A new era for Saudi Arabia?

The crown prince promises return to 'open, moderate Islam' - but not everyone is convinced

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman
Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman
(Image credit: Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images)

The heir to the Saudi throne has signalled the country is ready to abandon its decades-long conservatism and return to an era of “moderate, open Islam”.

Speaking at the start of a landmark investment conference in Riyadh, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman promised his kingdom would return to “what we were before” while doing more to tackle extremism.

In what The Independent called “his most direct criticism of Saudi Arabia’s conservative religious establishment to date” he told Maria Bartiromo of Fox Business Network: “We are simply reverting to what we followed – a moderate Islam open to the world and all religions. Seventy per cent of the Saudis are younger than 30, honestly we won’t waste 30 years of our life combating extremist thoughts, we will destroy them now and immediately.”

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Expanding on earlier comments made to The Guardian, the prince, who is seen as the driving force behind a programme of social liberalisation and economic diversification away from oil, said Saudi Arabia’s move towards conservatism over the past 30 years had, in part, been a reaction to Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution and was “not normal” in the wider history of the country.

Following the toppling of the Shah of Iran, Riyadh jostled with Tehran for leadership of the Islamic world and “in response, the Saudi monarchy strengthened ties with the extreme Wahhabi religious establishment and restored many of its hardline stances” says CNBC.

“The statement fuelled hopes that the ultraconservative kingdom would finally give in to critics who have long demanded more liberties and tolerance, but others cautioned that it was not at all clear what a more “moderate Islam” would look like for Saudi Arabia” says the Washington Post.

Persistently low oil prices have had a serious impact on GDP, and some have suggested that Saudi Arabia’s hard-liners have come under increasing pressure to agree to reforms in a bid to kick-start the country’s stagnating economy.

Last month, the Kingdom surprised the world when it issued a royal decree granting women the right to drive, part of an intensive PR campaign to promote a new £500bn “city of the future”, called NEOM, at the crossroads with Egypt, Jordan and the Arabian penisula.

The message to bankers, businesspeople and high-rolling investors is clear, says The New York Times: “the once insular kingdom is now open for business”.

There could also be a more selfish motivation for Salman “as the heir of the incumbent monarch moves to consolidate his authority, sidelining clerics whom he believes have failed to support him and demanding unquestioning loyalty from senior officials whom he has entrusted to drive a 15-year reform programme that aims to overhaul most aspects of life in Saudi Arabia”, says The Guardian.

The problem, says Ambrose Evans-Pritchard in The Daily Telegraph, is that while the goal of reform of both Saudi society and the economy are “commendable”, with low oil prices likely to continue, “it is far from clear whether Riyadh has deep enough pockets to pull off the feat as advertised”.

More importantly, says Evans-Pritchard, in a country whose conservatism is so deeply engrained in all levels of government, “the volcanic will of a single man is not enough. Nobody can create an industrial revolution or remould a rentier Wahhabi nation with a flick of the fingers”.

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