Saudi prince says kingdom returning to 'moderate' Islam

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and SoftBank Group chief executive Masayoshi Son at the Future Investment Initiative conference in Riyadh on Tuesday. The Prince's declaration of a new reality for the kingdom is the most direct attack by a Saud
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and SoftBank Group chief executive Masayoshi Son at the Future Investment Initiative conference in Riyadh on Tuesday. The Prince's declaration of a new reality for the kingdom is the most direct attack by a Saudi official on its influential conservative religious circles.PHOTO: REUTERS

He declares to investors at forum his plan to eradicate extremism amid move to tolerance

RIYADH • It was a comment that stunned the people in the room.

At an event on Tuesday in Riyadh meant to highlight Saudi Arabia's influence in the business world, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said the kingdom was returning to "moderate" Islam and intended to "eradicate" extremism.

Saudi Arabia was founded on an austere form of Islam and has been defined by it for decades.

The remarks seemed aimed at religious ultra-conservatives who have been tolerated by the ruling Al Saud family in exchange for their support.

The powerful 32-year-old Crown Prince did not mince his words in declaring a new reality for the kingdom.

"We want to live a normal life. A life in which our religion translates to tolerance, to our traditions of kindness," he told international investors at an economic forum.

"Seventy per cent of the Saudi population is under 30, and honestly we will not spend the next 30 years of our lives dealing with destructive ideas.

BACK TO TOLERANCE

We want to live a normal life. A life in which our religion translates to tolerance, to our traditions of kindness... Seventy per cent of the Saudi population is under 30, and honestly we will not spend the next 30 years of our lives dealing with destructive ideas. We will destroy them today and at once.

SAUDI CROWN PRINCE MOHAMMED BIN SALMAN

"We will destroy them today and at once," the Crown Prince said after the opening of the Future Investment Initiative, a three-day economic conference that drew some 2,500 dignitaries, including 2,000 foreign investors, to Riyadh.

One of the Saudi millennials in attendance was 27-year-old policy consultant Abdul Aziz.

He lauded the young prince for "pushing the boundaries of what's possible" in the rigid kingdom and for using the televised speech to highlight what he sees as an abandoned legacy of moderation.

"Saudi Arabia is going back to its original roots of a moderate Islam, a tolerant society," Mr Abdul Aziz was quoted as saying.

Saudi rulers had turned more conservative in response to critics who accused them of deviating from the kingdom's austere form of Islam.

After militants besieged the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1979, public entertainment was banned and clerics were given more control over schools, courts and social life.

In remarks to The Guardian newspaper, however, Prince Mohammed blamed the rise in extremism on the Islamic Revolution in Shi'ite-ruled Iran, Saudi Arabia's main rival for political influence in the Middle East.

"People wanted to copy this model in different countries, one of them is Saudi Arabia," he said.

Saudi Arabia has also been criticised over its export of Wahhabism, a fundamentalist strain of Sunni Islam that has inspired extremist groups, including Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

Prince Mohammed's statement on Tuesday is the most direct attack by a Saudi official on the kingdom's influential conservative religious circles, whose stranglehold on Saudi society now appears to face serious challenges.

In the course of his meteoric rise to power since 2015, the young prince has been credited with introducing a number of changes, part of the Vision 2030 blueprint he introduced last year to transform a major economy now reliant on petrodollars.

He 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 longstanding ban on female drivers.

Women will be allowed to drive from June next year.

And yet the kingdom still enforces gender segregation in many public places, and women remain marginalised in the workplace.

The Saudi government also continues to draw criticism from international rights groups with monitors, including Amnesty International, condemning the continued repression of peaceful rights activists.

Some observers remain unconvinced that the Prince can deliver on his ambitious promises.

Geopolitical Futures senior analyst Kamran Bokhari said for the Crown Prince and his father, King Salman, the slump in oil revenue meant the old way of buying loyalty from interest groups was no longer viable.

"So what do you do?" said Dr Bokhari. "You can't make everyone happy, so you say, 'I'll go with the youth, I'll go with the women and I'll go with the people who are modern and, inshallah (God willing), enough of the religious scholars will give me a rubber stamp for what I am doing.'

"It's not going to work."

AGENCE FRANCE PRESSE,BLOOMBERG

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 26, 2017, with the headline 'Saudi prince says kingdom returning to 'moderate' Islam'. Print Edition | Subscribe