financing of terrorism. The music was buzzing in the place, and a beautiful feminine voice sung the operetta. Dozens of families who came from the regions of the Kingdom to attend the annual ceremony of the Time Management Wings in the capital Riyadh. It happened to be next to us a family which came to attend the ceremony. I shook hands with the father and mother, who had with them their daughter, a young girl. This family came like others, whose detained sons participate in the annual time management ceremony. My son shook hands with the father and mother, and then he extended his hand to the girl, then he took a step towards her. Then, he stepped forward to hug her, the girl calmly surrendered to him and hugged him. She did not hesitate, did not blink, and did not get upset. Silence prevailed. We, the big four, fell into a state of speechlessness except for the daughter and my son, whose eyes were shining with joy. The situation went quietly and smoothly. I was shocked for seconds. I woke up and prayed for their son to be released soon. Then I took my son’s hand away and we mingled with the people. I had a mix of feelings for some time: surprise, embarrassment, and a muffled laugh. How did it happen!
“Days later I visited my son, who is serving an eleven-year prison sentence,” and he told me, “That situation with the girl did not leave my imagination. I told him I know her imagination did not leave you for sure, you are lucky, I looked him in the eyes, and then we laughed.”
For a young man who spent his entire life until the age of 26 knowing only his mother and sisters, in a society where it is socially unacceptable to say hello to a “foreign” woman (i.e. not his mother, daughter, sister, or wife) except in a situation of need, and where shaking hands with a “foreign” woman is a sin—as are the social norms in central Saudi Arabia and among the conservative social strata, which constitute the majority of people—a young man to hug a young “foreign” woman, is a surprise.
This story encapsulates the huge transformation that Saudi Arabia is experiencing today, as young people are the pillar of that transformation and the bridge to the future.
A Conservative and Adaptive Security Institution
In transitional periods, societies live in a state of confusion. The harsh transition process of successive seasons produces behavioral and moral-social phenomena, questioning of values and constants. Such phenomena sometimes manifest in extreme cases of rebellion: old ones that are still present and future ones that are still in labor.
In media tours, I visited al-Mabahith-run prisons three times, the first of which was in 2014, when I met one of the specialists in religious guidance and a member of the Counseling committee, who refused to sit down or talk to me when he knew me, and did not disclose the reason, but prayed guidance for me and then went out. (My articles expressing a non-religious and secular thought were the reason for his attitude and avoidance of talking to me. It is worthy of note that Salafists consider sitting with those who disagree with them in belief and doctrine to be a sin, and thus should not sit with him under one roof. Those ideas appeared in the early second century of Islam).
My second visit to the Time Management Wings was in 2017, accompanied by my colleagues from Al-Mesbar Studies & Research Center, and my third and final media visit was on the 7th of August to al-Tarfiya prison.
The aroma of cleanliness is scented throughout the wings of the prison. Two of its large wings are allocated to Qassim University, for those wishing to complete their education. Some inmates obtained a master’s degree. The two wings are apparently still in preparation, and there are two additional halls allocated for knowledge and Ithraa, where programs are offered to help prisoners develop their skills and hone their talents.
The lyrics of the song in which al-Tarfiya prison competed with other prisons reflects the goals of the vision that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman seeks to achieve. Indeed, he is the leader and inspirer of this transformation that Saudi Arabia is experiencing.
The Saudi security establishment is generally conservative, a common characteristic of any security institution in the world, where you can see the roots of political conservatism stems from the social conservatism in military institutions. It is the melting pot in which the solid base of the national spirit, jealousy of the values of society, and extreme sensitivity to everything that affects stability and peace intensifies. It carries the greatest burden to keep the establishment free from politicization, while at the same time being politically conscious, aware that it protects the homeland from any penetration. The security services have been able to cope with the significant social, cultural, and economic transformations of Saudi society, a major challenge for a traditional institution which is deeply conservative.
In the Salmani era, the security establishment is taking rapid steps to eliminate the shortcomings that have been there for decades. Fortunately, the Saudi leadership is well aware of this, helped by the fact that the loyal leaders of the current security establishment have retained at the most anxious moments their solid faith and ensured that it is crossed to safety, to be prepared to play its great role in the transformation, while keeping harmony and guarding against the pitfalls of this transformation amid the security and regional challenges that beset the region, where the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is at the center. Such traits are lacking in some educational and religious state institutions, which still suffer from a heavy legacy that will require years of continuous work, wisdom, patience, and “purging”, with complete secrecy away from the media and review, to rid it of its scourges.
To protect society from the scourges of extremism and intellectual infiltrations, consensus in the roles of these institutions is the key to success. Most importantly, guidance, educational and counseling programs should rise to the level of transformation that the country is experiencing and have the flexibility of the State Security Agency. At this historic moment, where the internet and cyberspace are the most significant factor in influencing societies, the burden is multiplying exponentially.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.