As Saudi Arabia feverishly portrays itself as ready to join the ranks of modern, tolerant societies, its powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on Tuesday vowed to restore “moderate, open” Islam in a kingdom known for its ultra-conservative rule.
“We are returning to what we were before — a country of moderate Islam that is open to all religions and to the world,” he said at an economic forum in Riyadh.
The kingdom’s Gulf Arab neighbors have sprinted toward modernity in recent years, building flashy skyscrapers and attracting foreign tourists, but Saudi Arabia’s development has lagged. Though the US prizes the close security alliance, Saudi Arabia’s restrictive freedoms, its conservative religious clergy and its human rights record made it difficult for two countries to claim they had much in common culturally.
Now Saudi Arabia is under de facto control bin Salman, or MBS, as he’s known in foreign capitals. The 32-year-old is in line to inherit the throne from his father, King Salman, and is behind ambitious goals to create more jobs for young Saudis, bolster tourism and ease a historic overreliance on oil revenues after a drop in prices plunged the country into deficit, as well as change the country’s perceived extremist tendencies.
“We will not spend the next 30 years of our lives dealing with destructive ideas. We will destroy them today,” he said Tuesday. “We will end extremism very soon.”
The overhaul also means bringing more Saudi women into the workforce, with an eye toward creating more two-income households and weaning Saudis off of reliance on government perks. The official plan calls for increasing female participation from 22 percent to 30 percent.
As part of that vision, the nation’s rulers issued a decree last month to lift its ban on women driving, starting next summer. It was a step toward erasing what much of the world sees as a stain on Saudi Arabia’s women’s rights record. Activists are pushing for greater human rights and political freedoms, even with the recent openings for women.