Young men spray hoses in a car-washing contest and play pool. Children make paper crowns in an art class, while their parents have a picnic. Alongside the fun and games, Muslim clerics answer questions about jihad or give lectures about the proper dress for women.
This is Islamic summer camp, and it's part of Saudi Arabia's campaign to eliminate al-Qaida.
Saudi Arabia says it's waging a “war of minds” against extremist ideology, alongside the fierce security crackdown that has killed or arrested many al-Qaida leaders over the past six years. To do so, the kingdom plans to expand a broad public campaign aimed at preventing young people from being drawn to radicalism.
“We are working on the men of the future,” Abdulrahman Alhadlaq, general director of the Interior Ministry's Ideological Security Directorate, told AP.
Islamic summer camps are a key part of the program, attended by thousands of families who consult with government-backed clerics instilling what Saudi authorities call a moderate message. The teachings at the camps are still ultraconservative, in line with the kingdom's strict Wahhabi interpretation of Islam — but the clerics drill the message that youth should turn to approved religious authorities for guidance, not radical preachers. For example, on the issue of jihad, or holy war, they teach that it can only be waged on the orders of the head of state.
Fifteen of the 19 hijackers who attacked the US were Saudis.
The summer camps have proved popular. The 3-year-old Rabwat Arriyadh camp in the capital — one of several organized by the Islamic Affairs Ministry around the country — attracts 700,000 visitors annually, with families attending every evening for three weeks.
In past lectures, one cleric denounced the "decadent" influence of Western movies and television. Another urged husbands and fathers to ensure women wear the Islamic headscarf.
Evan F Kohlman, an analyst at the NEFA Foundation in Washington, said the message may still be ultraconservative, he said, "but you have to speak to people in language that they're going to respect and ... the only people that hardcore extremists in Saudi Arabia listen to are the clergy."