Will Saudi Arabia Really ‘End Extremism?’

Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammed Bin Salman. (Photo: FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images)
Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammed Bin Salman (Photo: FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images)

The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, made a shocking announcement today, which could signal a huge shift in Saudi thinking.

“We want to go back to what we were, to a moderate Islam that is open to the world, open to all the religions,” the heir to the throne told a meeting of the Future Investment Initiative in the Saudi capital of Riyadh on Tuesday.

“We will not spend the next 30 years of our lives dealing with destructive ideas. We will destroy them today,” he added. “We will end extremism very soon.”

Bin Salman made the announcement while unveiling the creation of a new economic zone called NEOM, an investment area stretching across Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan on the Red Sea coast. The project will cost $500 billion and is intended to be a technological hub for innovation.

“This place is not for conventional people or conventional companies,” Bin told the conference. “This will be a place for the dreamers of the world.”

The planned city will be powered entirely by renewable energy and aims to use automated driving technology and provide free WIFI.

“NEOM will be constructed from the ground-up, on greenfield sites, allowing it a unique opportunity to be distinguished from all other places that have been developed and constructed over hundreds of years,” Saudi Arabia Public Investment Fund said in a statement.

The initiative is part of Saudi Arabia’s development plan, called Vision 2030. The kingdom is desperate to diversify their economy as oil prices drop. But they are also loosening societal restrictions as part of this shift.

The conference was remarkable in another way: men and women were seated together.

“This initiative is something you couldn’t have imagined happening in Saudi Arabia even a few years back,” former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, in attendance at the conference, told reporters.

For decades a strictly conservative kingdom, Saudi Arabia recently has been pushing forward reforms. Last month, they announced women will be able to drive starting from Jun 2018.

Mohammed bin Salman has risen to power rapidly, following the coronation of his father, King Salman, in 2015. Bin Salman is now the heir to the throne and, at 31, is the leader of a new generation of Saudis. He was behind the removal of the arrest powers of the feared religious police. He is also reportedly pushing for the reintroduction of cinemas, long banned in Saudi Arabia.

There is great speculation that King Salman, 81 years old and suffering from pre-dementia and possibly poor health, will abdicate the throne in the near future to his son.

As The Brookings Institution writes, “Will the king abdicate the throne and turn power over to the son he clearly trusts? Serious newspapers have raised the possibility. King Salman has already given his son unprecedented power. His nickname is Mr. Everything because he has been given control of the military, the economy (including the oil industry), and even control of the entertainment business. He has been the de facto foreign minister for the last two years, conducting all the important foreign policy issues and visits, including setting up President Donald Trump’s historic visit to the kingdom.”

But the kingdom is still a theocratic, absolute monarchy. It is ruled, as it has been for its entire existence, according to a deal between the descendants of hardline cleric Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab and the Al-Saud family. That deal mandates that the clerics impose their austere and puritanical version of Islam as the official state religion and, in return, provide the Al-Saud family with legitimacy to rule.

This historical arrangement has seen Saudi Arabia, while an American ally, uphold the most fanatical and violent form of Islam in the world as state policy. The penalty in the kingdom for homosexuality and witchcraft is death.  In addition, the kingdom spent somewhere in the region of $100 billion over the past 30 years exporting this ideology, increasing extremism worldwide.

Unless Mohammed Bin Salman is willing to address this structural issue head on, his grandiose pledge to “end extremism very soon,” will remain just words.

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Elliot Friedland
Elliot Friedland is a research fellow at Clarion Project.