The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia is charting a new, more modern course for a country known as so conservative.
Since catapulting to power, Mohammed bin Salman has pushed forth changes that could usher in a new era for one of the United States’ most important allies.
He’s introduced musical concerts and movies again and is seen as the force behind the king’s decision to grant women the right to drive as of next year.
When social openings in the kingdom were taking place four decades ago, extremists opposed to the monarchy laid siege to Islam’s holiest site in Mecca.
Prince Mohammed’s agenda is upending the current internal alliances in favor of synchronizing with a more cosmopolitan, global capitalism that appeals to international investors and tourists from all over the world.
The prince grabbed headlines in recent days by vowing a return to “moderate Islam.”
In his sweeping “Vision 2030” plan to wean Saudi Arabia off of its near total dependence on petrodollars, Prince Mohammed laid out a vision for “a tolerant country with Islam as its constitution and moderation as its method.”
Prince Mohammed, used a rare public appearance on stage at a major investor conference in the capital, Riyadh, this week to drive home that message to a global audience.
“We only want to go back to what we were: Moderate Islam that is open to the world, open to all religions,” he said in the ornate grand hall of the Ritz-Carlton. “We will not waste 30 years of our lives in dealing with extremist ideas. We will destroy them today.”
His remarks were met with applause and a front-page article in Britain’s Guardian Newspaper. In expanded remarks to the paper, the 32-year-old prince said that successive Saudi monarchs “didn’t know how to deal with” Iran’s 1979 revolution that brought to power a clerical Shiite leadership still in place today.
That same year Saudi rulers weathered a stunning blow: Sunni extremists laid siege to Islam’s holiest site in Mecca for 15 days. The attack was carried out by militants opposed to social openings taking place at the time, seeing them as Western and un-Islamic.
Indeed, Sunni extremists have used the intolerant views to justify violence against others.
To appease a sizeable conservative segment of the population at home, cinemas were shuttered, women were banned from appearing on state television and the religious police were emboldened.
Much is now changing under the crown prince as he consolidates greater powers and prepares to inherit the throne.
There are plans to build a Six Flags theme park and a semi-autonomous Red Sea tourist destination where the strict rules on women’s dress will likely not apply. Females have greater access to sports, the powers of the once-feared religious police have been curtailed and restrictions on gender segregation are being eased.
Unlike previous initiatives who backed gradual and cautious openings, Prince Mohammed is moving quickly.
More than half of Saudi Arabia’s 20 million citizens are below the age of 25, meaning millions of young Saudis will be entering the workforce in the coming decade. The government is urgently trying to create more jobs and ward off the kinds of grievances that sparked uprisings in other Arab countries where unemployment is rampant and citizens have little say in government.
The prince has to find solutions now for the problems he is set to inherit as monarch.
“What MBS is doing is a must requirement for any kind of economic reform. Economic reform requires a new Protestant ethic if you will, a new brand of Islam,” said Maamoun Fandy, director of the London Global Strategy Institute.
In other words, Saudi Arabia’s economic reforms require social reforms to succeed.
Meanwhile, Prince Mohammed still needs public support from some controversial clerics in order to position his reforms as Islamic and religiously permissible.
These clerics, many of whom had spoken out in the past against women working and driving, appear unwilling or unable to publicly criticize the moves.
In Saudi history and society, the king holds final say on most matters and the public has shown it is welcoming the changes.