As his country experiences the early pangs of a cultural and economic transformation, Saudi Arabia’s crown prince vowed Tuesday to destroy “extremist ideologies” in a bid to return to “a more moderate Islam.”
Speaking at the Future Investment Initiative conference in Riyadh, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said the moves will put the kingdom in lockstep with many other nations as it seeks to transform its economy over the coming decades.
“We want to lead normal lives, lives where our religion and our traditions translate into tolerance, so that we coexist with the world and become part of the development of the world,” he said.
It’s a move sure to rile the ultraconservative clerics who have held sway in the kingdom, even if that sway appears to be waning. At the same time, the prince’s declaration will be heralded by Saudi Arabia’s increasingly youthful population and the outside world, on whom the kingdom will rely in its quest to overhaul its finances.
“Seventy percent of the Saudi population is under the age of 30. In all honesty, we will not spend 30 years of our lives dealing with extremist ideologies. We will destroy them today and immediately,” bin Salman said.
He continued, “Saudi was not like this before ’79. Saudi Arabia and the entire region went through a revival after ’79. … All we’re doing is going back to what we were: a moderate Islam that is open to all religions and to the world and to all traditions and people.”
Bin Salman’s reference to 1979 was doubtless a nod to a tumultuous year for Saudi Arabia that included Shiite militants overthrowing the secular Shah of Iran and Sunni fundamentalists seizing the Masjid al-Haram, or Grand Mosque, in Mecca. That same year, the country’s Shiite minority staged a deadly revolt in Al-Hasa province.
The Saudi monarchy responded by shoring up ties with the Wahhabi religious establishment and restoring many of its hardline stances. For instance, it shut down the few movie theaters in the kingdom.
In 2015, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud took the helm, along with bin Salman, ushering in a new era of Saudi politics. The king promoted bin Salman to crown prince, making him heir apparent, in June.
The two curbed the authority of religious police, taking away their power to arrest citizens. They allowed the first music concerts in decades, cracked down on religious incitement and granted women a growing list of rights — most notably the right to drive, which will take effect next year.
“Some clear steps were taken recently and I believe we will obliterate the remnants of extremism very soon,” bin Salman said at Tuesday’s conference. “I don’t think this is a challenge. It reflects our values of forgiveness, righteousness and moderation. Righteousness is on our side.”