Beirut/Riyadh: It was a comment that stunned the people in the room.
At an event on Tuesday in Riyadh meant to highlight the kingdom’s influence in the business world, crown prince Mohammed bin Salman said Saudi Arabia was returning to “moderate" Islam and intended to “eradicate" extremism.
This in a country that was founded on an austere form of Islam and has been defined by it for decades. The remarks seemed aimed at religious ultra-conservatives who have been tolerated by the ruling Al Saud family in exchange for their support.
“We are only returning to what we used to be, to moderate Islam, open to the world and all religions," the 32-year-old prince said at the conference in the capital. “We won’t waste 30 years of our lives dealing with any extremist ideas. We will eradicate extremism."
The remarks made by the kingdom’s predominant leader were his strongest statements to date that the country’s founding precepts aren’t working. They came as he added to a host of reform promises by announcing plans to build a new city on the Red Sea coast with more than $500 billion in investments that will offer a lifestyle not available in today’s Saudi Arabia. It’s part of efforts he’s spearheading to prepare Saudi Arabia for the post-oil era.
Followers of al-Qaeda and then Islamic State have launched dozens of attacks on security forces in the kingdom, in addition to targeting Shiite Muslims in the oil-rich Eastern Province. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers on 11 September were Saudis, and many others have fought with Sunni extremist groups in Iraq and Syria.
Saudi rulers turned more conservative in response to critics who accused them of deviating from the kingdom’s austere form of Islam. After militants besieged the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1979, public entertainment was banned and clerics were given more control over schools, courts and social life.
In remarks to the Guardian newspaper, however, prince Mohammed blamed the rise in extremism on the Islamic Revolution in Shiite-ruled Iran, Saudi Arabia’s main rival for political influence in the Middle East. “People wanted to copy this model in different countries, one of them is Saudi Arabia," he said.
In the course of his meteoric rise to power since 2015, the prince has announced plans to sell a stake in oil giant Saudi Aramco and create the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund, and has ended some social constraints, including a long-standing ban on female drivers. Women will be allowed to drive in June 2018.
And yet Saudi Arabia still enforces gender segregation in many public places and women remain marginalized in the workplace. It has also been criticized over its export of Wahhabism, a fundamentalist strain of Sunni Islam that has inspired extremist groups including al-Qaeda and Islamic State. And it’s not clear the prince can deliver on his promises.
“The risk here is that you can’t just throw away the old fundamentals of support of the kingdom. It’s like jumping off one train that’s still moving and trying to get on another one," said Kamran Bokhari, a senior analyst with Geopolitical Futures and a senior fellow with the Center for Global Policy. “The political system of the kingdom is dependent on the religious establishment."
Abdul Latif al-Sheikh, the former head of the religious police, said in an interview last week that change is fine—within limits. He said Saudi Arabia won’t ever be like Dubai, where alcohol and nightclubs are permitted, women can drive and appear in public uncloaked, and no gender segregation is imposed. “We have traditions and customs," said al-Sheikh. “The people would not accept this. We have to take what is good from the world and leave out what is not."
The changes are part of a blueprint, called Vision 2030, that the prince introduced last year to transform a major economy now reliant on petrodollars. Failure to find the right answers risks leaving the kingdom in limbo: an absolute monarchy with diminishing resources to fund an unsustainable version of state capitalism. Saudis will get more restless and the economy, already ground to a halt, could get worse.
The latest attempt at an overhaul was triggered by a sharp drop in oil revenue in 2014 that hasn’t reversed. To avoid what the prince and his advisers saw as a catastrophic rundown on savings, they cancelled projects deemed unnecessary, cut costly subsidies and halted payments to contractors.
At the forum, where men and women mingled as a group played traditional Arabic music, the prince sounded upbeat while talking about the new city, to be called Neom. The event was attended by some of the world’s most prominent business people, keen to explore new opportunities in the kingdom. They burst into applause after prince Mohammed made his comments about “open to the world and all religions" while speaking on a panel.
Rami Khouri, professor of journalism and senior public policy fellow at American University of Beirut and non-resident senior fellow at Harvard Kennedy School, said the prince’s efforts were meant to impress the West.
“He’s doing this to give a new face of Saudi Arabia aimed at the Western world, primarily, dazzling them with all the buttons that they want to hear pushed about entrepreneurship, liberalism, moderate Islam," said Khouri. “The leadership thinks that it can play with its society and its people like Silly Putty, that they can suddenly say now we’ve changed," he added. “He’s reinforcing and reaffirming the weaknesses of traditional Arab autocratic leaderships rather than actually coming out with anything that’s innovative and modern and creative."
Bokhari said for the crown prince and his father, King Salman, the slump in oil revenue means the old way of buying loyalty from interest groups is no longer viable.
“So what do you do?" said Bokhari. “You can’t make everyone happy so you say, I’ll go with the youth, I’ll go with the women and I’ll go with the people who are modern and insha Allah (God willing) enough of the religious scholars will give me a rubber stamp for what I am doing. It’s not going to work." Bloomberg