Wed, Nov 01, 2017 - Page 9 News List

Saudi shift in power brings promise of ‘moderate Islam’

Saudi Arabia’s crown prince is implementing reforms at a rapid pace to synchronize the kingdom with global capitalism, but he is facing resistance from hardliners and a conservative public

By Aya Batrawy  /  AP, DUBAI, United Arab Emirates

Illustration: Mountain people

The man who might soon be king of Saudi Arabia is charting a new, more modern course for a country so conservative that for decades there were no concerts or film screenings and women who attempted to drive were arrested.

Since catapulting to power with the support of his father, the king, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has pushed forth changes that could usher in a new era for one of the US’ most important allies, and swing the kingdom away from decades of ultraconservative dogma and restrictions.

He has introduced music 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.

Opposition to the changes has so far been muted, but some critics of the prince have been detained. When social openings in the kingdom were taking place four decades ago, Sunni extremists opposed to the monarchy laid siege to Islam’s holiest site in Mecca.

Prince Mohammed’s agenda is upending the ruling Al Saud’s long-standing alliance with the kingdom’s clerical establishment in favor of synchronizing with a more cosmopolitan, global capitalism that appeals to international investors and maybe even non-Muslim tourists.

The prince grabbed headlines in recent days by vowing a return to “moderate Islam.” He also suggested that his father’s generation had steered the country down a problematic path and that it was time to “get rid of it.”

In his sweeping “Vision 2030” plan to wean Saudi Arabia off 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, or MBS as he is widely known, last week used a rare public appearance on stage at a major investor conference in the capital, Riyadh, 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 propagated by the ideology known as Wahhabism to justify violence against others.

Wahhabism has governed life in Saudi Arabia since its foundation 85 years ago.

The ruling Al Saud responded to the events of 1979 by empowering the state’s ultraconservatives. To hedge the international appeal of Iran’s Shiite revolution, the government backed efforts to export the kingdom’s foundational Wahhabi ideology abroad.

To appease a sizable conservative segment of the population at home, cinemas were shuttered, women were banned from appearing on state television and the religious police were emboldened.

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