A more moderate Islam? Bin Salman signals the beginning of a new era for Saudi Arabia

By Dasha Connolly

Mohammed Bin Salman stirs a social and economic revolution in Saudi Arabia as he promises a more moderate Islam and presents Vision 2030.

Bin Salman, 32, was promoted to crown prince in June by his father, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud, and has vowed to destroy extremist ideologies.

“In all honesty, we will not spend 30 years of our lives dealing with extremist ideologies. We will destroy them today and immediately,” promised Bin Salman at the Future Investment Initiate Conference in Riyadh.

Bin Salman is an outlier among Middle Eastern leaders. As a relatively non-rigid and liberal leader, he aims to make Islam open to other religions, traditions and people, as he claims it was before the Iranian revolution of 1979.

A more moderate Islam is already reflected in certain aspects in Saudi Arabia. A royal decree has been passed allowing women to obtain a driver’s license, without the permission of a male guardian. Women will be allowed to enter certain sports stadiums as of 2018 and restrictions have been placed on the Islamic religious police, mutwas, instructing the members to be “gentle and humane”.

These changes show the prince is serious about modernizing the country. He furthered proved this at the Future Investment Initiative Conference while discussing details of Vision 2030. The ambitious plan includes building a 26,500 square kilometre (10,230 square miles) zone, named NEOM, linking with Jordan and Egypt. The economic zone is built in the hope of attracting multiple industries including tourism, solar energy, wind power, logistics and entertainment.

The project has been created with the purpose of diversifying the economy and making it less dependent on oil, which both directly or indirectly employs 70% of the population. As oil prices have dropped rapidly from $100 a barrel in 2014 to roughly $55 today, the country is in desperate need of a more diverse economy. A more moderate Islam plays a vital part in achieving this goal. For example, Bin Salman has claimed that women being allowed to drive will encourage them to be part of the workforce.

Some of the funding, precisely $100 billion, is intended to come from making a portion of the state oil giant Saudi Aramco public in 2018. Half a trillion of the cost is expected to be covered by private investors. However, poor labour productivity, a slow-moving bureaucracy and an underdeveloped legal system have deterred foreign investment in the past. Some of these issues were made abundantly clear at the Future Investment Initiative Conference. WiFi service powered by the country’s main telecommunications company was poor and shuttle buses arranged for guests attending the conference were running late. Similar projects in the past grew much slower than expected. As a result, many executives are still concerned about the ability to execute Vision 2030, and hence are sceptical about making an investment.

“The funding needs for this project will create additional pressure on government expenditures and consequently either on the rate of depletion of Saudi foreign assets or the increase in government debt levels,” noted Raza Agha, chief economist for the region at VTB Capital.

Apart from funding difficulties, getting Saudi’s on board with the idea of a moderate Islam poses a challenge. Saudi’s have started the hashtag #The_People_Refuse_Woman_Driving as a protest against the recently issued decree.  Changing the laws is an important step towards a more liberal state. However, the mindset of the people is another critical factor which has to be taken into account if Saudi Arabia is to be successful in diversifying its economy and achieving a more moderate Islam.

Photograph: Al Jazeera English via Flickr

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