The comment made by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman that Saudi Arabia was returning to moderate Islam and that there was intent to eradicate extremism is already making news across international media outlets. The comment came at an event on Tuesday in Riyadh that aimed to highlight the kingdom’s influence in the business world.
Since the country was founded on an austere form of Islam and represents the same strain for decades now, the remarks made now may signal to the 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.
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-Qaida 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.”
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.