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Saudi crown prince pledges 'moderate' kingdom

October 24, 2017

Mohammed bin Salman is set to be the next king of Saudi Arabia. But his reform efforts and vow to "eradicate" Islamic extremism may spark the wrath of the country's ultraconservative clerics.

Saudi Arabia's crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman al-Saud
Image: /Getty Images/AFP/F. Nureldine

Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said his country would become more "moderate" and "open" on Tuesday and pledged to "eradicate" radical Islamist ideology from the Gulf kingdom.

"We are returning to what we were before – a country of moderate Islam that is open to all religions and to the world," the 32-year-old said at a major investment conference in Riyadh.

"We will eradicate the remnants of extremism very soon ... We represent the moderate teachings and principles of Islam," the crown prince said.

Read more: Saudi Arabia's Mohammad bin Salman: Reformer and hardliner

Reform plans

Bin Salman's time in power has witnessed greater efforts to liberalize Saudi Arabia's deeply conservative society.

In September, the Saudi government issued a decree that overturned a previous ban on women driving. Some officials have hinted the government may soon permit long-banned cinemas.

The young prince has also been the primary force driving "Vision 2030," an initiative designed to wean Saudi Arabia off of its traditional dependency on oil revenues by creating a more dynamic and diverse Saudi economy.

Read more: Saudi Arabia to allow women to drive

Attack on religious leaders?

Bin Salman defended the government's reform efforts on Tuesday, saying "we were not like this in the past."

But those comments, together with the young prince's reform drive, threaten the status and opinions of Saudi Arabia's traditionally powerful clerics, many of whom preach an ultraconservative form of Islam known as Wahhabism.

Abdul Majed Jalal, a Saudi journalist, told DW that Bin Salman's promise to "eradicate the remnants of extremism" was directed against the Wahhabist doctrine.

"Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman meant Wahabbism when he said that we should eradicate extremism and return to a moderate form of Islam," he said, adding that Wahhabist teachings had caused "difficult cultural problems (in Saudi Arabia) that we still suffer from today."

But Sebastian Sons from the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP) told DW that bin Salman will find it difficult to completely turn his back on the Saudi religious establishment.

"You can't forget that historically, the royal family would not have had any power without the religious support of the Wahhabists," he said.

Read more: The Secret Revolution - Women in Saudi Arabia

'I am nothing without them'

Earlier Tuesday, bin Salman promised the conference attendees, which included representatives from some of the world's largest companies, that the Gulf kingdom will create a massive economic zone along the country's northwestern coastline.

The project, called NEOM, will spur innovation by creating a $500 billion (€425 billion) city run completely on alternative energy and governed by regulations separate from the rest of the country.

Read more: Saudi Arabia gets serious about NEOM investment zone

Saudi Arabia's sovereign wealth fund, which the crown prince chairs, the Saudi government and multiple international companies will contribute to the project.

Panelists from some of those companies lauded the crown prince for his "vision." But he refused the spotlight, saying he was only "one of 20 million people. I am nothing without them."

amp/kms (AP, dpa, AFP)