Crown Prince’s call for change is seen as little more than a PR exercise by some, writes Rick Noack.

When Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman announced on Wednesday that he wanted the kingdom to return to "moderate Islam", not everyone was convinced.

On the face of it, the statement fuelled hopes that the ultraconservative kingdom would finally give in to critics who have long demanded more liberties and tolerance, but others cautioned that it was not at all clear what a more "moderate Islam" would look like for Saudi Arabia. In fact, the declaration might have more to do with boosting the kingdom's economy rather than reversing decades-old practices.

Bin Salman's remarks on Wednesday, at a conference and in interviews, indicated that he was committed to combating extreme interpretations of Islam and to focusing on economic reforms. "Seventy per cent of the Saudis are younger than 30. Honestly, we won't waste 30 years of our life combating extremist thoughts, we will destroy them now and immediately," bin Salman said at the conference, which was attended by global investors. "We are simply reverting to what we followed - a moderate Islam open to the world and all religions," he said.

In a subsequent interview with the Guardian, he unexpectedly blamed Saudi Arabia's arch enemy Shia Iran for the kingdom's turn toward Wahhabism, an ultraconservative branch of Islam, which is being promoted by Riyadh both domestically and abroad.


"What happened in the last 30 years is not Saudi Arabia. What happened in the region in the last 30 years is not the Middle East. After the Iranian revolution in 1979, people wanted to copy this model in different countries - one of them is Saudi Arabia. We didn't know how to deal with it. And the problem spread all over the world. Now is the time to get rid of it," bin Salman said.

The Saudi state is deeply rooted in and has long been intimately entwined with Sunni Wahhabism. Muhammad ibn Abd al Wahhab, the religious leader who founded the branch about three centuries ago, was a key ally of Muhammad ibn Saud, who is widely considered to be the founder of the Saudi state.

With the foundation of the modern Saudi state in the 20th century, Islam became the state religion with almost all clerics promoting the state-funded and government-supported ultraconservative Wahhabi branch. That same Islam was widely promoted in Muslim countries around the world, thanks to the Saudi state's deep pockets.

This sudden royal criticism of the kingdom's long-held religious practices provoked scepticism from critics of the Saudi leadership.

Madawi Al-Rasheed, a Middle East scholar at the London School of Economics, argued in an email that Saudi Arabia was not one of the many countries where moderate Islam turned ultraconservative, but was instead an exception. It is a "unique case of radical religion becoming the official religion of the state and its legitimacy narrative", said Rasheed, who cautioned that the Saudi leadership imprisoned clerics who had attempted to "offer reinterpretations of Islamic text, for example how Islam and democracy are compatible".

"The announcements are definitely geared to attract investors and create a feel good factor for a kingdom that had a very bad reputation," she said.

"It is unclear how a moderate Islam in Saudi Arabia would look like, but I think what Mohammed bin Salman is trying to mainly achieve is to send out a PR message that he is a Western ally in the fight against terrorism and that he stands for a modern future," said Sebastian Sons, an associate fellow with the German Council on Foreign Relations who focuses on Saudi Arabia.

Bin Salman, 32, has attempted to position himself as a favourite for the kingdom's younger citizens, who are less religious than older generations and are facing disproportionately high unemployment rates.


Bin Salman's Wednesday remarks about Islam in the kingdom were embedded in an announcement about the creation of a new, futuristic city in the west of Saudi Arabia, near the Jordanian and Egyptian borders. Designed to serve as a centre for tech companies, the city will be funded with US$500 billion ($731.4b) from the kingdom's sovereign wealth fund. It is part of a major reform plan, named Saudi Vision 2030, and led by the Crown Prince himself to revitalise the economy.

Saudi Arabia's economy is forecast to stagnate this year, according to the International Monetary Fund, after global energy prices fell by more than 50 per cent. Saudi Arabia long relied on high oil prices as its main revenue source. With the sudden and unexpected plunge, the kingdom's leadership was forced to pursue drastic reforms within a short time frame about three years ago.

Last month, the kingdom surprised the world when it issued a royal decree to allow women to be granted driver's licenses. At the time, the step was widely interpreted as a sign that the modernisers within the Government may have gained ascendance over the conservative hardliners. Saudi women are well educated but underemployed, and increasing their participation in the workforce has become a key goal of bin Salman's reform agenda.

Saudi Arabia's hardliners have been under mounting pressure to agree to such proposals, as the kingdom has become increasingly engulfed in economic woes.

If those reforms fail, Saudi Arabia could eventually run out of money, which would constitute a major political risk to the leadership of a kingdom in which many are employed by the state, or rely on de facto state subsidies. After decades of reluctance to embrace societal or economic changes, Saudi Arabia now appears to be pursuing both - at least rhetorically.

"This doesn't mean that Saudi Arabia will turn into some sort of completely pluralist society where followers of different faiths will coexist equally, though," said Sons.

"Reforming Islam does not mean simply allowing women to drive or wear bikinis," cautioned Middle East scholar Rasheed.